This Sunday we focus on the second half of the Service of the Word. This portion – from the recitation of the Nicene Creed through the exchange of the Peace is very active for the congregation. The community has gathered and has heard the Word of the Lord read and interpreted – the movement is from God to humankind. The community now responds through acclamation of faith, intercessory prayer, confession of sin and greeting one another in the name of the Lord – the response of the Body of Christ to its Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
The Nicene Creed is the creed used in the celebration of the Eucharist. A late addition to the liturgy it is normally only used on Sundays and major Feast days. Its placement in the service was fixed by Charlemagne. Based on ancient baptismal creeds, it is the “official ecumenical statement of faith of the universal Church accepted by the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in the 4th century” (BCP p. 852). A corporate summary of faith, it is not a declaration of individual belief. It was developed to clarify what the Church believed to be orthodox thereby weeding out what it considered heretical. “We believe…” proclaims our identity as Christians, affirming the beliefs that have formed Christianity.
The Prayers of the People – Following our corporate declaration of faith, we offer prayers of intercession and thanksgiving. In ancient times, the priest designated to enter the holy of holies in the Temple would be in charge of offering up prayers for God’s People. Today, a member of the laity offers them for the congregation. The Book of Common Prayer offers six forms for use with the Eucharist (when there is no Baptism). They vary in tone but all encourage members to offer individual petitions and thanksgivings, either silently or aloud. We pray for the concerns of the Church, the nation, and the world; for those less fortunate; for those within our own community who need healing; and for those who serve God whether in the Church or in the community. At St. Mary’s we rotate the prayer form according to the season. The prayers end with a member of the clergy offering a concluding collect.
The Exhortation follows, encouraging the congregation to both individually and corporately confess its sins “in thought, word, and deed” and repent. There are long and short forms of the Exhortation. The longest and most explicit is contained in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday (BCP p. 276).
The Confession of Sin – We ask God’s forgiveness for “what we have done and what we have left undone” both as individuals and as members of a society that is so often at fault.
We seek to set right our relationship with God before we approach the altar for communion. There is a period of silence following the exhortation when we acknowledge our individual sins. We then corporately offer the Confession.
In Lent, when we begin the service with the penitential office (BCP p. 352) we confess our sins at the beginning of the liturgy. In the Daily Offices we also offer the Confession of Sin. This act of attrition is not solely a Sunday discipline. On certain High Feast days, like Easter, the confession is eliminated emphasizing the celebratory nature of the liturgy.
The Absolution – Following the prayer of confession, a priest pronounces absolution for the congregation through our Lord Jesus Christ. At the heart of the Gospel we understand that, if we truly repent and confess, God will forgive us. If the Absolution is offered by a lay person during a daily office, the plural pronouns of “we” and “us” are used because we understand that our intercessor is not the officiant of the liturgy but Jesus Christ, “our only mediator and advocate.”
The Peace – The exchange of the Peace is the final act of the Liturgy of the Word and acts as a bridge between it and Holy Communion. It signals the end of the common prayers and reminds us of the Rite I exhortation dating to the 16th century, “you who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors…” Passing the Peace is a liturgical act acknowledging your right relationship with your neighbor and that, as members of the Body of Christ, you are ready to come to the table with one another. See Matthew 5:23-24, included in the Offertory sentences (BCP p. 376).
The greeting is found in Paul’s epistles when he talks of greeting one another with a holy kiss (1Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12) and older liturgies indicate the Kiss of Peace was exchanged to greet the newly baptized.