Gail Ramshaw, the well known feminist theologian and liturgist, recently wrote: "Christian communities do not agree whether, taking its cue from the Incarnation, liturgical language should closely resemble everyday speech, or whether hoping to transform the profane by the sacred, liturgical language should be extraordinary speech" (The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, London, 2002, p.270).
The linking of the language of worship to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, in his Incarnation (taking of human nature, flesh &
blood) is both an interesting and fruitful basis for reflection. I commend it and do only a little of it here.
Ms Ramshaw points to two possible implications of the Incarnation for liturgical language & common prayer/worship. One is that it should resemble everyday speech (whatever precisely this is and where it is found) and another is that it should be so different from everyday speech as to have the power to transform the profane and ordinary into the sacred and holy.
To pursue this line of reflection we need to be aware of a whole set of basic questions. Here are a few of these:
What was the purpose of the Incarnation of the Son of God?
Did the Son of God take to himself in the Virgin's womb perfect human nature (as in Adam before the Fall) or human nature as shared by the human race?
What kind of speech did Jesus use when addressing God the Father or teaching others to address the same Father?
What kind of speech did His apostles use in prayer?
If the Incarnation was to save, redeem, teach, sanctify, illuminate and generally restore man to full communion with God the Father, then language about Jesus and for his sake should be such as to communicate these uplifting and elevating themes in clear and dignified terms. It has to be supercharged and purified everyday speech!
If the Son of God took human nature from the Virgin that was perfect in potential and without the bias toward sin and selfishness, and if he perfected this nature through his obedience to the Father right up to the death on the Cross, then language used of him should also aspire to perfection in terms of its grammar, style, syntax and content, that is to a perfection that is the earthen vessel containing the glory of God.
But even if - as some theologians say -- he took human nature with the built in bias towards sin, we believe that by the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit he overcame that bias and offered a perfect obedience to the Father. Thus language about him and for him should seek perfection in its own idiom so that it perfectly obeys the Father in its content, style and movement and raises up the soul of the reader towards the perfection of God.
Further, the eternally-begotten Son of the Father took Jewish flesh and was born into the old covenant. In that covenant the addressing of YHWH, the LORD, was always and everywhere in the most reverent terms, even when being intimate (as in some Psalms).
The way Jesus addressed his Father is seen in such places as Mark 14:36 & John 17. He spoke reverently and intimately addressing his Father as Abba (Aramaic "My dear Father"). He taught his disciples to pray reverently and intimately to his Father in these words, "Our Father which art in heaven." We know from the Epistles that the churches did pray, "Abba, Pater" (Aramaic & Greek) thereby using the name for the first Person of the Holy Trinity learned from Jesus.
"Abba" is NOT everyday speech from the streets, but is rare speech from the patriarchal Jewish home where in deep respect for the father and in devotion to him the child said, "Abba" (my dear father). Pater is the regular Greek word for father. Thus from Jesus we learn that prayer language is to be reverent and intimate, simple yet refined, simple yet dignified, and simple yet dignified.
A study of the prayers of St Paul (e.g. in Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians) and the prayers within the Book of Revelation points to the use of a refined, simple language that is not everyday language, for it has a special vocabulary and it treats God differently from the way it treats human persons. Again we can say that it is both reverent and intimate and does not confuse God with man or the glory of God with the achievements of man. Further, it uses and transforms Old Testament, Hebrew words and themes/ideas, so that the so-called common Greek of the New Testament is in fact not really common at all for it is deeply Hebraic and also deeply moving (and is captured very well - strange to say - by the translation of the KJV, if you can bear the 2nd person singular, Thou/Thee and the verb endings!).
The language of prayer generated by the fact of the Incarnation should be intelligible (if one first understands the basics of Christian Faith as in the Creed), accessible (if one is a baptized believer, in a saving relation to the Father through the Son in the Church of God), simple (in that it can be understood by anyone of average intelligence whose mind has been enlightened by the Holy Ghost) relevant (if the priority of seeking the kingdom of God is accepted) inclusive (if one intends to include all, Jew and Gentile, male and female etc) and mysterious (partaking of a sacramental character). Thus it cannot be (and never has been) simply everyday speech for such can only communicate everyday secular and sacred matters. The language of prayer exists to communicate extraordinary, heavenly and supernatural matters as well as ordinary ones, and all in a reverential and humble manner so that it becomes language in the Spirit through the Son to the Father.
Further, it is a language that should be more stable than everyday speech for the latter has to move with the times and go where culture pushes it, but the truths of God are eternal and have less need for changing styles in human speech. And, also, to revert to Ms Ramshaw, it is not a matter of transforming the profane by and with the sacred. Rather, it is a taking of human words, grammar and syntax and from them creating a form, style, content and ethos that truly fits the principles of the Incarnation and serves to lift man out of sin into the healing presence of the living God.
Sept 10 2002
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America