The Bible and the Liturgy
By Frank C. Senn, STS
The Bible and the liturgy need each other. The Bible was being read in the liturgical assemblies of Christians already by the middle of the second century, according to Justin Martyr (Apology, I, 67), “as long as time permits.” What Justin called “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets” were the Old and New Testaments which the Council of Nicea in 325 canonized as one collection of sacred scripture.
Canon of Scripture
What was canonized was what was read in the liturg-ical assemblies.The canonical Hebrew Scriptures were a “given” for Christians. The Christ-event made no sense apart from its Old Testament background. What made this scripture “sacred” was that these books were read in the synagogues. We’re aware that first century Palestinian Jews were not in unanimous agreement on what constituted scripture. The Sadducees accepted only the Penteteuch. But they were associated with the Temple, and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. left the Pharisees — the party associated with the synagogue and rabbinic Judaism — as the authoritative voice of emerging Judaism. The synagogue “Bible” was not just the Hebrew scriptures (the historical books, prophets, and writings), but also the Greek translation known as the Septuagint (because it was translated by a committee of seventy) which included additions to the Book of Daniel and additional books like the Wisdom of Solomon.
This expanded synagogue Bible served as the first scripture of the early church. As these books were read in the synagogue, so they were read in the Christian assemblies (although the Christian version of the canon reversed the order of the writings and the prophets in the collection). The gospels and letters of the apostles also became canonical scripture because they were read in the Christian liturgical assemblies.A fragment of an eighth century manuscript, translated from the Greek into atrocious Latin, was published by the Italian scholar MuratorI in 1740. It is a “canon” of apostolic writings presumably read in the Christian assembly. References to the first and second gospels are missing, but the third and fourth are Luke and John. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is on the list. All of the letters in the canonical New Testament are on the list except Hebrews and James. The list recognizes that John wrote to seven churches in Asia in one letter (the Apocalypse). There was some disagreement about reading the Revelations to John and Peter in the churches. Several gnostic letters are rejected. The Wisdom of Solomon is on the list. The Shepherd of Hermas might be read, but not publicly in the churches. Not listed here, but read elsewhere, were the Didache and the Letter of Barnabas, which also did not make the canon.
The ecumenical Council of Nicea agreed on a universal or catholic “canon” of scripture based on the “canons” of the local churches, such as this one published by Muratori. The reading of scripture in the Christian assemblies is what made the Bible the Church’s book. The liturgy was Scripture’s home, although once canonized the Bible assumed an authoritative or normative role in the Church, also governing what constitutes orthodoxia, “true worship.”
Biblical Texts and Liturgy
The Bible, which emerged from what was read in church, not only served as a norm of the Church’s worship, it provided the words of the liturgy. The historic liturgies of the Western
Consider the following use of the Bible in the Service of Holy Communion in the Lutheran Book of Worship.
- The assembly often uses an order of confession and forgiveness as a rite of purification preliminary to the chief order of service, the liturgy of the word and the eucharistic meal. Following an invocation of the triune name from the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19, verses of scripture are used to invite a prayer of confession. The Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness in the LBW includes 1 John 1:8-9 read to the congregation to invite the confession of sins.
- Rubrics specify that the Entrance Hymn or Song may be a psalm. The entrance song in the medieval mass was a piece of psalmody called the Introit. In its standardized form this included a verse as an antiphon, one or two psalm verses, the Gloria Patri, and the antiphon repeated. Martin Luther recommended in his German Mass and Order of Service (1526) that an entire psalm be sung. Today it has become more common to begin the Roman Mass, the Episcopal Eucharist, and the Lutheran Service of Holy Communion with a non-biblical hymn or song.
- In the LBW the presiding minister may greet the assembly using the words of 2 Corinthians 13:14, the so-called apostolic greeting.
- The Kyrie eleison echoes the blind man’s cry to Jesus for mercy in Luke 18:38. The phrase also reflected the cultural world of the Roman Empire since such a cry might accompany a petition to the emperor, also addressed as Kyrios or Dominus. Since “Lord” is ambiguous (it may be applied to each person of the Trinity), the Roman Rite specified that the addressee is Christ by alternating Kyrie eleison with Christe eleison.
- The Sunday canticle of praise, Gloria in excelsis deo (“Glory to God in the highest), is an ancient Greek hymn that begins with a citation of the song of the angels in Luke 2:14. LBW introduced the canticle “This is the feast of victory for our God” which is based on the hymns in Revelation 4-5.
