Summary: In form and spirit, there is good continuity between the building and worship of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian assembly and Eucharist
December 13, 2010
The Spirit of the Liturgy
You just have to sympathize with Baalam the prophet. He was called by King Balak to come and curse this upstart band of nomads invading his country. He was called because he was rumored to be a prophet of the same “god” the nomads worshiped. He was a prophet for hire, so he set out on his jackass to make a buck. But three times the animal rode off the road after being scared by an angel of God, and three times the animal got a whipping by the prophet, who was blinded by his own greed. Once he, too, saw the angel–only after the jackass told him that he was being a blind jackass–he repented and said what God wanted him to say. The star–Jesus–would rise up out of Judah to lead His people. It was that Jesus who told the Pharisees and Scribes that, in their own turn, they were being blind animals leading people astray from God’s will. Even though they had gone out to hear John the Baptist, they hadn’t believed his word. Moreover, they wouldn’t even tell the truth about their opinion of John, because they were afraid of popular rebellion.
When Christians, who were called followers of the Way of Jesus, met to worship, they originally met with their fellow Jews in the Temple and synagogue. In fact, there is some evidence that the disciples were gathered in or close to the Temple when the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost. So when the break with Judaism occurred, some time before the destruction of the Temple, Christians continued to build their meeting houses like synagogues, which were themselves modeled after the Jerusalem temple.
There were two focal points in the synagogue. “The first is the ‘seat of Moses’ of which the Lord speaks in the Gospel (cf Mt 23:2). The rabbi does not speak from his own resources. . .he makes present the Word that God addressed and addresses to Israel.” The rabbi’s duty was to see and speak about Torah as something for today, not just for the people gathered at Mt. Sinai.
This physical chair, this seat of Moses, “does not stand for itself and by itself, nor is it simply turned toward the people. . .the rabbi looks–as does everyone else in the synagogue–toward the . . .shrine of the Torah, which represents the lost Ark.” The Torah shrine is the most important place in the synagogue. There the Jews, even today, keep the Torah scrolls, “the living Word of God, through which [God] sits on his throne in Israel among his own people. The shrine is surrounded. . .with signs of reverence befitting the mysterious presence of God. It is protected by a curtain, before which burn the seven lights of the menorah.” (65) And a properly designed synagogue orients itself in the direction of Jerusalem, of the site of the destroyed Temple. “The prayers said at the unrolling and reading of the scrolls of Scripture developed out of the ritual prayers originally linked to the sacrificial actions in the Temple.” But the offering of sheep and goats in sacrifice stopped a few months before the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Now the ritual prayers themselves are regarded as the sacrifice.
The first of these prayers would remind us of the “Trisagion of the Christian liturgy, the ‘thrice holy’ hymn at the beginning of the Canon” (67) Here the “congregation does not offer its own thoughts or poetry but is taken out of itself and given the privilege of sharing in the cosmic song of praise of the cherubim and seraphim.” So when we sing or say together the Sanctus–“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Sabaoth,” we are really singing the song of the angels acknowledging the presence and majesty of God. And this is done just before Jesus, Son of God becomes truly present under the forms of bread and wine.
“The other great prayer of the synagogue [contains] the Abodah which, according to the rabbis, was formerly the consecration prayer of the daily burnt offering in the Temple. The petition added to it about the coming of the Messiah. . .may be seen . . .as the expression of the eseence of the sacrificial worship.”
So there is a continuity in physical and spiritual form between the worship of the synagogue and the worship of the Christian church. But there is also a discontinuity, because the Church of Christ is not the synagogue of the Pharisees. So next week we will look carefully at the three innovations of the Christian assembly, the ekklesia, as we moved away from synagogue worship into worship in spirit and truth.