Remembering the Saints in the Liturgy

All Saints Day is upon us!  As one of the seven principle feasts of the Church Year this is (or ought to be) a grand occasion not only for celebration and worship but also for teaching and catechesis.  The greatest holidays of the year, after all, are built upon the greatest doctrines of the Christian faith.  All Saints’ Day draws our attention to the communion of saints, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, that Body of Christ of which we are a part.  There are a few built-in features of the liturgy that can (or should) be highlighted to enhance the celebration:

  • The Collect of the Day is packed with Scripture and theology.
  • The heavenly multitude depicted in the epistle lesson from the book of Revelation is a beautiful picture of this holiday’s subject.
  • The Sursum Corda (or “Great Thanksgiving”) leads to a special Proper Preface for the occasion: “For in the multitude of your Saints, you have surrounded us with so great a cloud of witnesses that we, rejoicing in their fellowship, may run with patience the race that is set before us, and, together with them, may receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”
  • The usual prayers leading up to the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) are worth emphasizing today: “with angels and archangels and with the whole company of heaven“.

The unity of prayer and fellowship, between all saints in heaven and on earth, is wonderfully celebrated throughout the liturgy.

But is there something more we can do?

There are many ideas that could be brainstormed, but this is probably the simplest one.  The final petition of the standard Prayers of the People reads:

We remember before you all your servants who have departed this life in your faith and fear, [especially ______________,] that your will for them may be fulfilled, and we ask you to give us grace to follow the good examples of [N., and] all your saints, that we may share with them in your heavenly kingdom.

This is a direct invitation to fill in the blank, and All Saints’ Day (or Sunday, when most of us will be celebrating this holiday) is the perfect opportunity to expand the second blank.  You could draw up a list of saints who are well-loved in your congregation, or list all twelve apostles (replacing Judas Iscariot with Matthias), or list the Saints celebrated as Major Feast Days in the Prayer Book.  My church this year will just be listing categories: “give us grace to follow the good examples of Joseph and Mary the holy family, your Apostles and Evangelists, your holy Martyrs and Confessors, and all your saints…”

If you do include a list therein, note that the traditional ordering of Saints is basically:

  1. the Blessed Virgin Mary
  2. Joseph
  3. Apostles (not just the twelve, but including Paul)
  4. Evangelists (Mark and Luke)
  5. Martyrs
  6. Confessors
  7. Doctors (that is, “Teachers of the Faith”)
  8. Bishops and Kings
  9. Monastics or members of other religious orders
  10. Other Saints

The point of this is not simply “to be traditional” and “get things right,” but the general ordering tradition exists to denote a sort of hierarchy.  This is not to say that a Martyr is more holy than a Monk, per se, but that the witness of the former is generally greater than the latter, and so deserves a place of greater significance when presenting such names to the congregation.  If this sort of ordering offends your theological sensibilities, then be sure to use a different-but-clear ordering, such as alphabetizing their names, so it doesn’t just look like a hodge-podge thrown-together list.  Liturgy and worship always benefits from transparent forethought!

Reading Pace

A major feature of any liturgy is reading.  Appointed readers read Scripture lessons, a Deacon (or Priest) reads a Gospel lesson at the Communion service, everyone reads prayers and Creeds together.  Sometimes it’s like a dialogue, going back and forth between the minister and the people; sometimes it’s a block reading, like everyone reading a Confession together.  One of the issues that can crop up is the pacing of these readings.

On his or her own, sometimes a reader gets nervous.  This is perfectly understandable, and experience and practice works wonders here.  But it must be cautioned that a nervous or inexperienced reader can rush through the words, tripping over or slurring them together.  Or sometimes the opposite – the gravity of reading the Word of God overwhelms them such that they end up reading it very slowly.  Public readings ought to be read at a natural pace, such that the commas, semicolons, and periods are all clear and distinct.  We want the reading to have some dramatic weight, but we don’t want to overdo it, William Shatner style:

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The same applies to congregation readings.  Be it a Psalm, a Collect, Creed, or other prayer or reading, the people need to go at a natural pace.

If we read too fast together, the issues are many:

  • people could run out of breath
  • there’s no time to think about or process what you’re actually saying
  • it communicates a lack of care, value, or import to the words
  • visitors unfamiliar with the liturgy will feel swamped and overwhelmed

Similarly, reading too slowly can mask the overall coherence of the reading or prayer.

If your congregation has a pacing problem, it’s really upon the leaders to fix it.  The clergy or other ministers who lead the various services need to set the pace, even instruct the congregation to speed up or slow down.  Reading and praying together is a spiritual exercise requiring practice and intentionality.  Western culture sometimes makes this difficult for us – we don’t want to end up like the Borg from Star Trek, we don’t want to lose our individuality, we easily mistrust corporate liturgical action and prefer “personal” and “relational” things.  So for many people these acts of common prayer and common reading is a lost art that has to be re-learned.  Let’s not beat people over the head with this, but we do need to be aware that actual training, practice, and learning is involved!