- The simple salutation (“The Lord be with you” ) is based on Ruth 2:4 and Luke 1:28, the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary.There has been some debate recently on whether this salutation is a simple form of Semitic greeting, for which the response “And also with you” might be an appropriate rendering of Et cum spiritu tuo, or a theologically more substantive greeting from the Lord’s representative, for which the response “And with your Spirit” is more appropriate since it acknowledges the greeter’s credentials. Given the tradition that this salutation is used only by ordained ministers before presidential prayers (e.g. the Prayer of the Day, the Gospel, the Great Thanksgiving), this interpretation seems more likely.
- The Collect or Prayer of the Day originally reflected in a single petition the mystery being celebrated in that Mass, as evident especially in the readings. Over the course of time the connection between these prayers and the readings was lost, especially in the time after Pentecost. In those Churches that follow a three-year lectionary, efforts are being made to produce a three-year series of prayers of the day that will once again reflect the readings. The trick will be to keep this as a preparatory prayer for the readings, not one which rehearses the readings before they’ve been heard.
Reading of Scripture
- The heart of the Liturgy of the Word is the reading of scripture. Orders of service currently in use follow several versions of the three year lectionary cycle for Sundays, festivals, and days of commemoration first developed in the Roman Lectionary of the
Mass. The various three-year lectionaries now in use — Roman, Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary — provide for a First Reading from the Old Testament or (during Easter) the Book of Acts, psalmody sung in response to the First Reading (not actually another reading), a Second Reading from a New Testament epistle, and a Gospel reading.
The Gospel is considered the primary reading. This is reflected in the ritual surrounding the reading. The gospel book may be carried in procession into the midst of the assembly, and the people stand to hear it and surround the reading with acclamations. Over the course of three years the four Gospels are read almost in their entirety: Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, Luke in Year C, and John primarily during the festival seasons of Christmas and Easter.Old Testament readings are chosen primarily for their typological relationship to the Gospel. They are pericopes (cut-out selections) except for an option in the Time after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary that provides for a semi-continuous reading of Old Testament books only loosely related to the semi-continuous Gospel readings during the Time after the Epiphany and after Pentecost. Even this more extended relationship between the First Reading and the Gospel does not completely abandon the typological method since the Old Testament books were selected to correlate with particular Gospels. The Second Reading consists of pericopes during the Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter cycles but semi-continuous readings of whole epistles during the Time after Epiphany and after Pentecost. Practically the entire New Testament and a substantial portion of the Old Testament is read over the course of three years.
A word is in order here on the typological method. In the typological approach Scripture is compared with Scripture. Typological exegesis aims at discovering the coherence or basic unity of scripture with itself, unlike the allegorical approach which compares scripture with something outside of scripture such as doctrine. But this has to be understood in a more critical way today than was often the case in the past. It is not just a matter that the Old Testament points to Christ in the sense of prophecy and fulfillment; it is already a type of the Christ-event and Christian experience. But the Old Testament is not a type of the Christ-event in the sense that when Isaiah said “a young woman shall conceive” he was thinking of Mary eight centuries before the fact, or when the so-called deutero-Isaiah sang of the suffering servant he was picturing the sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus.
The Old Testament itself gives us an example of the complexities of the typological method. Deutero-Isaiah of the Babylonian exile described the return to Judea as a new exodus, using the images of the old exodus; but it is not an exact correlation. The ancient Israelites crossed the Red Sea as on dry ground; the Jews returning from Babylon went across the barren land accompanied by “streams in the desert.”
The typological approach to the lectionary is seen in its purest state in the readings for the Triduum (the continuous liturgy of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil). Let me give an example which illustrates the complex-ities of typological interpretation. The reading of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 in the Easter Vigil is a type of the sacrifice of Christ. But it is no simple parallel: one child is saved, the other child is not; one execution is halted, the other execution is not; the angels stay Abraham’s knife and a ram is provided as a substitute for Isaac, but legions of angels do not come to Jesus’ rescue and he is our substitute. Working out these connections would be an arduous exercise for the preacher to produce a sermon worth hearing.
