Monday, September 17, 2012

Why I am an Episcopalian – Liturgy

Every Christian communicant volunteers for translation into the supernatural order, and is self-offered for the supernatural purposes of God. The Liturgy leads us out toward Eternity, by way of the acts in which [we] express [our] need of God and relation to God. It commits every worshipper to the adventure of holiness, and has no meaning apart from that.
         – Evelyn Underhill

As has been the case with many others, one of the things that drew me into the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition was the liturgy.

I was taken with the beauty of the poetry and drama of it all. Here was worship in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2).

There was a sense of majesty and mystery. There was room for wonder. There was a sense of being caught up in the glory of God who was transcendent yet incomprehensibly near.

Though I had grown up going to church and have much to be thankful for in that heritage, I remember feeling like I was worshiping for the first time.

The liturgy directed my attention away from myself – including my obsessive questioning – and focused it on the mystery and wonder of God. It wasn't about my felt needs or conscious concerns. It was about my need to get out of and beyond myself and into 'the bracing atmosphere of God' (Evelyn Underhill).

Related is the way the liturgy emphasized the communal over the individual. For one thing, it wasn't about whatever the pastor or worship team cooked up for a given Sunday, but something more enduring. Even more, it was about common worship–the people gathered together to offer petitions, thanksgiving, confession, and worship. I remember being struck by how different were the prayers of the people which called on the participation of the people from the pastor-centered prayers I had grown up with.

And because the liturgy is less pastor/preacher centered, there were multiple avenues for the Holy Spirit to get my attention. The sermon might be good or bad, the hymns might be wonderful or just OK, the receiving of Communion might be more or less profound, but generally the Spirit would break through somewhere. Or it might be at the recitation of the Creed, or the Confession/absolution, the passing of the peace, or some phrase or idea in the Eucharistic Prayer. Certainly, now that I am a regular preacher and celebrant, it is freeing to know that it doesn't all hang on whether I am 'on' as a preacher on any given Sunday.
Receiving the bread into my outstretched hands and sipping wine–wine!– from a common cup reinforced all of this. And wine. I remember feeling it infusing my chest as I swallowed. So different from the shot glass of communion grape juice I had grown up with. There was an awareness of its potency. And, indeed, the idea that Christ was somehow really present in the bread and wine was potent indeed. The mystery of God was made mysteriously tangible. The weekly Eucharist became and remains a central and essential aspect of my piety.

I appreciated the weekly recitation of the story of salvation contained in the Eucharistic Prayer.

I was moved by the history represented and the sense of worshiping with the Church of the ages.

I was also moved by the full-sensory aspect of worship which included sight, sound, smell, and taste.

Kneeling for confession and the Eucharist were profoundly instructive.

So was adopting the sign of the cross. Thomas Howard wrote, “By making the sign of the cross, on our head, breast, and shoulders, we acknowledge ourselves to be crucified with Christ, in our thinking, our affections, and our actions.”  I came to think of it as a sort of physical “Amen.” 

Liturgy does not guarantee holiness or spiritual vibrancy. Certainly one can find Episcopal churches (or Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran) that, on the surface at least, give little evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. And it would be misleading to claim that every time I participate in liturgical worship I am aware of a profound spiritual experience. But, then, the liturgy reminds me that it is not really about my experience anyway. I do know that over time I have been formed and transformed by participation in the liturgy.

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