Many years ago, when I first started working in this strange and wonderful world called “liturgics” (google it) I didn’t give a lot of thought to the words we used in worship. However, the longer I stuck around, the more I discovered what incredible power the spoken word carries – and I realized that the words we choose to speak (and sing) in the Sunday celebration MATTER.
Deciding what to “say” in worship is a careful, deliberate decision process. Once we’ve determined what our ordo will be at Bethlehem for a particular season – in other words, which elements of the liturgical order we’ll utilize – then we need to find the right words for each element. What might be thought of as the “traditional” text is on the table, along with other possibilities that we amass from around the world.
We are incredibly fortunate to have the internet at our disposal to quickly locate and compare liturgical and worship texts from many lands in an instant. But before we start gleefully mouse-clicking, it is important for us to spend some time in the texts for a season.
For example: at the moment, we are beginning to work on Advent, the four-week season just before Christmas that invites us to watch and wait for the Christ child (and indeed for God’s in-breaking into our world). This year during Advent, our readings are taken from the gospel of Matthew, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, the letter of Paul to the Romans and the letter of James. It’s important for us to be aware of the themes running through these lessons before we select either spoken or sung word.
In Advent, we deliberately choose to create sacred space that is countercultural to what people will find pretty much everywhere else they go at this time of year. Not necessarily silent – just different. So the texts might reflect that as well.
Another facet of our discernment has to do with those who will hear what is said and sung. Who are they? What are their stories? What is going on in their lives? How can the words used in worship – say, in Advent – guide them to seek God in-breaking into their lives?
The physical reality of the world around us can’t be ignored, either. Advent unfolds, at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, as the days shorten, moving towards the winter solstice. The light is going. The sun is moving south, away from us. Biblical scholars are highly skeptical of theories that Christmas was set on December 25th in order to co-opt a pagan festival – but we are still left with the reality of the shortening days and increasing darkness.
Everything that we will say in Advent worship flows through and out of these realities. And so we might use the “O Antiphons”, ancient prayers for the season, or we might use modern prayers from the Iona Community in Scotland. We might sing the 15th-century plainsong “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and we might also sing the Cameroon traditional song “He Came Down.”
Every season in the church year carries its own unique flavor, and these guideposts help us to seek the best possible words for that season, in that particular year. Words have tremendous power to lift, heal, and give hope. It is crucial that we use language that does this, for all people – welcoming them to God’s beloved community.