This declaration from Deuteronomy 6 has been imprinted on my mind for 20 years. Every Saturday at synagogue we recited the Shema in both Hebrew and in English. Because 17 years has passed (20 minus the 3 years I spent in the Messianic synagogue), there is much that I have forgotten, but I’ll never forget the Shema.
Being a part of the synagogue wasn’t like being a part of the Charismatic church I grew up in, nor has it been like many other churches I’ve been a part of as an adult. Attending synagogue didn’t just take a Saturday morning out of my life. It became part of my life, even shaping it. There are prayers and rituals that mark the Sabbath on Friday evening and Saturday evening. The Siddur is read daily for their prayers.
During the worship in the synagogue, everything is done in a certain order for the purpose of giving God glory and for teaching the congregation. Some of this has been lost from my memory, but I remember saying certain prayers at certain times and in certain ways. I remember Rabbi Jaslow opening the Torah scroll to chant that week’s portion. I remember the feast days, their significance for Israel and their fulfillment in Christ. I loved Sukkot because it symbolized a time of God dwelling with His people, and it painted vivid pictures in our minds through the teaching and ceremony of God’s living waters flowing from His temple. On the 8th day of the seven-day feast of Sukkot was Simchat Torah when we rolled back the Torah scroll and celebrated God giving His people His Word.
Old and New Testament Worship
This became my foundation for not only understanding Christian beliefs but also the way in which God instructed His people to worship Him in the Old Testament. The New Testament gives us little about how our worship is to be structured. It instructs us to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. There are first century creeds mentioned in a few places. Jesus Christ gave us a prayer to recite. Sacraments were instituted. Beyond that, there are no distinct instructions as God had given to Israel.
What we do know is that the first Christians were Jews. There is also evidence that the first century Christians met not only in church houses but also in the temple and in synagogues. The traditions that have been passed down through the Eastern and Western churches since their early days employ Hebrew words and Hebrew elements in their liturgies. Even though the Church calendar is not the same as the Hebrew calendar, there are nonetheless evidences of influence. We see this in the forty days leading up to Easter, for example, plus our celebration of Pentecost is the fulfillment of the Jewish holy day Shavuot.
The Church did not put themselves back under the types and shadows of what was to come because Christ did come. But these elements that the Church have adopted points us to the reality of Christ, his life, death, and resurrection just as the Hebrew liturgy was structured to point towards a future reality.
The liturgy and the calendar give glory to God, and it teaches us about our faith. Even now, during this season of no festivals is really a season of growth. Every part of the year has meaning. Good liturgy teaches that Christianity is not simply one Sunday morning a week, but that it is our life, just as I had learned in the synagogue. In the Anglican tradition, we use the Book of Common Prayer for morning and evening devotion. We read the prescribed prayers, psalms, and the creeds. And of course we incorporate Bible reading within our prayer time.
Sunday Morning Anglican Worship
The worship services on Sunday morning are structured with responsive readings, songs, creeds, and Scripture readings. The liturgy carries the service. While the minister is required to instruct rightly and present God’s truth through his sermons, he does not carry the burden of the whole worship service as is seen in many Evangelical churches. Even if a priest were to completely bomb the sermon, the congregation in an Anglican church still confess their sins, receive absolution, hear the Word of God, confess the truth of who God is through the creeds, and receive the Lord’s Supper. Good liturgy keeps the focus on the Triune God and His Gospel. No matter what the priest says during the sermon, though we hope that he speaks rightly, God’s people are still properly instructed and fed.
I’ve written more fully about the Lord’s Supper here, but the Supper is a strong element that has drawn me to Anglicanism. Word and Sacrament need to be regularly present in the service. Anglican liturgy is structured for this. The Word is brought forth, then confession and absolution. The service culminates in the sharing of the Supper in such a way that the service itself is sacramental with an anticipation of receiving this magnificent gift from our Lord through the priest.
Just like with reciting the Shema, other aspects of liturgy become part of the individuals, growing them in Christ and connecting them in Christ’s bride, His Church.