A House of Meanings: Christian Worship in Plain Language by Juan Oliver

The Rev. Juan Oliver, liturgist, author, and Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer, has given the Church a wonderful gift – a book about worship that is compelling and one that asks us to engage our own memories about Holy Week, baptism, and the Holy Eucharist, among others.  The book is intended to serve as a study guide for clergy and parishioners who desire to learn more about liturgical elements in the Church, preferably beginning such a study of Palm Sunday and then continuing through the Great Fifty Days of Easter.  Early on Fr. Oliver tells us that he is “bringing out from storage….the meanings of worship to us, the Christian community over the earliest centuries for you to engage in dialogue with the sources of our tradition.” HOM, p. 5

In the chapter about Holy Week Father Oliver asks us to reflect on our experiences of Holy Week services. What did we notice? What would we miss if we didn’t participate?  In describing the liturgies of Holy Week he calls on the writings of the early Church fathers and mothers.   Egeria’s account of Palm Sunday and Good Friday from around the year 380 CE is most stirring.  

From Holy Week Fr. Oliver takes us to baptism.  The description of baptisms in the early Church are fascinating and makes one wonder what we have done with the practice and theology of baptism in our current time.  Many of us have no memory of our own baptisms and we are much the poorer for it.  

An extensive discussion of the Holy Eucharist follows.  The chapter is titled:  Talking and Eating with God.  Hearing from Justin the Martyr, Alexander Schmemann, and the Didache give us a good idea of eucharistic practices in the early Church.  Then our current practice is broken down into the many different parts of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.  

After chapters on ordination, marriage, and anointing of the sick, Fr. Oliver’s last chapter: The Uprising of Jesus Christ – The Church, Its Mission, and Culture challenges societal assumptions about Christianity and the Church.  He states that “over the last few decades, we [the Church] are often seen as suspect of being either stupid, bigoted, credulous, or just plain obnoxious or offensive.  We are at a crossroads, and must ask ourselves, what is the Church? What is it for?” HOM, p. 154.  He goes on to talk about how the Church has been understood over the years, and what it is supposed to be.  He tackles, in an accessible way, the issues relating to  the Church in cultures other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestant communities.  Personally, I found this chapter to be stimulating.  He asks: “If our worship expresses what and who we are as a community of the Reign of God, how might it do so better, in more transparent and culturally appropriate ways?”  HOM, p. 164.  He returns us to the original meaning of “liturgy” which speaks to “public works done in service to the community.”  

We wholeheartedly recommend this book as a reference for those designing liturgies for their parishes and as the starting point for a fascinating group study.