On Liturgy: The Written Word to Be Spoken, to Be Heard
Rev. Derrick McQueen is the pastor of the historic St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, New York, and holds an M.Div. in Worship and the Arts and a Ph.D. in Homiletics and New Testament.
Sacred texts are a foundation of most faith traditions. In them discernible wisdom can be found that instructs the tenets of belief, faith, and even hope itself. Communities pride themselves in learning from and reading these resources in corporate settings. Let us for a moment personify these texts. It is worth noting that they carry a heavy responsibility on their shoulders. When a text enters a room in a community, the text can only hope that by being in the room it can be effectual in its purpose to create an “authentic encounter with the divine.”1 Many faith traditions hold fast to the belief that the only sacred texts in the community are those passed down from ancestors through the generations. Even beyond the written word, sacred texts are touchstones for living life according to faith and belief and tools for discerning an ongoing and closer relationship with the divine source.
One of the earliest folios of selected letters of Paul
What, then, are the prayers and structures of liturgy if we ascribe the term sacred only to historically agreed-upon texts? What is the relationship between written sacred texts and written liturgies in a worship service? For the purposes of this piece, might we consider written liturgical elements as consecrated? Considering that the word sacred connotes holiness, and that the word consecrated can be considered in context as something set aside and used in the performance of ritual, I suggest that both sacred texts and written liturgies hold holiness in common, expanding the application and purpose of the term. Sacred text, in this understanding, really does serve as the common written bond upon which communities agree. The consecrated words and actions of liturgy and liturgical writings bring communities through the worship ritual and an experience of holiness.
There are two specific similarities that both the sacred and consecrated words of reading and proclamation have in common, which need to be embraced—oral presentation and care for aural reception. These two elements are deeply connected to the senses and therefore present a significant opportunity for depth of engagement and understanding. Both the speaking and the hearing of the sacred and consecrated word can be deeply considered for each performance. Please do not be alarmed by the term performance, as it is not meant to imply play-acting for a desired audience entertainment. The term performance is used here in keeping with the work of performance studies, performance partially defined by Diana Taylor “in the broadest possible sense—as a process, praxis, and episteme, a mode of transmission, an accomplishment, and a means of intervening in the world.”2
Liturgical expressions are modes that attempt to intervene, disrupt, comfort, and even shift how people emerge from a worship experience. One of the most basic forms of liturgical expression is the spoken word; thus, we must be highly aware of both the oral presentation and the aural reception of words. How one speaks the words when reading and proclaiming texts matters. The nuances and shifts of ancient texts come to life in a new way with this focus. However, it is not just the speaker’s role to read or speak the words. It is also their responsibility to hear the words coming out of their mouth, to see how it lands on the ears of hearers, as it were, thereby effecting an almost improvisational freedom of creativity in the moment.
When attention is paid to oral and aural aspects of physically speaking essential texts to the community, a new understanding of meaning and power can come to both the reader and the listener. All sacred and consecrated texts deserve to be read aloud so that they can breathe and stretch into consciousness. One of the best examples of the way texts breathe when spoken is in the use of the notational term Selah, found in many psalms. There are several understandings of this term. It can be understood as a musical or tonal shift in the original presentation or an invitation to focus on the Hebrew letters of the words and what mysteries they might reveal, among others. One practical, modern way to use Selah in the reading and proclaiming of a text is to ask the question, “What is the shift in the tone of the psalm when Selah appears?”
Psalm 3, an eight-verse psalm, has three Selah notations within it. Without saying the word Selah, a reader can simply pause to ask the question about the shift in prayer. Verses 1–2 clearly state the hopeless danger the psalmist finds themselves in. After a moment of silence, contemplate the next portion of the psalm. Indeed, the next piece of the psalm, verses 3–4, shifts to a sense of calm knowledge that although things are hopeless, God is still there and will protect them. And then there is the second Selah. Verses 5–7 assure the reader of God’s sustaining readiness to go after all enemies; and verse 8, a declaration of blessings, is followed by a final Selah, which completes the journey of the emotional prayer that ultimately delivers the promise of God’s blessing. Pausing in place of the Selah helps to draw the congregation into each of the shifts or pericopes, enabling space for a connection to form along these guideposts on a journey from despair to faithful conviction.
While the idea of including deep consideration for the oral presentation and aural reception of sacred and consecrated texts might read as a bit technical, it evokes great power within the worship ritual. The reading of the word becomes a proclamation itself, an invitation into holy contemplation about the mystery of the Holy Spirit and the ability of language to speak varied messages with the exact same words. Upon such contemplation, hearers often hear according to the needs that bring them to worship. For the reader who listens intently to what they are reading, a text can intervene into everyday life with profound holy movement as well.
At the top of the page is an image of an early folio of selected writings of Paul. Please notice the lack of punctuation and even the separation of words, indicating the way the text was read aloud. The ancient readers of these texts had to make rhetorical choices as they shared the purpose of these writings in their communities, thereby shaping the experience of Paul’s ministry for their hearers. This ancient practice of dramatic presentation of these letters to exhort, encourage, and even challenge is the same for the modern reader in worship today.
1. “An authentic encounter with the divine” is how I describe the opportunity that carefully constructed liturgy and ritual can offer to a community.
2. Diana Taylor, Performance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 202.