Lessons, Readings and the Presence of Christ
by Margaret Bick
I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard the phrase “a service of lessons and carols.” I know it wasn’t a part of my childhood. When I did bump into it, I pictured in my mind’s eye a series of brief educational lectures on Christmas themes punctuated by the odd chestnut Christmas carol to keep the crowd awake and involved. The event did not seem very appealing. Scripture readings are still referred to as “lessons” in many quarters today. Now, the Oxford English Dictionary certainly lists “the action of reading” (not necessarily of scripture) first among its meanings for the word. Use of the word to apply to broader teaching situations was also common early on. I suppose that reading aloud from a prepared text must have been a common teaching strategy back then, as it was in my own high school experience. But the modern popular association of the word with a classroom setting exerts itself strongly in the minds of many worshippers.
Words have power. Repeated use of a word with a particular meaning shapes the way we think when it is used. So when we, or our community, have a six- or seven-hundred year history of using the same word to describe both a scripture passage and an educational experience, our perception of the scriptures proclaimed in our Sunday worship necessarily carries a didactic, educational flavour. The arrangement of furniture in our worship spaces supports this educational model of the proclamation of the Word of God – our liturgical assemblies vaguely resembling a 1950s elementary school classroom, or even a 21st century university lecture hall. Worshippers are generally seated in neat rows assertively directing our attention to the area from which the “lesson” is being offered and discouraging any awareness of the rest of the gathered community.
It is my contention that the effect of this word usage and furniture arrangement limits the depth of our understanding of what is actually happening in our Sunday celebration: a meeting, an encounter, a heart-to-heart with the divine. A change in language away from “lessons” and an awareness of the physical arrangement of the worship space can help mould a deeper understanding of this part of the Sunday service.
In our Sunday worship, we gather as the body of Christ to celebrate the paschal mystery of Christ and to deepen our identity, individually and communally, as members of his body. This is not the place for biblical education. Rather it is a place of encounter with the divine. The sharing of scripture in worship is a whole person thing, not just a head thing or brain thing. Where and when possible, our furniture arrangement can support the experience of a shared encounter with the divine. Creating a space in which the community can gather around the Word in some sort of circle, rather than sitting as an audience in front of it, might be challenging, expensive and controversial, but the worship environment always sends a stronger message than anything we can teach.
Creating a suitable atmosphere for such an encounter places great responsibility on those who proclaim the scriptures and on those whose preaching must create a space in which each person present is opened to truly encounter with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Exegesis and information must take a back seat to speaking to the heart, the longings and circumstances of this present community and each one in it. Proclamation and preaching must remind the community of who they are among one another and in the world. Equally, proclamation and preaching must build them up to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world by their lives.
Thanks for this piece, Margaret. It is a more elegant dismissal of traditional church seating arrangements than the “airline cabin” that I so crassly toss out!