Between the Second Lesson and the Gospel an Alleluia Verse is sung that includes a verse of scripture appropriate to the day or season framing the alleluias. This was the Gradual in the medieval Western Mass. In the LBW Ministers Edition texts of proper Alleluia verses (or verses without alleluias during Lent) are provided that may be sung by the choir. Otherwise two general verses are provided in the Pew Edition that may be sung by the congregation: “Lord, to whom shall we go” (John 6:68) and during Lent “Return to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 30:2; Numbers 14:18; Joel 2:13).
- Revised orders of mass or service place the homily or sermon immediately after the Gospel reading. Real liturgical preaching will establish the contemporary assembly’s continuity with the biblical community, and might do so by extending the Bible’s typological relationships to current events. This requires carrying on the interpretation from within the Bible itself, not imposing an interpretation on the Bible. The life before God in the world of those long dead biblical believers is the same life before God in the world of this assembly. Liturgical preaching, in other words, is an act of anamnesis. Our faith-life is not situated in a timeless dimension, it is situated in time; our time is also the time of the Biblical story.Not our forebears only did the Holy One, blessed be He, deliver from bondage in Egypt, but us also he delivered with them” (to paraphrase the Passover Haggadah). Martin Luther’s preaching was often a great illustration of this kind of preaching. David before the bar of Nathan is us before the word of God.Simon Peter’s mixture of faith and unbelief is our complexity also.
- The Apostles’ or Nicene Creed serves as a summary of the faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit proclaimed in the scriptures.
- The prayers of the people or general intercessions may allude to the readings as they voice the petitions and thanksgivings of the assembly. In other words, the readings prompt the prayers of the people just as they govern the homily of the presider.
- The greeting of peace cites the greeting of the risen Christ to his disciples in John 20:19, 21, and 26 and the greeting of the apostle in Romans 16:16. In its location before the gathering of the gifts it enacts the reconciliation required by Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24 before the gifts are offered at the altar.
- The collected gifts are presented at the altar while songs are sung. In the medieval Mass a psalm verse served as the offertory antiphon. The LBw Ministers Edition provides texts of offertory verses for each Sunday, festival, and day of commemoration that may be sung by the choir. Otherwise general offertory verses are sung by the congregation. The two offertory texts provided in the LBW Pew Edition are “Let the vineyards be fruitful” (based on 1 Corinthians 10:16, John 6:35) and “What shall I render to the Lord” (Psalm 116:12-14, 17-19).
- The Great Thanksgiving or Eucharistic Prayer includes an interjection sung by the congregation after the initial act of praise (Preface) called the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy” ). It is composed of the texts of Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9 (which is itself a citation of Psalm 118:26).
- Many eucharistic prayers included citations from the Bible or references to the biblical salvation history. They include an institution narrative based on the four versions of the words of institution in Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:15-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Some Lutheran and Reformed liturgies use the words of institution apart from a eucharistic prayer. The full eucharistic prayer, however, provides a summary of salvation history in its trinitarian economy comparable to the creed. Not to pray a full eucharistic prayer not only reduces the rich meanings of the meal and Christ’s presence and actions in it, it is also plainly disobedient since the dominical institution includes the rubric, “he gave thanks.” It has been argued that the institution narratives are a set of rubrics giving the “shape” of the meal liturgy. Some East Syrian liturgies do the rubrics rather than recite them.
- The Lord’s Prayer follows the eucharistic prayer.The Matthew 6:9-13 version has been preferred for liturgical use. Matthew’s version may have already been influenced by liturgical use.
- Sometimes an invitation to communion is given using biblical words. The Roman Mass has used “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) with the response, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” (based on Luke 7:6-7). The Book of Common Prayer has “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia” (based on 1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
- The communion song, Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”), is also based on John 1:29.
- Among the songs sung during communion may be biblical psalms and canticles. The medieval mass included a communion antiphon which was a psalm verse.
- An old Lutheran use has the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32) sung as the post-communion canticle. This use seems to derive from some late medieval north German missals.
- Protestant liturgies have preferred the Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6:24-26, which Luther specified already in his Form of the Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg (1523). Alternatively Luther recommended Psalm 67:6-7 which he believed was something like Christ used at his ascension when he blessed his disciples (Luke 24:50-51).
The standard dismissal, “Go in peace,” is the word of Jesus to the woman of the city in Luke 7:50.
Offices of Daily Prayer
The daily prayer offices of the church also use the Bible as their primary text. Consider the following.
- Psalm verses are used as opening sentences (e.g. Psalm 51:15; Psalm 70:1).
