When we use the word liturgy we are using a word that come from the Greek laos, meaning people and the word ergon, meaning energy. It is used in a very similar context to the word latreia, which means worship. So when we partake in this thing called “liturgy,” what we are doing is acting out a ritual that is the spontaneous outpouring of worship toward God. It is a ritual, yes. We have done this before and we will do it again, yes. But every time we do it, God is with us and it is the first and eternal time that we do it.
Very early in the Christian tradition, we developed a pattern of worship that felt right. Some of us were practicing Jews, some were called sinners, some were Greek intellectuals, others just felt the works of Jesus Christ resonate deeply in ourselves. But together we developed a pattern of worship that felt right, that actually felt like it was indeed pleasing to God. And in partaking of this over and over and over, it became a ritual and we began to refer to it by different names. Then along comes a special circumstance; the anniversary of the death day of a martyr, perhaps, or a major feast or fast that helps us mark the passing of another year.
In order that we don’t forget the event, we would, of course, make it a part of our liturgy. But in doing that, what we do is mesh a familiar ritual with an unfamiliar set of circumstances that only come by occasionally. Five bucks says that we have hardly ever got it right on the first shot. But once we do get it right, what we do is we write it down so that we don’t forget what we did when this time comes around again next year. When we write them down, they become rubrics and rubrics become customaries and missals and prayer books of any number of flavors and revisions.
But the ritual that we celebrate has two parts, no matter whether it is a Lord’s Day feast on Sunday or whether it is another feast on another day of the week: the first half focuses on the Word of the Lord, the scriptures and what God is saying to the people (this is also the single focus of offices of prayer). The second part focuses on the Eucharist, Christ make known in the bread and the wine.
Now, I know that you’ve watched this thing many times, so let me show it to you a little differently:
People gather first. There is an appointed time and place that has been set aside for a very special thing. So the people come in and they nod and whisper their hellos to each other. Each finds a place and begins to prepare for this very special thing that is about to take place.
Suddenly there is an announcement of the arrival of something. Hymns begin to play and the people stand to see what is coming.
First comes a cloud of sweet incense to mark the way of the procession.
Next comes a sign held high and lights to show the way of the Lord.
The choir follows, singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, joining their voices with the choirs of angels, forever and unceasingly singing praises of God.
Then there is the chief servant of the house, who has been entrusted to bear the book of the Word of the Lord.
Finally is the presider, the chief celebrant who speaks for the whole assembly.
This whole party makes their procession up to the table, where the book itself is placed as the centerpiece.
Everyone, the assembly, the servers, the choir and the clergy, all then settle down to listen.
First we hear the echo of the prophets from long ago, speaking to the chosen people. Or perhaps we hear a story that the chosen ones themselves told, to remind them why it was that God had shown favor on them.
Then there is a portion of one of the letters, written to a person or a congregation so that the writer could show their concern, to pastor to their flock.
These things are interspersed with canticles and psalms to show that the people are wrestling with that which God tells them. And with each, they affirm that thanks are due because the Lord has given this message.
But then there is the Gospel. It comes down from its place on the table and comes out into the midst of the people. The incense marks the way and the lights come so that they may illuminate and the choir announces that the good news in coming.
Then, as one crying out in the wilderness, the chief servant is the one who reads the story of the work of Jesus Christ. After it is read, the people affirm that yes, this is indeed the Gospel of the Lord and praises are due to the one who was it was about.
Everyone sits and listens as the presider begins to teach in the same way that Jesus did.
When we claim amen, we claim that it is so and the people stand and make their proclamation of faith in all that they have heard. We pray for those who serve God and we pray for those who do not yet serve God. We pray for those who have left us to be closer to God. We then confess that we have not done all that God wants us to do but we are comforted by the forgiveness that is freely given. We stand, newly cleansed and spread our peace among the congregation.
This is the end of the first part of our worship. The ancient tradition was that here the learners, those not yet baptized and marked as Christ’s own forever, would leave and continue their study of the scriptures, while the communicants began to prepare themselves for the new gift.
As the assembly of people did earlier, there is another gathering that takes place. The people offer up the fruit of their labor: the farmer and the baker have brought a loaf of bread, those who work in the vineyard have brought some of their best wine. Some have brought money so that the church may continue its work and others remember the lightbulb they replace last week, the wall that they painted or the bathroom that they cleaned. All these are brought up to the table and gathered before the throne of grace.
The meal place is set but rather than the bread and wine, we find that Christ himself is there. He is making the ultimate sacrifice for us, offering himself to death as a ransom for us, sinners.
The presider tells us that Christ himself took these elements at a meal and told us that he would be there when we eat them. And as we do we are once again told that this is the body of Christ but also the bread of heaven. We are told that this is Christ’s blood, but also the cup of salvation. We are told again, as we have been told and as we will be told again, that we are Christ’s body: we are Christ’s hands and feet and lungs and knees and nose.
The presider says again what has just taken place and the assembly proclaims that Christ’s body is unified because of the one bread and cup.
The ones who announced the arrival of something then lead the way back out of the appointed place.
There is the incense that marks the way of the receding party. There is Christ’s sign held high and the lights that show the way of the Lord.
The choir leads the assembly so that they all may raise their voices in praise of the Lord.
The presider follows, having ministered to Christ’s body.
But the chief servant is the one who stays behind and proclaims loudly that the worship has ended so that the work may begin.
And our proclamation in response is “Praise be to God!”