Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Liturgical Imperative

When I was first ordained a priest, I was surprised to find what priestly parts of the service I already had memorized and which ones I hadn’t bothered to learn yet. Having heard it over and over for so many years, I could recite most of the Rite One Eucharistic Prayer I by heart, but it took me a while to remember that the sursum corda—the initial part that has the “lift up your hearts” line—is different in Rite One and Rite Two. (And the church in which I served had an eastward facing altar, which means I had to turn my back to the book when I said that part.) The confession I could say in my sleep. The comfortable words were so comforting to me that I could recite them without effort. But the absolution was (and still is) something that I get mixed up when trying to say it without reading the words.

From time to time, someone will suggest to me that I mix up the blessing at the end of the service, and I probably give them an involuntary look that says, “You want me to do what? I’ve just learned the regular one by heart!” When the priest turns around (yes, eastward facing altar) and raises his or her hand in benediction and speaks God’s blessing upon the people, it feels to me as if he or she should be saying something with conviction—not reading something out of a prayer book. That’s just me. That’s a personal liturgical sensibility—my issue, not yours—but it’s one that makes end-of-service blessings pretty uniform.

I like “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding…” That’s my favorite—not just because I know it but also because it’s powerful just the way it is. There’s a reason that particular blessing is written in our prayer book (and has been for several editions). But as much as I love those familiar words, my heart does sore just a little bit when I hear a priest or bishop pronounce a blessing that uses other images—like this coming Sunday’sreading from Romans 12.

Here is Romans 12:9-21 with the few nonexhortative bits taken out:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…[N]ever avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
That’s the kind of thing I’d want to hear my bishop say when he pronounces God’s blessing at the end of his yearly visit. Maybe that’s because it’s the kind of thing Paul wants to get across to a Christian community before he finishes his letter. I know he’s got four more chapters left, but this feels like an end to me. He’s telling them how to live—what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He’s on a roll, and he’s giving them years’ worth of instruction all compressed into a few verses. Read them again. What an amazing exhortation!

Christianity is about community. We live together as the body of Christ. And most of the problems we face within the church are the result of neglecting our communal identity. We insulate ourselves from the joys and sorrows of others, failing to take in their ups and downs as Paul would have us. Differences in socioeconomic status cause ripples in a community today just as they did back then. Revenge is a powerful motive—strong enough to rip a church apart.

In today’s liturgies, there aren’t many texts delivered in the imperative mood. Preachers, on occasion, gently slip into the imperative, telling their congregations what to do or how to live. The sursum corda is an imperative and response: “Lift up your hears. We lift them up unto the Lord.” But, for the most part, the moments of divine-human interaction mediated through a clergyperson (usually just blessing and absolution) are statements of fact. Unless we’re reading the Decalogue, we don’t hear God telling us what to do—at least not directly. Romans 12 is a chance to hear some commandments for the Christian community. Maybe we should read this bit from Romans in a liturgical way every week.

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