In the Word Made Flesh: Toward a Sacramental Understanding of Words in Worship

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Thompson, Danielle
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University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee , School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee , Sacrament , Open Table , Eucharist
My argument is that words proclaimed and received in the Church’s worship have a sacramental character equal to that of baptism and eucharist. The argument is occasioned by the debate surrounding Open Table in the Episcopal Church. In reviewing the positions for and against the practice of welcoming unbaptized persons to receive communion, I determined that both proponents of Open Table (who may be said to prioritize the Eucharist in the church’s sacramental life) and proponents of the traditional, “font-to-table” sequence (who may be said to prioritize baptism) neglect the sacramental role of words. As “sacramental,” words can be powerful vehicles of God’s grace that point to the incarnational presence of the Word (Jesus) among us. They effect a real transformation that is initiatory, in calling a person to conversion, a concern of those who advocate Open Table. Words also form and sustain committed believers, a concern of those who advocate for the traditional sequence. Specifically, as sacramental, words draw us into closer intimacy with Jesus, make tangible the hope that he incarnates, and inspires us in mission with him. This three-fold effect is highlighted in each of the chapters below. In three chapters entitled, “Words of God,” “Words about God,” and “Words Made Flesh,” I consider how the reading of Scripture, preaching, and the eucharistic prayer function sacramentally within the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Chapter One traces the history of reading Scripture in worship from the Jewish synagogue service to the current American Book of Common Prayer. Thomas Cranmer’s liturgical reforms and his prefaces to the Great Bible ground this chapter in the Anglican tradition. Special emphasis is given to the notion of intelligibility in Cranmer’s liturgical reforms and his use of English in worship. Chapter Two expands the discussion of Scripture to include words in preaching as sacramental. Beginning with Moses and the prophets, I consider the almost physical imperative to proclaim God’s word that characterizes Old Testament preaching. John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles continue this stream in the New Testament. Jesus’ preaching ministry, in particular, is marked by his opening or breaking the topics about which he spoke. His life is shown to be an incarnate exposition of the texts, a living sermon. I then trace the history of preaching from its decline in the Middle Ages through the Reformation. Lancelot Andrewes, the sixteenth-century preacher, provides an example of “metaphysical” preaching that sought to draw participants into the imaginative world of Scripture and give them words to “chew” and to be nourished on. Andrewes’s dependency on God’s grace, evidenced in his private prayers, opens onto a discussion of the peculiar sacramental relationship that exists between God and the preacher. Andrewes’s careful attention to Scripture also highlights the preacher’s sacramental task of drawing the church into closer communion with God and making them at home in the world of Scripture, whose center is the incarnate word, Jesus. Chapter Three examines the history and structure of various eucharistic prayers to show how the sacramentality of words in the liturgy of the word carries over into the liturgy of the table. The chapter’s aim is to show how the eucharistic prayer is itself an instance of proclamation. It also provides a context in which to explore the doctrine of the incarnation as a rationale for considering words as sacramental. William Temple’s theology of the incarnation is an indispensable aid in this discussion, particularly as it is worked out in his treatment of the bread of life discourse in John 6. The thesis concludes by calling for a balance between the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the table in eucharistic worship, and returning briefly to a consideration of the Open Table debate that inspired it. Building on the notion of God’s inexhaustibility (with which Chapter Three concludes), I point, with Temple, to words as emblematic of the “free and gracious” presence of God in all of worship and in all of creation.