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A Scriptural Liturgy

By John Bauerschmidt

In his book, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Jean Leclercq offers this reflection on liturgical worship:

All the delicacy of liturgical poetry comes from the free and harmonious use it makes of the sacred words: the groups of versicles, each of which, because of its origin and own particular meaning, has special significance and whose combination produces a more complex and newer whole; they are daring in juxtaposing two texts, one of which throws light upon the other, because it is so different, a contrast with it which makes each one’s individual light more intense; their way of lending a wide range of different colors to the same unchanging texts by, for example, incorporating verses of the Psalms within the antiphons; the continual passage from fact to allegory, from event to idea; the alternation of formulas, each of which evokes a different reality, which complete each other within a whole that is richer still, as the facets of a diamond permit us to see all its fires asparkle. All this art… belongs to the great traditional liturgy. (pp. 241-42)

This fine passage is typical of the insight and depth of Leclercq’s work on monastic culture, originally given as a series of lectures to other monastics in the 1950s.

The quotation reminds us, among other things, that it is characteristic of the liturgy to bring together different scriptural texts, in a way which illuminates the whole. These discrete texts cohere in the liturgy and become something more than disparate parts. This was true of the traditional liturgy about which Leclercq writes, but also more generally true. There are a number of examples in our Prayer Book tradition, which has been generally celebrated for its character as a “scriptural liturgy.”

One example is found in straightforward fashion in the 1979 prayer book. In the invitatory at Morning Prayer, a psalm is paired with an antiphon. This gives us a text like Psalm 95 or 100, matched with an antiphon such as “The earth is the Lord’s for he made it” (Ps. 24); or in Lent, with “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (Ps. 103); or at Pentecost, “The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth” (Ps. 104). This traditional practice allows for the juxtaposition of two texts, with the resulting mix yielding a sum total greater than the parts.

The invitatory also yields another example, in the texts appointed during Easter in place of the psalm. Thomas Cranmer scavenged them from the medieval liturgy, where they accompanied a procession to the Easter sepulcher, and eventually utilized them as a substitute for the Venite. Over the centuries, Cranmer’s original set of two series of verses have grown to three texts drawn from St. Paul’s epistles, two from different places in 1 Corinthians, with another set of verses from Romans interspersed between them.

Here we have an example of a practice that Cranmer was quite fond of, and not only when it came to liturgy: making a florilegium, or a collection of extracts from different authorities. Collections of florilegia, from Holy Scripture and the fathers, were used by monastics for devotional purposes (a practice continued in the post-Reformation church by, among others, Lancelot Andrewes in his Preces Privatae), but here we have several texts from the Bible brought together as a single liturgical text. There are other examples: the so-called “comfortable words” in the Communion Office, for example, or the quotations contained in the Commination Service found in earlier prayer books. With the Easter anthems, different texts from St. Paul’s epistles have been woven together and become a new whole that reflects the resurrection mystery.

Another form of this textual phenomenon is actually embedded in many of our prayer book collects and prayers. Here the traditional prayer at communion time, the Prayer of Humble Access, that seems to have been composed by Cranmer himself, may serve as an example. There are many sources, but the two principal ones are Mark 7:28, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (“crumbs under thy table”), and John 6:56, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Two distinct texts inform the prayer, suggesting and strengthening connections between discrete parts of the Scriptures. The 1979 prayer book’s eucharistic prayers themselves are an example of this same principle, in which different texts and images are connected in a way that is theologically and devotionally illuminating.

The alternation of texts is also a feature of prayer book worship, brought into prominence by Cranmer’s construction of the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer out of the earlier office books. The pattern of lessons, alternating with canticles, was shaped by Reformation commitments to the course reading of the Holy Scriptures. The older offices certainly brought together psalms, canticles, short readings, versicles, responds, etc., in their own way; but the reading of whole chapters at the prayer book offices, followed by the saying or singing of a more or less fixed text (mostly drawn directly from the Bible), created a different sort of juxtaposition. The proximity of texts, engaged with over time and in course, creates interpretative opportunities, a bridge for understanding. Here, Cranmer was offering the liturgical application of a monastic type of sacred learning, referenced by Leclercq: “The Bible itself is the commentary on the Bible” (p. 83).

Diligent users of the daily office will have experienced how the serendipitous proximity of texts leads to connection and insight. Of course, some of these connections are embedded in the lectionaries themselves, the intentionality that brings together a reading (say) from the prophet Isaiah with a reading from the gospels during Advent. But other insights arise in a wholly adventitious way, in the light that comes through the coincidence of certain texts in close proximity.

A meta form of Leclercq’s principle about the liturgy is the longstanding prayer book provision at the daily office for the reading of one lesson each from the two testaments. In the more flexible office in our present prayer book, this is still the standard: when two readings are read, the first is always from the Old Testament (BCP, 934). Again, broad reading of the whole Bible is a Reformation principle (Article VII, “the Old Testament is not contrary to the New, for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ”), but one that has deep resonances in the allegorical reading of the Holy Scriptures, mentioned by Leclercq, especially the Old Testament foreshadowing of Christ.

The prayer book is not a concordance, in the sense of a listing of texts, but a liturgy; one that in its use of sacred texts, points to the coherence of the Holy Scriptures. John Donne noted in a sermon that the point of “searching the Scriptures” (John 5:39) is not to make a concordance but rather an application to our own lives: “to find all the histories to be examples to me, all the prophecies to induce a Savior for me, all the Gospel to apply Christ Jesus to me” (John Donne’s Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels, p. 148). The prayer book has nurtured Anglicans in the life of prayer for centuries and formed them in the faith. It has done this precisely through its traditional liturgical deployment of the Holy Scriptures.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.


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