The Power of Sacred Words

The book serves as a vessel, like the cup to the wine. It serves to enthrone and hold forth the truly central symbol, like the linen to the food. The primary symbol is the speaking out of the words themselves. That such discourse – prayers, readings, songs, dialogues, sermons, words for the bath, words for the meal – is itself symbolic is very hard for us to see in our time. We are surrounded in our culture with overinflated words. We routinely assume advertising slogans and political promises to be lies. Our own intimate speech is ordinarily littered with indications that we do no trust the very words we are speaking to convey what we mean: “You know,” we parenthetically appeal to our hearer, “like . . . , I mean . . . , sort of . . . , kind of . . ..” Those very expressions contain evidence of wishing for authentic and powerful speech. Our cynicism about public speech, political discourse, advertising, and news probably arises from failed idealism: we wish that politicians would speak like Lincoln’s second inaugural address, telling the truth with passion and with room for rich ambiguity, and that we could believe the speech.

The character of the speech we encounter in the liturgy will strike us as rare, even astonishing. Neither public nor intimate, this speech tells the truth simply, it addresses God and other invisible realities directly; it unhesitatingly uses metaphors and images; it does not shrink from naming death and failure nor from unfeignedly expressing joy; it calls people, without ceremony, by their first names; it works economically, frequently falling back into silence. This speech practice brings us into a circle, much larger than the idealized family circle, where a great book is read aloud by one voice to a whole assembly listening. It gives us, individually, powerful words to say to each other: “Peace be with you!” It puts in our mouths, together, unhesitating acclamations or profound, lamenting appeals, expressed in ancient foreign languages: “Amen! Alleluia!” “Kyrie eleison.”

Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), pp. 98-99. ISBN: 978-0-8006-3131-4.