I wrote recently about the experience of worshiping this year in temporary space because of the chapel fire.
One of the biggest blessings for me in this time has been directional. Our old Chapel was set up, like most Episcopal Churches, so that the entire assembly faced one direction. Before the changes instituted by the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II, even the priest faced the altar, which was mounted on the back wall. I will say, I have worshiped this way, and there is something wonderful about it. When everyone faces the same direction, you feel like you are all walking somewhere together. But, there is another blessing when you turn around and face one another. In our current configuration, we see one another’s faces across the Communion table. As the priest lifts up the bread and wine, we don’t just see these symbols, we see each other.
This has profound theological meaning. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the product and summit of the reform of worship in all of the liturgical churches, stated clearly that Christ is present in the Eucharistic species (read: bread and wine), the word proclaimed, the priest who presides, and in the assembly that “prays and sings.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium I.7) Not only the word proclaimed, not only the bread and wine, not only the priest/minister, but in the assembly. When we pray the epiclesis, the portion of the prayer that asks the Holy Spirit to sanctify the gifts, we don’t just pray for bread and wine. We ask the Spirit to come upon the gathered people. St. Augustine in a sermon on the Eucharist said: “If, therefore, you all are the Body of Christ and His members, your (plural) mystery is presented at the table of the Lord, you all receive your (plural) mystery. To that which you all are, you all answer: `Amen’” The Body of Christ is not something magical that appears for moments under the form of bread and wine when the right words are said. The body of Christ is always present whenever “two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matt 18:20). But I rant.
Some in the Virginia Seminary Community have expressed their distaste for “seeing other people’s faces when I worship.” I think this is a problem. Worship isn’t something we do alone. We can pray alone, but worship isn’t the time for individual prayer. Worship, and especially the Eucharist, are about the mystical body of Christ of which we TOGETHER are members. Seeing each other, we encounter the mystery of Christ.
Our faith comes from a time when the collective, when the village, when the tribe and society were more important than the individual. In this, Christianity is counter-cultural today. Our presiding bishop really set off a firestorm when she made the claim, in her 2009 General Convention opening address, that “the great Western heresy” is individualism, that we can be saved as individuals. The thing is, we’re not. We are not saved alone. We are knit into an active, living, moving body of believers. If we are to worship Christ, we have to look at one another, at least sometimes.
That’s what’s tricky about Christianity, it means we have to work on reconciling one to another. Christianity calls us to deal with the really hard issues and divisions between us. Gathering together, looking at one another while we worship, reminds us that building relationship is hard work. Community is hard work. Love is hard work. But it is the gift of God’s presence among us.