Imagining a Different Space for Worship

I envision a worship space that I know I will never see in reality. It’s the product of a number ideas rolling around in my head. Central to my vision is an understanding that worship is a physical act, not just a mental and emotional reality.

Notional-Architecture-for-Worship
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1. In the Eucharist, the baptized join the whole church on earth and the whole host of heaven to sing the song of the seraphim. I take that almost literally. At the table of the Lord, a door opens between heaven and earth so that we can see what Isaiah saw – the Lord, high and lifted up. At the table, we can see what John saw – and the Lamb who was slain at the center of the throne, with all the elders falling on their faces before him.

I envision a worship space that portrays that reality artistically, and which allows Christians to live it kinetically.

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The Elements on the Table – Displaying or Offering?

The pastor may hold hands, palms down, over the bread, or touch the bread, or lift the bread. UMC Rubric for Holy Communion at the Words of Institution

It has been my custom to take the bread and the cup into my hands at the point in the Eucharistic prayer when I recall the words of institution. This is my body, given for you. This is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Lifting the elements from the table, I thought, would make them more visible to the people. And, as the rubric directs, I face the congregation as I pray. I am increasingly convinced, however, that I am facing the wrong way. I think I should be leading the Eucharistic prayer more like most churches do the part of the service called “the offering.”

I’ve been watching as I visit from church to church how my fellow United Methodist pastors lead the congregation when the morning offering of cash and checks is received. In many American churches, the offering is the most “high church” element of the worship service.

After the gifts are collected, the congregation stands to sing a liturgical response, giving thanks to God, while the ushers bring the offering plates to the front of the sanctuary. The ushers hand the offering plates to the presiding clergy, who then turn away from the congregation. The pastor and the whole assembly face the cross hanging at the front of the sanctuary. The pastor lifts the plates in the air to offer their contents to God and then prays, dedicating the money to accomplishing God’s purposes. In my experience, this practice is nearly universal in United Methodist churches.

In liturgical practice, this is known as praying “ad orientem” – or toward the liturgical east – as opposed to praying “versus populum” – or facing the people.

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On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
announces that the Lord is nigh.
Awake and harken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings!

Then cleansed be every life from sin:
make straight the way for God within,
and let us all our hearts prepare
for Christ to come and enter there.

We hail you as our Savior, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward.
Without your grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.

Stretch forth your hand, our health restore,
and make us rise to fall no more.
O let your face upon us shine
and fill the world with love divine.

All praise to you, eternal Son,
whose advent has our freedom won,
whom with the Father we adore,
and Holy Spirit, evermore.

Charles Coffin


An excellent choice for the “John the Baptist” Sundays in Advent, this hymn was written in the early 18th century by Charles Coffin, Catholic rector of the University of Paris. The lyrics were originally composed in Latin.

For those interested such things, elements in the Catholic Church at the time suspected Coffin of belonging to a heretical movement known as Jansenism. The Jansenist controversy  mirrored some of the same theological issues in dispute between Calvinists and Arminians in the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Issues included free will and the power of grace, the human ability to keep God’s commands, and the scope of Christ’s redemptive act. The controversy persisted for decades in France, where it was as much a  matter of popular piety as it was one of theology.

Coffin resisted complying with papal decrees on the Jansenist controversy, and his enemies saw Jansenist themes in his hymns.  At his death, the church denied Coffin last rights because he could not produce documentation proving that he had rejected Jansenism. Riots ensued.

Jansenist or not – Coffin’s hymn is a beautiful expression of Christian truth, one which this Wesleyan-Arminian can fully affirm.

Participating in Bodily Worship

For human beings, worship is both a physical and a spiritual activity.

When the Apostle Paul tells us to “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper (‘logikos‘) worship,” I think the first application pertains to what Christians do when they assemble on Sunday morning.

The place of worship has moved from the temple in Jerusalem to the assembly of the faithful. Instead of offering a ram or a bull, the congregation unites itself to Christ’s offering of himself on the cross. All who are united to Christ a members of his royal priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5). But Christian worship is still a bodily, physical activity.

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Phos Hilaron, Gladsome Light

Phos Hilaron is probably the oldest Christian hymn still in use. The song accompanied the lighting of the lamps in the evening. In the 4th century, Basil the Great wrote that he loved the hymn and spoke of it as if it had been long in use. It is still use during vesper services in Byzantine Rite of the Orthodox church, and English translation appear in the Evening Prayers of Lutheran and Anglican liturgies.

***

Joyous light of glory of the immortal Father,
Heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ,
We have come to the setting of the Sun
And we look to the evening light.
We sing to God, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever.
O Son of God, O Giver of Light,
The universe proclaims your glory.

— Evening Prayer, Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978

***

O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

— Evening Prayer, Book of Common Prayer, 1979

O gladsome light,
pure brightness of the ever-living Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing praises to God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

— Evening Prayer, Anglican Church in North America, 2013

In the modern era we are surrounded  by light, even at night.  We forget how dark and dangerous the night seemed in the age before electricity. For Christians, the lighting of the lamps not only marked a significant moment in the rhythm of their daily lives, it also pointed them to the one who declared himself to be the light of the world.

Of the two English translations, I think “hilaron” is probably closer to “joyous” than to “gracious”. It’s from the same root as the English word “hilarious” and generally means “cheerful” or “merry”. In this instance, I think, “phos hilaron” means something like “the light that brings a smile to your face” or “the light that warms your heart”.

Here is the Greek text.

Φῶς ἱλαρὸν ἁγίας δόξης, ἀθανάτου Πατρός, οὐρανίου, ἁγίου, μάκαρος, Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, ἐλθόντες ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλίου δύσιν, ἰδόντες φῶς ἑσπερινόν, ὑμνοῦμεν Πατέρα, Υἱόν, καὶ ἅγιον Πνεῦμα Θεόν. Ἄξιόν σε ἐν πᾶσι καιροῖς, ὑμνεῖσθαι φωναῖς αἰσίαις, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ζωὴν ὁ διδούς, Διὸ ὁ κόσμος σὲ δοξάζει.

And then there’s the Marty Haugen version in the Holden Evening Prayer. Love the tune. Prefer the ancient words.