Liturgy for Lent: Saints and Sanctified Time

Mike: Today is one of the most important Feast days for my own faith. March 24th is the celebration of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the Episcopal Church, marking the day of his martyrdom in 1980. I’ve marched through the streets of San Salvador with friends from the Anglican Church of El Salvador many times to remember the archbishop who stood with the poor. Romero has not yet been officially recognized by the Catholic Church, that is coming later this year, but the Episcopal Church added him to our calendar in 2009. I’ve been thinking a great deal about Feasts, Fasts, and the marking of time. Ellis and I are in Mexico, and on Friday we were at Chichen Itza for the Vernal Equinox. We saw the sun’s shadow make the body of a snake down the side of a temple, designed to help the Mayans mark this time of year for planting, and for worship. It was an amazing sight, and it made me reflect on the way we mark time.

Jason: That reminds me, you gave me one of my favorite t-shirts! On the return from one of your trips to El Salvador you brought me a shirt with Romero’s portrait on the front. Romero is definitely one of my faith heroes, along with MLK, Stringfellow, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard and many others. Growing up in the evangelical community, there were certainly role models within the history of the Church that we respected. But we never talked about sainthood. What do Episcopalians think of “saints”?

Mike: Like most things Episcopalian, it is tricky to talk about whether we have “saints.” We definitely have some saints. Francis, Mary, Joseph and the other New Testament Characters, anyone recognized by the Church before the reformation we tend to still call a “saint.” Others, like Romero, are celebrated with feasts, but we don’t necessarily officially call them saints. I think Madeleine L’Engle, the writer, who was an Episcopalian best stated our attitude towards saints. She said she liked to name her own saints, and among them she counted J.S. Bach and Einstein. Certainly the thick volume Holy Women and Holy Men, which is currently in trial use in The Episcopal Church takes this approach. There are lives which point us to the larger life of God, and we celebrate those lives. One day, when the whole Church of Rome, Canterbury, and Constantinople is reunited, we might settle on a single calendar, but for now, I like L’Engle’s approach. I know some clergy colleagues would disagree with me, but I tend to celebrate the saints that are meaningful for me, and leave the other saints alone.

Jason: When I was at Fuller Seminary, I had a class that required us to pick a “mentor” from Church history. You would read biographies and really study whomever you chose. I got way more out of this assignment than I thought I would (I studied Roland Allen). However you approach saintly stature, I think it’s worthwhile to dive in and really study those we revere in order to see what can be learned from their life and work.

You mentioned the Christian calendar. Let’s talk about this. Why do we still need a Christian calendar?

Mike: The whole concept of the Christian calendar gets us into the idea of “sanctified time.” In our modern day, time can feel a bit static. Besides feeling cold as we walk to the Metro to work, or getting a little bit of a vacation when the weather is warmer, our lives tend to have the same rhythm. We work at computers, many of us, and do the same kind of tasks day in and day out. Now with modern supermarkets, we can even eat whatever kind of produce we’d like year round. That wasn’t always the case. The Christian calendar helps us remember that there are seasons in life. That we move in cycles. Next week is Holy Week. It comes early this year because the cycles of the moon dictate when it comes. To calculate Easter, you have to use a “Golden Number” (see page 880 of the Book of Common Prayer). The Christian calendar helps us remember something that our ancient ancestors knew in their bones. We are not in charge of the time.

Jason: Ooh, that’s good, Mike! Let’s stop with that, “We are not in charge of time.”

Enjoy Mexico, brother.


Liturgy for Lent: Moments of Transition

Mike: Let’s turn for a moment from Eucharist. I think we’ll still do a supplemental post on Eucharistic prayers, but I want to talk about the other moments in the prayer book. If you look at the order of the services in the prayer book, there’s a sense of order that emerges. After the daily office, services start to line up along the trajectory of human life. Baptism is followed by Eucharist. Next comes Confirmation or commitment to Christian Service, Marriage, Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child, Reconciliation (confession), Anointing the Sick, Ministration at the time of Death, and Burial. I always found it funny that after burial came ordination… I’d like to cover the big ones: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and Burial. The prayer book seeks to accompany the faithful through meaningful transitions in life. In the church make the changes in life the liturgical work of faith.

