This is the second section of Explaining the Eucharist, and follows on from the Gathering, which took us from the start of the service up to and including the Collect. Now we examine the part of the service which includes readings from scripture, the sermon, the Creed and the intercessions.
As we said in the summary, the term 'Word' has a dual meaning in Christian terms; it represents the written word of God, the scriptures, and it's also a term used to describe Jesus Christ in the opening lines of St. John's Gospel.
And so after standing for the duration of the 'gathering' we now sit to listen to the bible readings. And it's our responsibility to hear the word, to truly listen. As Jesus himself said "Let those with ears, hear" (Matthew 11:13). In our culture today we're not all in the habit of listening to the spoken word, so hearing the 'word' can be a labour and a love; it's probably something we have to work at. One of the disciplines that St. Benedict attempted to instil in himself and his monks was to live in the moment; this can take a lifetime to master, but I have personally found this enormously helpful in focusing on scripture. So much in life attempts to pull us back or push us forward - the worries of a past family dispute, the anxiety of whether I turned the oven on for today's roast! But Benedict's rule may enable us to lay all that aside, allowing us to hear the word with our hearts and souls - for scripture should be heard and felt, just as we do with music when we attend a concert.
The Old Testament reading is of course taken from the Hebrew Scriptures, the ones Jesus himself would have known well. But why should we be bothered about scripture written before Jesus was even born? Well Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them." (Matthew 5:17-18). There is much in the Old Testament that predicts his coming or mirrors the events during his lifetime. I would like to suggest it's vital we explore the Old Testament if we are to truly know our Lord.
The second reading informs us of an aspect of the early Church. It is usually taken from one of the letters written to the first Christians, some not long after Christ's ascension into heaven. Many of these epistles were penned by St. Paul and they have been read aloud during worship since the days they were written.
It is then usual to have a hymn; you'll notice that it relates to the readings or the theme of the day, and is usually short, to ensure that the momentum towards the Gospel is not lost.
The word 'Gospel' means 'good news' because they contain the accounts of Jesus' earthly life and the wisdom he taught. The Gospel book is collected from the altar and is carried aloft in procession into the congregation, to symbolically remind us that Jesus came into the world and dwelt among us. The procession is led by the cross - a reminder of our saviour, Jesus. It's also accompanied by the acolytes carrying the candles, to denote that the gospels are holy and to show our respect. Respect is also shown by the fact that unlike the other Bible readings we don't sit to hear the Gospel. Indeed it is good practice to turn ourselves towards the reader to listen, and by standing we also mirror the Jewish worship in the synagogues that our Lord would have known well.
And so we move onto the sermon; the preacher's role is to tell the good news of Christ by unfolding the scriptures. This is the time in the service when we particularly need to actively ponder, even wrestle with the scriptures and consider what the Word is saying to us in our lives. For this reason it is enormously helpful if people are still and quiet during the sermon, and we ask the stewards to hold latecomers at the back of the Church until the sermon has finished.
In our tradition, preaching is usually reserved for those who have received a theological training - this is not an arrogant approach, neither are we suggesting we know best. Indeed, we usually try to speak in the plural (eg "We should all attempt to read our Bibles more regularly"), but we do believe that the sermon is important enough to give you continuity and reassurance that what we say is based on serious study.
After a short pause for us to gather our thoughts we stand again for the Creed; the word comes from the Latin, 'credo' meaning 'I believe'. This profession of faith can feel like a confusing element in our liturgy. However, we usually say the Nicene Creed which begins "We believe in one God", and this enables us to say it collectively, with less emphasis on an individual's beliefs, so don't worry if you struggle with aspects of the Creed as we are all on a journey of faith. By reciting the creed we show our allegiance to the Christian faith and join with those through the ages who have done the same. Finally, completing this section of the word, we sit or kneel for the intercessions. As Fr Michael has preached in the past, it is the intention of our hearts that's important in our praying, not the position of our bodies, so we need to be comfortable so we can concentrate.
Responding to scripture and the sermon in our intercessions, points us to how we seek to put the word of God into action in our lives. Intercessory prayers are those of asking; we've had the prayers of penitence in the 'Gathering' and we have the prayers of thanksgiving yet to come in the Eucharistic Prayer. Although the intercessor is free to use their own words, there is a suggested route that our intercessions should take. We start with praying for Christ's Church, remembering that God surpasses the world itself. We then move to the needs of the world, and closer to home by praying for the people of our local community.
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Illustration: Angel leading a scribe carrying three rolls of scriptures - detail from the Reredos at St. Bartholomew's.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God"
Illustration: Sermon on the Mount, Carl Bloch
"We believe in one God"