The Prayer Book tradition has always begun the Morning and Evening Offices with “opening sentences of scripture.” In the modern prayer books, the Communion service also begins with a choice of seasonal “Acclamations” that tend to be viewed in a similar light as these Opening Sentences. Indeed, the way our 2019 book looks like it’s going to be treating them, the implication seems to be that they are correspondent to one another. However, this has not always been the case.
People like to complain about the 1979 Prayer Book – and understandably so: much of the standard format and content of historic prayer books got radically re-written, re-ordered, and altered to the point of unrecognizability in some places. And in the case of the Sunday lectionary, 1,500 years of slowly-evolving tradition got chucked out the window. But when it comes to the Opening Sentences, the 1979 book is not where the change began; this was a slower evolution through the American Prayer Books. Already in the American 1928 Prayer Book (if not before), the Opening Sentences included various seasonal verses for use during Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and so on.
The idea that the Office should begin with a “seasonal” verse is not a bad one. It helps sets a devotional mood that links the Office to the church calendar more strongly than it is otherwise. But it is also helpful to understand the mentality and purpose that existed before.
The Daily Office, by nature, used to be very static and unchanging. The options we now have simply weren’t offered in the past. The Opening Sentences were no exception. Instead of seasonal or occasional verses to read, the older Prayer Books offered a large pile of verses, and any number of them could be read (not just one verse, as the 2019 Prayer Book looks like it’ll direct). If you look at the “sentences of scripture” listed in the 1662 Prayer Book, for example, you will find that they are largely penitential. In fact, if you read all of them, straight through, in the order they are presented, you’ll find they form a sort of outline of salvation. There are Sentences about repentance, God’s grace toward sinners, trust in God’s mercy, and expressions of commitment to God’s judgment and cleansing. These are not Opening Sentences that are meant to set the mood for the Office as a whole, these are preparatory words of Scripture meant to lead into the Confession that follows.
If you’ve ever felt like the Opening Sentence of Scripture is a little lonely there at the beginning, left hanging, that’s why. Its original purpose was to be part of the sequence of Confession & Absolution that begins the Daily Office.
Granted, knowing this history will not necessarily translate to the use of our 20th and 21st century prayer books… the listed verses we have are so different from the original that it’s going to be somewhat contrived to attempt to use our seasonal Sentences as preparations for Confession. Some of them will work better than others, though, so it can be a helpful thing to remember. When it doesn’t link well to the Confession, that’s when we just have to treat them like the “Acclamation” at the beginning of the Communion service, and consider them a call to worship in general, if not to confession specifically.
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