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___ Essay ____________________________________________________________________


Enlivening Our Proclamation Of The Gospel In Liturgy



Raymond Brown in his book ‘Introduction to the New Testament' points to the fact that possibly some of the origins of the gospel of Mark were liturgical narratives:

“Mark has been interpreted in many different ways. Part of the variety stems from the different methods of interpretation employed today… That in whole or part Mark had its origins in liturgy has been proposed, e.g., composed of lessons to be read in church, or shaped by a paschal baptismal liturgy (young man in white robe on Easter Sunday in 16:5), or by Good Friday prayer hours (14:17 -15:42 : a day broken up by Mark's indications of three-hour intervals).” [1]

This is a small comment amongst others in the introduction to the question of, ‘How to interpret Mark?', and yet it caught my attention, as the starting point for this article comes from my love for liturgical theology.

The most succinct description of liturgical theology I have found is in David Fagerberg's book, ‘What is Liturgical Theology'. [2] The whole introduction would be worth quoting yet in a small collection of excerpts he tells us: 

“The Subject matter of liturgical theology is not liturgy, it is God, humanity and the world, and the vortex in which these three existentially entangle is liturgy. If the subject matter of liturgical theology were human ceremony instead of God, it would be sheer self-delusion to call it theology; it would be anthropology, not theology. Liturgy is theological precisely because here is where God's revelation occurs steadfastly…

…Liturgical theology is, in its fundamental phase, liturgical. It does not come from liturgy like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises from liturgy, and never leaves it. Theology which is liturgical arises in the liturgical structure and does not detach from liturgical rite; liturgy is theology in action, it is not merely a rubrical resource for the allegedly real theologians to rummage through...

…If theology is the struggle for meaning between the terms God, world and humanity, then this struggle goes on in the pew as well as in the study. To acknowledge this might ameliorate the antagonism between faith and theology (really, believers and theologians)…

…Fr. Aidan Kavanagh discerns three logical moments in the liturgical event. First, the assembly encounters the Holy One; second by consequence of this encounter the assembly is changed; third, the assembly must adjust to this change, and it is the adjustment which he defines as theological…

…Liturgy is encounter with God, but furthermore it is also a living adjustment, i.e. a theological response, to the Holy One. The division which puts raw experience in the sanctuary but theology in the office is here rejected. The assembly makes response too, in its rite, although this is different in form from the organized, analytical, systematic, researched response which makes up secondary theology. The assembly's response can be truly characterized as theological if our definition of the term is not excessively narrowed by institutional presuppositions, and if their response is ruled by activity. The adjustment made by those who encounter Gods' whole presence in word and sacrament is an instance of theologia prima. There may be reasons to reflect in a further, more systemized fashion but such organization of thought does not disqualify primary theology as theology. Secondary theology is but one species in the genus theology.” [3]

In my understanding liturgical theology takes place as a process in a person. It is coming to an understanding of God through integrating experiences into a new knowledge, and then also resulting in a changed life style. The God experience is the primary experience followed by an adjustment in our understanding through pondering the experience, drawing on other people who have considered their own experiences and consolidating one's own understanding. This process of changing our thinking and adjusting our lives is theological as it involves a cognitive process to integrate our experiences leading to adjusting our lives accordingly. The primary experience of God, though, is in the liturgy! For me liturgical theology gives the auditor of both the liturgy and the Gospel narrative as part of the liturgical text, the possibility of being a theologian; a person who adjusts their knowledge and lifestyle through understanding their encounter with God.

An interesting adjunct to this theme is the whole epistemological question of, ‘how do we come to knowledge?' Implicit in this question of liturgical theology is an exploration of the difference between knowledge a priori and knowledge a posteriori. Liturgical theology helps us differentiate in our minds, and experience, about how we can arrive at knowledge from a starting point of experience in search of meaning.

Liminality, Altered States of Consciousness and Mystical Consciousness.

In Whitney Shiner (2004) I found a passage that says the real experience of the gospels induces a level of liminality, and both the Gospel and Revelation are also only properly experienced in that state:

“It is my belief that the performance of the Gospel served to induce a particular social and psychological state in the audience that facilitated an experience of revelation. This revelation may have come through something after the completion of the performance. Specifically, if the Gospel narrative was performed in conjunction with baptism, the revelation may have occurred in the experience of baptism as mediated through the liminal state induced by the performance. This revelation may have come through the experience of the performance itself. The Gospel performance leads the audience to strongly identify with the death of Jesus. The early church seems to have considered such an experience of identification to be transformative and revelatory.” [4]

Shiner has used the word ‘liminality' first described by an anthropologist Victor Turner who ‘defined it as a transitional state that occurs in many rites of passage'. (Shiner p197) She explores this state throughout the whole chapter.

Further reading expands this idea of liminality to correspond with the idea of ‘altered states of consciousness' as John Pilch (1998) puts it or ‘mystical consciousness' in the framework of Wayne Teasedale as explored in his book ‘The Mystic Heart.' (Teasedale , 1999)

I think it is important for those people who are authorized to proclaim the gospels to make it as efficacious as possible. This requires ongoing exploration of ever better methods of delivery. My experience shows me that the clergy all too readily fall into habits and worn paths of proclamation. My hope is that using the method of memorizing the text will engage the soul and will of the person proclaiming the Gospel, thus enlivening the content for the auditor into liminality and opening greater possibility for the auditors to receive the Word of God as revelation.

Understanding the Gospel as liturgical narrative.

The idea of the narrative of Mark's Gospel being a liturgical text, especially the possibility of a paschal baptismal liturgy, gives rise to the question of its role in mediating the experience of God to the assembly or liturgical audience?