- The historic monastic offices had schemas by which monastic communities could get through the entire Old Testament Psalter within a short period of time such as a week. Thomas Cranmer devised for The Book of Common Prayer a monthly cursus for reciting the psalms. Lutheran use tended to tie the psalms more to the time of day or season of the church year rather than following a recitatio continua. In the LBW three psalms (or two psalms and a canticle) are sung in Morning and Evening Prayer (Matins and Vespers). These three include an office psalm (Psalm 95 in Morning Prayer or Matins, 141 in Evening Prayer or Vespers, 4 in Prayer at the Close of the Day or Compline).
- One or more scripture lessons are read.Finding a satisfying lectionary for the prayer offices, with their purpose of sanctifying the time of the day at which they are prayed, has proven difficult. But two-year daily lectionaries do exist in our current traditions which follow a lectio continua principle.
- Historically the prayer offices had responsories to the readings which consisted of a scripture verse followed by the repetition of a portion of the verse, a second scripture verse followed by the repetition of the previous portion of the first verse, and the first part of the Gloria Patri followed by a third repetition of the portion of the first verse. The Responsory to the Brief Lesson in the LBW Office of Compline is a surviving example.
- There are gospel canticles appropriate to each of the offices: the Benedictus at Matins (Luke 1:68-79), the Magnificat at Vespers (Luke 1:46-55), the Nunc dimittis at Compline (Luke 2:29-32).
- Suffrages or psalm verses may be prayed as a litany before the collects and other prayers of the office. There are identical suffrages for morning and evening prayer in the BCP and different sets of suffrages in Responsive Prayer 1 and 2 in LBW.
Apart from the office hymn and the concluding prayers, there are no words in the historic daily prayer offices of the church that are not from the Bible. Praying the traditional prayer offices is literally a way of praying the Bible.
Biblical Images and Symbols
The Bible plays a role in the liturgy of the church apart from the actual words it provides for texts. Biblical images and symbols abound in the church year and the sacramental signs.
- The number “forty” pervades the church year, reflecting the number forty in biblical events. The forty-day season of Lent replicates Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness for forty days after his baptism, which in turn replicates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The gospel event of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple forty days after his birth is commemorated in the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus and Purification of Mary. The feast of the Ascension of our Lord commemorates the last dramatic appearance of Jesus to the Twelve in the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts forty days after Jesus’ resurrection.
- The symbol of the mountain is replicated in the altar platform and the pulpit. The altar is symbolic of Mt.
Moriah, later the Temple mount (2 Chronicles 3:1), where God revealed himself to Abraham, as he did on Mt. Sinai to Moses and later to Elijah. The pulpit recalls Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which in turn recalls the announcement of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Jesus’ transfiguration also occurred on Mt. Tabor, at which he appeared with Moses and Elijah representing the Law and the Prophets.
- The use of salt has been recovered in the rites of the catechumenate. Salt is a symbol of life-preserving power and preservation of the covenant. “It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord” in Numbers 18:19. All cereal offerings had to be seasoned with salt (Leviticus 2:13). Elisha made water wholesome by throwing salt in it (2 Kings 2:19-22). Jesus tells his disciples they are “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) and admonished them to “have salt in yourselves” (Mark 9:50). The apostle admonishes Christians to be “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6).Salt is a biblical symbol worth recovering.
- The water of the font or baptismal pool suggests variously the flood in Genesis 6-8, the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14, the River Jordan through which the tribes of Israel crossed over into Canaan under Joshua and in which Jesus was baptized, and “the river of the water of life” in Revelation 22:1. These images are often included in prayers of thanksgiving over the water, such as Luther’s famous “Flood Prayer” in his Order of Baptism 1523, which was translated into English in The Book of Common Prayer (1549ff.).
- Anointing with oil in rites of Christian initiation and healing can appeal to numerous biblical texts. Most famously in the Old Testament David sings in Psalm 23 of his head being anointed with oil. Oil was used in the anointing of priests (Exodus 28:41 and 29:36; Leviticus 8:12; Numbers 3:3), prophets (mentioned only in the cases of Elisha and the author of Isaiah 61, which Jesus applies to himself in Luke 4:16f.), and kings (1 Samuel 10:1 [Saul], 1 Samuel 16:13 [David], 1 Kings 1:39 [Solomon], 2 Kings 9:6 [Jehu], 2 Kings 11:12 [Joash], 2 Kings 23:30 [Jehoahaz], and 2 Samuel 19:10 [Absalom]). The ritual for the cleansing of lepers in Leviticus 19 included anointment with oil (verses 14-17). In the New Testament unction at baptism is mentioned in 2 Corinthians 1:21, 1 John 2:20. The “seal” by which the elect of God are identified in Revelation 7:3 also suggests baptismal anointing. Jesus anointed for healing using his own spittle; his apostles anointed with oil for the same purpose.
