Liturgy helps us remember that worship is serious business. We live in a democratic age, and we find it easy to be casual but struggle with formality and reverence. We have forgotten what it means to be a subject reverently approaching a king. But in worship, we approach the king of the universe, the holy and omnipotent God. To worship him means to offer what he is worth, to render to him what he is rightly due. As the psalmist says, “Give the LORD the honour due unto his name; worship the LORD with holy worship” (Psalm 29:2). The language of the liturgy is meant to be “thickened” language, with more body and depth than everyday language, but without being pompous or self important (like the language of the Pharisee in Matthew 6:5). It’s not easy to strike this balance of elevation and humility, but for Christian liturgy the model is the language of the Scriptures themselves—especially the language of the Psalms, which are quoted again and again in the prayers of Jesus and of Paul. When a liturgy adopts the model of the Psalms, we are approaching God in a way that he himself has taught us.
One of the ways that language is fuller and richer in liturgy is through the use of older language. In fact, from the time of Christ to the present, churches have tended to worship in language that is older than what is spoken in everyday settings. Early Christians who heard the Psalms in Hebrew would have heard a classical form of the language. Saint Augustine preached from Greek versions of the Old Testament that were hundreds of years old. Saint Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate, was not consciously archaic when produced. But it certainly became so during its use over the next thousand years in the Western church, and the Vulgate did not completely replace the older Latin translation in the liturgy. And the King James Version was intended to be old-fashioned on the day it was published.
There’s nothing inherently valuable about archaic expressions. “Thou” is not better than “you”; “beginneth” isn’t superior to “begins.” But there are still good reasons for the tendency to be conservative about liturgical language. To start with, because God has revealed himself and taught us how to worship him, the church has tended to treasure biblical words rather than risk losing too much in translation. So, for example, Hebrew words like amen and alleluia were carried over into Greek liturgy, then into Latin, then into English.
Another reason is that approaching the Holy involves not only joy but also fear. The writer Annie Dillard put it this way: “I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.”4 So there is a tendency to hand down and hold onto what we have learned through hard-won experience.
Another reason is that continuity turns our very words into a means for preserving the story of the church. The presence of the Greek Kyrie eleison (meaning “Lord, have mercy”) in Latin liturgy, for example, preserved the memory of the early centuries when the underground church in Rome prayed and read the Scriptures in Greek. And keeping our liturgical language stable over time allows a rich network of connections to develop. Hymns can echo the liturgy, like the line from the Te Deum in Morning Prayer—“thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb”—that is echoed in the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful”: “Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb.” These allusions reverberate through our Bibles, liturgies, and hymns, like echoing voices in the stone vaults of a cathedral. Because this way of talking is associated with prayer, it signals to us what a special and sacred thing we are doing when we hear and say these words.
It is essential to understand the prayers we say and the passages we read, just like we need to understand the words we sing. But the language of the Book of Common Prayer is usually simple and straightforward, like John Newton’s “’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, / And grace will lead me home.” The challenge of the prayer book’s language is usually not understanding it, but really meaning it.
Adapted from How to Use the Book of Common Prayer by Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane. ©2024 by Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com.