It is at this point where work on interpreting the Gospel through performance and memorizing the text comes into strong focus for me. The work of David Rhoads(1992), cited in the bibliography, in specific explores how the person interpreting the Gospel for a modern audience can learn much about the intention of the author and find a modern hermeneutical exegesis through memorizing the text. Then through performing it we can allow the modern auditor to live into an experience of both the original intention of the author and also the modern interpreter. This initially uses the medium of a dramatic rendition, but could also extend itself to how the Gospel is actually proclaimed in a liturgical setting. Imagine a baptism candidate who has spent time considering the life of Christ, hearing the Gospel of Mark proclaimed out of the power of memory and dramatic performance as an experience during their baptism! What would this create in the experience of the person being baptized?

On a lesser scale my thoughts extend to the idea of memorizing the text for a Sunday, or community worship liturgy as a valid method of interpretation. To this the idea that a memorized text could have more effect on an auditor than one which is read from a book or document excites me.

In coming to understand the Gospel as liturgical narrative it is important to gain an understanding of the Gospel text as liturgical text. This may seem like an irrelevant comment, but there is difference if we perform the Gospel as a dramatic rendition for an audience or if the Gospel text is used within a liturgy. The subtle difference may be described as using the narrative as a story or a symbol. Liturgy is not just words or imaginations thrown together for a sense of worship:

‘Liturgy is not simply a word. It is an act for which symbolic language is the necessary medium, an act of faith and celebration on the part of the church, and an act of God by which the church is transformed in grace…

…Symbolic language of its very nature requires commitment and self-involvement if it is to be taken in any other way than as an object of curiosity or study. No matter what it proposes by way of meaning and reality, it has no effect on living unless people make it their own. Furthermore, one cannot truly discuss its meaning unless one is committed to the truth of what is represented or signified. A wager is necessary, both for self-involvement and for understanding, and this wager allows one to inhabit fully the language of symbol.' [5]

These words of David Power are applicable in three ways;

•  The person memorizing the gospel text enters into the wager and opens the symbol of the Gospel to them.

•  The gospel text is placed in the wager and opened to becoming a liturgical text through the process of memorizing it.

•  The auditor enters the wager through a power ‘performance' or proclamation within the liturgy.

Through memorizing the text the person who proclaims the Word of God has the possibility of allowing the symbols in the words to become an act of revelation, grace, glorification and a mystical experience of God.


As clergy we have an opportunity to enliven our approach to reading or proclaiming the Word of God in Liturgy. All too often clergy fall into set ways and habitual patterns of preparing the liturgy. We fall into the feeling that we know the text for the Sunday reading and don't spend as much time as we used to prepare the reading and the homily.

My hope is that if we rise to the challenge of memorizing the Gospel pericope we use each day or week we can open the narrative to an interpretation for the modern audience. This requires the person who speaks the words to gain a rich relationship to the text. The act of memorizing the text can allow this to happen. Further, the act of proclaiming a liturgical symbolic text from memory can both establish the liminality in the assembly and also provide the revelation.

I imagine enlivening our proclamation of the Gospel in liturgy in this way could deepen the liturgical community's experience of the divine, thus bringing us back to the outset of creating a God experience within liturgy using the Gospel as liturgical text to empower the assembly to become theologians. Experiencing a proclamation of a memorized Gospel would strengthen the whole liturgical theological process.



1 - Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, ( New York : Doubleday, 1996.), p152.

2 - David W. Fagerberg, What is Liturgical Theology? A Study in Methodology, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992.)

3 - Ibid., pp 10 - 15.

4- Whitney Shiner, Creating the Kingdom: The Performance of Mark as Revelatory Text. In Literary Encounters with the Reign of God , edited by Sharon Ringe and H. C. Paul Kim, ( London : T & T Clark International, 2004.), p196

5 - David N. Power, Unsearchable Riches: The Symbolic Nature of Liturgy, ( New York :Pueblo Publishing Company, Inc., 1984.), p.144.


Select Bibliography

Alexander, J. Neil, Editor. Time and Community. Washington , D.C. : The Pastoral Press, 1990.

Fagerberg, David W. What is Liturgical Theology? A Study in Methodology. Collegeville , Minnesota : The Liturgical Press, 1992.

Hughes, Kathleen. Saying Amen: A Mystagogy of Sacrament. Chicago Il : Liturgy Training Publications, 1999.

Pfatteicher, Philip H. Liturgical Spirituality. Valley Forge , PA : Trinity Press International, 1997.

Pilch, John J. “Walking on the Sea.” Bible Today 36, (2), 1998: p. 117-123.

Power, David N. Unsearchable Riches: The Symbolic Nature of Liturgy. New York :Pueblo Publishing Company, Inc., 1984.

Rhoads, David. “Performing the Gospel of Mark” in Body and Bible; Interpreting and Experiencing Biblical Narratives, Chapter 5: p. 102-119. Philadelphia : Trinity Press International, 1992.

Teasdale, Wayne . The Mystic Heart, Discovering a universal spirituality in the world's religions. Novato , Ca: New World Library, 1999.

Shiner, Whitney. Creating the Kingdom: The Performance of Mark as Revelatory Text. In Literary Encounters with the Reign of God , edited by Sharon Ringe and H. C. Paul Kim, 194 -212. London : T & T Clark International, 2004.

Wainwright, Geoffrey. “The Language of Worship.” In The study of Liturgy, revised edition. Editors: Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ, and Paul Bradshaw, 519 -528. London : SPCK, and New York : Oxford University Press, 1992.