Liturgy Matters - Part IV

We turn our attention to the 'second movement', The Liturgy of the Word. In this part of the service, we listen to God's Word, listen to thoughts about it in the sermon, declare our faith in response to it, and then pray together in the intercessions to conclude the movement.
Firstly then, we listen to it. As Timothy Radcliffe says in Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist' 'We listen to the scriptures and are reminded of the story of God's friendship with humanity; we begin to glimpse who we are and where we are headed.' Everything we have done so far has prepared us to be receptive and ready to hear God's Word. It is worth saying that there may be two kinds of listening happening here. We listen to what is read out loud, but in the spaces which give us time to reflect, we listen for how our own lives may be part of what we hear and what God may have for us.

In sermons, as well as in listening to the Word of God, it is often the silence between, the pauses, where what we have heard is allowed to resonate. I am often aware that, ascending the pulpit, I might feel I have nothing to say of much worth, or that what I try to say is inadequate when dealing with scripture. But time and time again, someone will tell me at the end of the service that they found a part of my message very meaningful. And when I ask what part exactly, they will often say something that I think I probably haven't said! God does speak in different ways, in the silence and the gaps. If you are anything like me, something said in a sermon may trigger off a thought, an idea, a moment of inspiration..and you might miss a bit and tune in again at a later point! (Surely not?!) But so often it is in those triggered thoughts, in the pauses, in silence, that we receive a gift from God. We need to be receptive to receiving what unexpected gifts may come our way. We should come to church expectant we will receive.

With scripture, we may sometimes puzzle over it, but we may also find one aspect that reveals itself to us. It is Radcliffe again who says listening to scripture 'is like learning a new language. At first, when people talk to you in another tongue, you cannot even distinguish the words. There is just Spanish or Chinese noise. The language educates your ears so that you catch its particular shapes and cadences, and eventually you hear words. And so it is when one listens to the scriptures. One must refrain from immediate with the text, rest in its presence, not trying too hard at this stage to understand it. We receive the word of God with quiet hospitality.'

I love the idea of being a receptive home for God's Word, of greeting it with 'quiet hospitality'. As we read God's Word, it reads us, if we let it. The story of God's relationship with humanity is something in which we find our own story. It is not simply understanding about God we seek in listening to scripture, but encounter with God.

The tradition of reading scripture is one of the earliest features of Christian worship and derives from the Jewish practice of reading the Torah and psalms during worship. As Come to the Feast, a guide to Common Worship says, early Christian worship began of course with reading the Jewish scriptures, followed by commentary, and singing Psalms. Gradually as letters were written by Paul, and later still, the stories of Jesus in the Gospels were written, these were added to what was read. 'By the fifth century the custom of reading particular passages of scripture for particular feasts had developed...Eventually, a pattern of three readings, prescribed for certain Sundays of the year, emerged, together with the custom of singing a Psalm as a reading which served as a commentary on it.'

Our lectionary today uses this same pattern. The Old Testament gives us the foundations of our faith, the Judaism we must understand to understand Christian faith. The Psalm is an ancient hymn of praise sung in response to the Old Testament reading, reflecting its themes and providing commentary. The New Testament reading follows a more continuous pattern through a particular letter or book, though one can often find connecting themes; and as we get to the Gospel reading we will find the Old Testament has been paired well with it. Often sharing themes, they 'speak to one another' as it were; shed light on each other.

I have mentioned the Psalm. It is a crucial part of our worship, and deserves to be sung. It is Michael Perham, who writes, in New Handbook of Pastoral Liturgy that 'A Christianity that is not fed on the psalms will be an impoverished thing.' These ancient hymns of worship reflect every human emotion and situation, and can sometimes make uncomfortable reading. Sometimes with a spirit of sorrow, confession or anger, they can open us up to realising we can be utterly honest with God in our relationship with him. There is nothing too terrible we can say to him or admit is going on within us. Sometimes with a spirit of unfettered praise and joy, they are beautiful songs of thanksgiving, which teach us how to worship. So, not always comfortable or easy, but essential - our most traditional element of worship. One of our greatest treasures. Ephesians 5.19 says 'sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves'. In Matthew 26.30 it says: 'When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.' In the last act of worship before Gethsemane, Jesus sang what was probably a psalm with his disciples. As we use them in worship today, reflect on the meaning they add to the Old Testament just heard; let the music take you to a still place. And let these, our oldest worship texts, thousands of years old, and sung throughout every age, guide us in our worship today.

Helen Bailey