- The images of bread and wine in the Bible are numerous. The classical Roman Canon cites the biblical offerings of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek as types of the offering of bread and wine. Jesus refers to himself as “the bread of life” in John 6:35, evoking the manna in the wilderness by which God fed his people. The theme of sharing and eating bread occurs in the stories of the prophet Elisha. The wine is an image of the blood of the lamb shed to protect the first-born of Israel from death when the angel of death passed over Egypt (Exodus 14) as well as the blood that sealed the covenant between God and his people (Exodus 24).
- Christian worship abounds in lights on the altar, by the ambo, and on votive stands where candles are lighted as visible expressions of prayer. Light is a reference to God who is clothed in a garment of light (Psalm 104:2). Light has messianic overtones in Isaiah 9:2 and 60:1. In the new Jerusalem the sun and moon are no longer needed because the glory of God is the light of the city (Revelation 21:23). Light has to do with the insight of wisdom in Psalm 119:105.The image of Christ as the light of the world abounds in the Gospel of John.
- Incense is a vehicle of adoration and prayer in Psalm 141:2 and is used as such in Vespers. Like light, incense has messianic overtones in Isaiah 60:6.Incense and myrrh together are attributes of a royal bridegroom in the Song of Solomon 3:6. This is why frankincense was among the gifts of the magi to the Christ child in Matthew 2. Revelation mentions “golden bowls full of incense” representing the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8; 8:4).
- The sounds of musical instruments abound in biblical worship: the blowing of the shofar on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 25:8-9) ; the whole Levitical orchestra of Psalm 150; the trumpet that shall raise the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:52; and the angelic trumpets that shall summon the elect from the ends of the earth on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 24:31).
These are just a few of the biblical images regularly employed in historic liturgical worship along with the texts that actually form the liturgical script. In the simplification of worship that is often practiced today, either for purposes of convenience or in an attempt to meet the unchurched (or the faithful) where they are in their biblical illiteracy, non-biblical hymns and songs are substituted for the texts of biblical psalms and canticles, the number or length of readings is reduced, symbols are reduced, and electronic instruments replace acoustical instruments such as wind bands and organs that produce the sounds of a rushing wind and encourage people to open their own vibrating wind columns to sing.
The relationship between the Bible and the Liturgy is thus becoming more tenuous. Since the text of the liturgy has been primarily the Bible, the gradual expulsion of the Bible’s words and images from worship means the loss of the historic liturgy. There’s no other way to see the situation. The issue needs to be pondered: how much of the historic liturgy---how much of the Bible---can we afford to lose before we have produced something else, a different kind of worship than the Scripture-based worship that has served the Western Churches for nearly two millennia?
The other side of the issue is that the Bible ceases to be treated as the church’s book when it is loosed from its liturgical moorings. It is given over to academic exegetes who dissect it into numerous miscellaneous parts with their critical tools. In the liturgy, even when broken up into pericopes and snippets of psalmody, the Bible is still perceived as a unified whole with one overarching, if convoluted, plot. In the typological use of scripture employed in the liturgy the present congregation is joined to this plot. In the homilies of the church fathers, which were always and only based on biblical texts or on the words and actions of the liturgy; Bible and liturgy were interchangeable. The church fathers had an uncanny ability to say specific things about specific texts and yet at the same time to interpret each specific text within the context of the larger story. This was because they knew that the primary character in the larger story is the Triune God, the Lord of Israel who is revealed as the Father of Jesus the Christ by the Holy Spirit.
The Bible and the liturgy are correlative; we cannot have one without the other. If we lose one, we will lose the other. We cannot fully reclaim the historic liturgy without reclaiming the Bible; and the Bible will not be recovered in the context in which it emerged in both synagogue and church unless the historic liturgy is retrieved. The Bible is something different when it is separated from its liturgical context, and worship becomes something different when its primary text is not the Bible.