The idea of a book on the Bible and liturgy had been in the minds of the Trustees of the Alcuin Club (a society founded in the late nineteenth century to promote liturgical awareness) for some time before Lively Oracles of God appeared in 2022. As soon as they had agreed to attempt the task, the editors realised that it would be complex, and that lectionaries, preaching and prayers would need to be discussed alongside emerging priorities: the climate crisis, gender and identity, inclusion, and the involvement of children. We found our initial inspiration in an article written by Paul Bradshaw in 1992.
Bradshaw suggested that the Bible had four principal functions: anamnesis, proclamation (kerygma), pastoral accompaniment (paraclesis), and doxology. The four functions are dynamically interrelated in liturgical action, and it is important to remember that when viewing them separately. Yet temporary separation can be an opportunity for the kind of careful inspection that leads us back to integration, and that will be the aim of this short discussion of doxology.
Praise and the giving of glory are integral to liturgical rites, and the liturgical praise of God takes a number of forms: psalms, canticles, hymns, songs, acclamations, responsories and antiphons. All of these modes have a particular position in the formal structure of the liturgy of the hours (daily offices) and the Eucharist. Here we have a clue to a theological-anthropological reality.
The psalms remind us that we know that we are alive and breathing because we can utter praise, and they repeatedly speak of death as the condition in which that ability no longer exists. Benedict acknowledges praise as the foundation of life in setting Psalms 148, 149 and 150 for the office of Lauds at the beginning of the day.
A number of doxological expressions are complete biblical units in their own right. This is true of psalms and the gospel canticles Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. But how they behave in acts of worship is unlike the public reading and preaching of Scripture. In the first place, they are responsive in an intriguing way. When the Benedictus and Magnificat are recited regularly, following the New Testament reading at the morning or evening liturgy, worshippers find themselves reflecting on the same words against new scriptural evidence. The question of what it means to bless the name of the Lord who has promised to save a nation and restore their dignity, day after day, becomes their question, in their context, framed within the larger Christian tradition. At a second level, these texts reveal a tension between memory and hope, defying bleakness and despair by celebrating what they know to be true. God who has never abandoned the ancestors of the nation will not abandon their descendants, when even oppressive conditions make hope look like folly.
How do we cope with the enormous challenge of these texts in our own times? Kevin Irwin points to the use of antiphons to direct interpretation at particular times and seasons by placing the canticles in dialogue with other biblical utterances. Texts making bold claims for a new order cannot be absorbed all at once and antiphons provide a way of coping with their ‘surplus of meaning’. Also, when we are tempted to think that we know the canticles too well to attend to their content, antiphons can jolt us out of an unwise sense of familiarity and introduce strikingly new insights.
The Church has from the earliest times composed its own songs which continue to be an established part of the worship of contemporary Christians. The Gloria in Excelsis (a eucharistic hymn for Roman Catholics and Anglicans, and a morning hymn in the Orthodox tradition), Te Deum and Phos Hilaron bring doctrinal creativity to their reflection on biblical words and images. So the song of the angels at the birth of Christ (Luke 2.14), the acknowledgement of God as the ‘Lord’ who exists in the mysterious relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Johannine understanding of Christ as the light of the world (evoking other scriptural references to light as intrinsic to the being of God) find praise taking on some of the features of credal expressions. Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that this happens when adoration takes on a ‘particular contour’: God is adored with awe because God is infinitely glorious; with reverence because God is holy; with gratitude because of the immeasurable love bestowed by God on human beings.
This credal-doxological encounter takes place in a different way, and with overt attention to time and history, in the eucharistic prayers of the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches of the Reformation. Here, the ‘mighty acts of God’ in the salvation of human beings are both recalled as events, and celebrated ‘with angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven’. The proper prefaces of the Roman rite express the redemptive relationship between God and God’s creation with great dramatic power and in a variety of moods. At Christmas the Church marvels at seeing ‘God made visible’ and thus being drawn into the love of the still invisible divine reality. At Easter, the prefaces celebrate life restored and heaven opened to a redeemed people. Yet the feast of the Presentation of the Lord sees the glory of Christ coming into the world under the shadow of crucifixion, judgement, and the pain that would pierce Mary’s heart like a sword.
