Ours is a liturgical church – some notes on why we do what we do

Posted by & filed under Grace Notes, Voice of the Clergy.

Fr. Carlton Kelley

By The Rev. Carlton Kelley
(Part I of II)

It has been said that worship is at the very core of our being.  It is something we as humans feel the need to do – to reach out beyond ourselves in awe and reverence.  To whom or what we give this kind of devotion will determine how we relate to the world and one another.  If we worship money, prestige, power and its accompaniments, then most of our energies will be spent acquiring more of the same to the detriment of everything and everyone else.  However, while Christians are by no means immune to false worship and the building of elaborate idols, we know our better natures cry out to worship only God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We long to praise the One in whom we find our true identity.  As St. Augustine reminds us, ”Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Our worship as Episcopalians, and members of the Anglican Communion, takes a particular form as we are a liturgical church observing a liturgical year which calls us to remember the events of our Lord’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, and eternal reign. The word liturgy is from the Greek word which means work done on behalf of others.  In our time, it has come to be understood as the work of the people of God, principally our prayer and worship.

The words which order our liturgies are known as the Rite.  The word ritual refers to words, not actions.  Thus, Rite II is worship in the Book of Common Prayer in contemporary and beautiful English. The word ceremony refers to the actions which surround our words or ritual.  Ideally these manual acts and movements will illustrate and illuminate rather than obscure and hinder what is being said.  These are sanctified symbols that open to us a world of understanding and experience far beyond mere knowledge.  One may account them as poetry.

Making the sign of the Cross is probably the most recognized manual act performed by Christians.  This sign recalls to mind whose we are and under whose dominion we live first being imposed on the forehead of the newly baptized.  When “Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit” begins our worship it is appropriate to make the sign of the Cross as it is at the end of the Glory to God in the Highest and at the end of the Creed – and the life of the world to come –  as well as other places. Of course these actions are completely voluntary yet are part of many people’s personal piety.  It is, of course, not a magical sign but a remembrance of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection.

The frequent use of a Processional Cross and Torches to lead the formal participants into a liturgical space, a practice adapted from ancient Roman legions, is a reminder that we follow this sign of faith and he who gave his life on it “for us and our salvation.” The torches are ways to honor this Cross and may be understood to be signs of Christ’s humanity and divinity as are the ones on or at the Altar.

As beautiful as many of these crosses are, we should remind ourselves that the Cross of Christ was neither beautiful nor inspirational.  The book from which the Gospel is read is honored in the same way as we believe Jesus speaks to us directly in these words. This is why we stand for the Eucharistic gospel.  Often these books are richly bound and are art works in themselves.

You may have noticed that people bow when the Processional Cross passes or do so at the Altar before taking their seats. This is an ancient symbol of respect given to important persons.  The altar and Blessed Sacrament are principle signs of the Lord’s presence.  Genuflecting, bending the knee, is another of those postures taken from the practice of royal courts and is thought to be Spanish in origin.  At the end of the Great Thanksgiving the Presiding Priest or Bishop may bow or genuflect to our Lord present in the now consecrated Eucharistic Elements.  If Bread or Wine remains after the Communion of the People, it is to be reverently consumed or taken to the Ambry, essentially a safe, to be kept for the communion of the sick or the devotion of the people.  The presence of the Blessed Sacrament is signified by a candle often placed in a red container near the Ambry or Tabernacle. In this special way, Christ is always with us and is to be treated with the utmost care and respect.

In our worship space it is hard to miss the presence of the Baptismal Font at the front doors.  It is here that we are born to newness of life having died to self in order to live with Jesus Christ for the world. Our individual baptisms are not empty gestures devoid of meaning, but a powerful sacrament that gives what is signified. Baptism gives new life through the Holy Spirit. Holy Baptism is most definitely not magic, but full of God’s mystery. We are called to live into this mystery of life out of death and hope from despair given by ‘whom all things were made.”  One of the most important ways we do this is by faithful and regular participation in the Holy Eucharist for which our baptism has prepared us and sets the stage, as it were, for us to receive Holy Communion.  From the earliest times, the Church has believed Holy Baptism to be an absolute requirement for reception of the Holy Eucharist and continues to be required by the Canon Law of the Episcopal Church, something which all the ordained are sworn to uphold because these laws are a result of our theology.  They are not given to us to restrict but to properly enable the work and discipline of the church. Holy Baptism is the essential rite of initiation into Christ’s Body.  Holy Communion is the essential means whereby we are refreshed in our commitment to the Lord.   If we have not been baptized, we have nothing to renew and refresh.  It is a common, though unfounded, assumption that people who may not receive Holy Communion are not being spiritually fed.  They are being fed with the rich milk of the Holy Scriptures, the sermon, and the interaction with God’s holy people.

While all people are God’s children, Christians alone are a “peculiar” people who with the Jewish people have been set apart by God through the call of one particular man, Abraham, and one particular people, Israel, for the ongoing redemption of the world which has been accomplished in and by Jesus Christ.  While others may share in the transformation of the world by acts of kindness and peace witnessing to the dignity of every human being, it is we who have been specifically called for this purpose. This is what has been called the scandal of particularity. (For further reading, see C.S. Lewis On Miracles)  This status is not given for our glorification but for the glorification of God alone.  As St. Paul reminds us, we have no boast to make except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God, in God’s sovereign will, has chosen this means to accomplish the redemption of the world.

Link to Part II:  Repetition & ritual allow us to live deeply into the mysteries of faith

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