Language and Liturgy

I've been thinking about how we call on and refer to God in worship, particularly the first person of the Trinity.  I hear feminist critique regarding the overwhelming use of masculine language for the name of God, and yet I also know that going in a modalist direction – using language that describes God's actions rather than God's nature or being (ie, "Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier") is also problematic.

As part of my exploration of these issues I looked at how various Lutheran worship books have, over the years, expressed the Great Thanksgiving dialogue, used to initiate the prayers at the Liturgy of the Table (perhaps I'll repeat this exercise in future posts with a look at other liturgical texts).  Those books are:

Common Service Book and Hymnal, 1917 (CSB)
Service Book and Hymnal, 1958 (SBH)
Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978 (LBW)
With One Voice, 1995 (WOV)
Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006 (ELW)

Their rendering of the dialogue are as follows:

The Lord be with you (all books)

And with thy spirit (CSB, SBH)
And also with you (LBW, WOV, ELW)

Lift up your hearts (all books)

We lift them up unto the Lord (CSB, SBH)
We lift them to the Lord (LBW, WOV, ELW)

Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God (CSB, SBH)
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God (LBW, WOV, ELW)

It is meet and right so to do (CSB, SBH)
It is right to give him thanks and praise (LBW)
It is right to give our thanks and praise (WOV, ELW)

Just a few comments from this comparison – and this is a dangerous comparison to make, as these are ancient texts originally penned in ancient languages.  The Common Service Book rendering of these text is not the "original" rendering of these liturgical formulas which we share with the church catholic.  But the Common Service Book is a starting point for many American Lutherans as that was the first truly common worship book used by a large proportion of American Lutherans.  Here I am just looking at the evolution of these texts over the past hundred years.

First, the language was significantly changed to more common forms in the move from SBH to LBW.  "With thy spirit" becomes "also with you."  "Unto" becomes "to."  "Meet," which also means "appropriate" but which is rarely used in this way, is removed.

Secondly, in LBW "up" was removed from the congregation's response to the invitation by the presiding minister to "lift up your hearts."  Again, speaking only about these texts and without reference to the original ancient texts, I find this change to be fascinating.  The presider invites the congregation to "lift up" their hearts, and – since LBW – the congregation responds not with up/down language (though "up" is implied in the word "lift"), but says, simply, "We lift them to the Lord," with less directional reference.

It was also around the time of LBW that many churches removed their east wall altars and began praying and sharing the sacrament facing each other, rather than a wall.  Such a shift in orientation emphasizes that the Lord is present – particularly in this meal – not just in the heavens but on earth.  Removing the  "up" from the congregation's response reinforces this renewed awareness of our Lord's holy and real presence among us (see The Sunday Assembly, page 201, for more commentary on this).

Finally, it is in LBW that the object
of our thanks – God – is referenced in the congregation's third dialogue response for the first time.  God is neither named nor
referenced in the responses found in CSB or SBH (see above).  In naming the
object of our praise, the LBW (inadvertently?) introduced a masculine
pronoun where Lutherans hadn't employed one in the previous two worship books.  Thus in our last hundred years of Lutheran worship books, gender-specific language in this dialogue is to be found only in one book – the Lutheran Book of Worship – and at that in only one line of this dialogue, the congregation's third response.  The presider invites the congregation to give thanks to the Lord our God, and in all the books the congregation responds that it is right to do so.  It was LBW, as it removed archaic language forms, that introduced a
masculine pronoun in this response: It is right to
give him thanks and praise. 

In WOV and ELW, the dialogue response is changed to "it is right to
give our thanks and praise."  Oh my.  In comparison with LBW this can
looks like a navel-gazing, self-congratulatory refrain with an emphasis
on "our thanks" rather than on the object of our thanks, God ("him" in
LBW).  But this newer rendering of the text actually seems to be more
in line with the CSB and SBH intent – affirming the rightness of giving
thanks, and leaving the task of naming the object of our thanks to the
subsequent prayers of thanksgiving.

What has this little exercise achieved?  Not much, honestly.  I've looked at a single liturgical formula and how it has been expressed in Lutheran worship books over the past century.  I note how language was updated to more common usage, how a textual change orients the congregation to our Lord's presence among us (rather than just "up" in the heavens), and how the masculine pronoun for God – though common in both Scripture and liturgy – wasn't part of this particular liturgical formula for Lutherans for most of the century.

What I haven't done is demonstrate the intent of the worship book editors or of the translators of original texts.  I haven't consulted commentaries on our worship books, except for the one noted above.  I've simply noted the changes and made some of my own comments.  There's plenty of room for further examination, particularly in relation to the intent of the original texts, and a discussion of our relationship with original texts and the received tradition would also be helpful.  But that's for another day . . .

Peace to you.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “Language and Liturgy

  1. Ok–here are some key points. It has to do with the ancient languages and the realities of English language liturgy. When Lutheran liturgies entered the English language they did so primarily through the language of the Book of Common Prayer. After all–why re-invent the wheel, especially when the shared historic liturgy was already translated in fluent, stately language? As a result, the BCPs of that era and the Lutheran liturgies are in accord.
    Fast-forward, and you find similar things. The changes in the LBW Are fundamentally mediated by Vatican II and the Liturgical Renewal movement around it. Thus, the authorized English translation of the Novus Ordo Mass has:
    P. The Lord be with you.
    C. And also with you.
    P. Lift up your hearts.
    C. We lift them up to the Lord.
    P. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
    C. It is right to give him thanks and praise.
    Ditto, the ’79 American BCP with the exception that “up” is missing. The LBW followed suit.
    Please don’t mistake me; I’m not saying the Lutherans plagiarized or even blindly copied, but understanding the shifts in contemporary liturgical language requires an ecumenical gaze.
    I’m now wondering what our “Enriching our Worship” has for this opening dialogue…

  2. Thanks, Derek.
    Oh yes, the Lutheran movement on this dialogue is part of a broader ecumenical movement. I thought about consulting BCP 1929 and also 1979, and referring to the Second Vatican Council, but that would have been more of a project . . .
    And don’t worry, Derek, it’s ok to say that the Lutherans plagiarized the BCP, because that’s largely what we did. And unlike our Lutheran worship books, the Book of Common Prayer is put in the public domain, a gift to the whole church . . . isn’t that nice?

  3. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this posting EXCEPT that I was worship assistant yesterday and standing there, arms raised, offering a prayer…well, that makes one aware of many more things than usual. I later thought about the altar: when did we bring it away from the wall, so that the pastor faces the people? Why? Now you’ve answered some of the reasons for both positions.
    The Great Thanksgiving, which is what I think you are quoting in part, has always seemed so meaningful and mysterious to me. The first time I heard a pastor chant the opening part (WOV, setting 4) I thought that I heard the angel choruses. We are truly joined with believers of all ages.
    So to the point of your post: language usages change throughout the age. We need to adapt to make our usage reflect what the current modern people understand something to mean. But we need to keep traditional things because we are indeed joined to believers of all ages, past, present, and future, when we partake of the Lord’s Supper.

  4. The Canon of Hippolytus (early 3rd century) renders the preface dialogue in this manner:
    The Lord be with you.
    And with your spirit.
    Lift up your hearts.
    We have them with the Lord.
    Let us give thanks unto the Lord.
    It is meet and right.
    (cited in “Christian Liturgy,” by Frank Senn, page 78).
    Two brief notes:
    * the congregation’s second response lacks any up/down imagery (neither the words “lift” nor “up” are used)
    * no reference to God – or God’s “gender”! – in the congregation’s third response

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