These prefaces draw on a rich range of sources, both biblical and patristic, in their approach to the mystery into which each celebration of the eucharist invites worshippers. In maintaining a living relationship with tradition, the Church is constantly testing its own voice against a continuum of praise. The same sources have also been vital to another part of the creative expression of Christian worship, in the composition of hymns and songs. It is clearly impossible to try to give a comprehensive overview of this vast subject. In addition, hymns and songs by their nature participate in the texture of living vernacular languages, and textual examples drawn from one language may not exactly mirror examples from other languages. Nevertheless, there are some more general characteristics which are common to metrical expressions of praise. These arise out of the interplay of the theological and poetic imaginations on the one hand, and fidelity to doctrine and concern for Christian formation on the other hand.
Geoffrey Wainwright, whose own formation in the Methodist tradition included a deep appreciation for the hymns of Charles Wesley, was prepared to say that ‘[i]n virtue of their greater flexibility, hymns fulfil a complementary function to creeds; they also allow the expression of “ecstatic reason”’. What does this evocative phrase mean when applied to the Church’s worship?
To take ‘reason’ first, hymn writers have often been motivated by the desire to communicate aspects of faith using the combined devices of memorable verbal patterns and tunes that fix themselves in the minds of those who encounter them regularly. Many hymns have an argument that develops over a series of verses. Cardinal Newman’s ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ from The Dream of Gerontius is an example: framed in an outburst of praise to God, ‘in all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways’, it traces the whole narrative of fall and redemption through the lens of that ‘wisest love’ that in the incarnation took on human flesh in order to defeat the powers of evil which had proved too strong for human beings to resist. The ecstatic element transcends the simply rational and well-argued. Sometimes this happens through the expression of powerful emotion, perhaps as in the final verse of Charles Wesley’s ‘Love Divine, all loves excelling’, where in a restored creation, we can imagine how we might ‘cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise’. At other times, the ecstatic effect might be achieved by fixing the attention on a powerful image as in the sixth-century bishop and hymnographer Venantius Fortunatus’ celebration of the cross, Vexilla regis, translated into English by John Mason Neale as ‘The royal banners forward go’. At the centre of the hymn we find the cross’s own role in salvation dramatised in a way that makes it more than a cruel instrument of torture. Instead, as the bearer of the crucified Christ, it becomes a character in its own right:
On whose dear arms, so widely flung,
The weight of this world’s ransom hung,
The price of humankind to pay,
And spoil the spoiler of his prey.
Contemporary worship songs use a variety of metrical effects and often rely on instrumental interludes. They too are capable of involving the worshipper personally, often in texts that evoke a personal relationship between the individual and Christ, using imagery that at times dwells on the majestic and awe-inspiring, and at other times on Christ’s humility. Graham Kendrick’s song, ‘The Servant-King’ (1984) has had enduring appeal, tracing the life of Christ from his entry into the world as a ‘helpless babe’, through the ‘scars’ marking ‘hands that flung stars into space’. In the logic of the song, there are two appropriate responses: wonder that God could have done so much to save us; and a desire to make an offering of our own lives.
Randall Bradley has warned of the need to exercise great discernment and responsibility in creating song, especially for ‘worshippers in traditions that lack formal symbol and ritual’. Here, the content of the songs they sing must ‘fill the void in their religious imaginations’ and must therefore be ‘acceptable imaginative development of the biblical narrative’. I have found Louis-Marie Chauvet’s reflections on what makes the liturgy biblical enormously helpful. His hope, following the Second Vatican Council and the developments in liturgical composition and hymnography that followed, was for a fruitful and theologically compelling encounter between attentiveness to Scripture on the one hand, and the resources of the imagination on the other. He described what he envisaged as an ‘exacting creativity’, capable of bringing about a renewed ‘savouring of the Bible in the culture of our time’.
The challenge for our times is progressively diminishing biblical literacy. There can be no assumption that worshippers will recognise allusions and make connections.
This need not be a matter for despair if it is approached as an incentive to risk a different ordering of events. How might the experience of beauty in the praises of the Church, and their invitation to the human imagination that reaches out towards God, become the catalyst for a biblical encounter? The answer to that question lies in close co-operation between biblical scholars, liturgists and pastoral practitioners.