Jason: During the ‘80’s and ‘90’s it became hugely popular in many evangelical churches to organize ministry around stages of life. Over time, this often became a ministry model of siloed age groups. Households went their separate ways upon arriving at church. On the heels of this era, I think what we’ve learned is that marking stages of life is more important than organizing around stages of life. The marking of stages of life is a very ancient, cross-cultural habit that many are rediscovering. And the integration of age groups in church programing is something we’ve found to be true, at least with young adults, in a study we did the Diocese of Washington last year. Mike, can you take us through how this occurs in the Episcopal Church?

Mike: Baptism really helped re-shape the 1979 Prayer Book. The framers of these liturgies wanted us to see baptism as THE initiation into the faith. It’s pretty obvious from the service that they had in mind adult candidates being baptized at the Easter Vigil. However, baptism is still usually performed in infancy in The Episcopal Church. We baptize babies, and their godparents and parents make promises for them. What is new for this prayer book, and has started to influence other churches is the idea of a Baptismal Covenant (pages 304-305). Ancient Christians had to profess the Creed to be baptized. The Baptismal Covenant returns to that pattern, and adds a series of promises about the Christian life to the liturgical work of the candidates. The idea is that we are a people shaped by our baptism. We return to this Covenant again and again in the liturgical year, to remember who we are as a people.

Jason: I baptized my two oldest children in the Pacific Ocean when they each decided they were ready to choose to live by such a covenant. Infant baptism is new for me. Nonetheless, I deeply appreciate how the Baptismal Covenant is framed in the Episcopal Church. It’s all about discipleship!

As you know, Brooke and I are planning to go through Confirmation. Can you unpack Confirmation a little?

Mike: For years Confirmation has been called “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Dr. Lisa Kimball from Virginia Seminary is part of a Lilly funded grant program to study confirmation across several denominations. She wrote a great post about the potential for confirmation in the lives of young people. Still, Confirmation is one of the biggest issues in this prayer book. Lisa points out in her post the contradictions written into the liturgies of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Part of what gives Confirmation life is that it is a ceremony reserved for bishops.  Confirmations can only be performed by a bishop, and the bishop represents the wider church. For most teenagers, and adult converts, confirmation is their first liturgical exposure to the “big church,” that is to the wider body of believers they belong to.

Jason: Lisa is incredible! Glad you sited her. Going back to that word ‘discipleship’ I like that confirmation takes membership in the church family seriously. It isn’t flippant. This is not a social club. It’s much more than that. It’s a way of life. As a priest, what is one of these stage-of-life marking moments that you appreciate the most?

Mike: One of the gifts of being a priest is getting to preside at weddings. I’ve really enjoyed that part of the work, and I’m really looking forward to where our denomination is going this summer around opening the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. There is one moment in our service that I think captures the sense of a liturgical wedding. Just after the bride and groom consent to take each other as husband and wife, the celebrant turns to the whole congregation. She asks, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” The congregation responds enthusiastically (if the celebrant coached them well at the rehearsal): “We will.” This moment captures the whole idea of liturgy. It helps us to understand that yes, marriage is in some ways a private relationship, but we bless marriages in public because there is a public dimension. We need one anothers’ support and prayers. I remember seeing newly married friends of ours sit on your porch when we used to live in San Diego. They were looking for you advice as someone who had been married awhile. Now that I’m married, I’ve turned to you more than once for pointers. Marriage helps us understand that the big moments in Christian life need the support of community. Marriage is public work.

Jason: After you left the east coast, Brooke and I found ourselves in a new place with zero community. (No guilt trip intended, friend) It was certainly one of the hardest moments in our marriage until we started developing a new circle of friends in DC. It does take a community to build a marriage. I’ve seen isolation kill more marriages than I’d like to admit. What you articulated, Mike, is one of the great gifts of being married within a Christian community. I could go on about this but let’s move on! We’ve talked about some of the happier moments of life that Church marks for us. What else?

Mike: Walking together through illness and death can be a profoundly sacred journey. When people ask why they should join a church, I often want to say “if you don’t, and you end up sick, who will visit you in the hospital?” I often come up with another reason or two to share first, because this comes off a little morbid. But I think it is one of the most important gifts of a faith community. We are a people who acknowledge that this life is finite, that suffering and sickness are real. We have faith that death is not the end of the story, that life continues in God. In moments of sickness and death, liturgy helps makes meaning of confusing and frightening life circumstances. In the burial liturgy we pray the ancient prayer, “Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Praying liturgy together through loss can help us make meaning, and remember our faith.

Jason: Amen.

Liturgy for Lent: 8 Essential Actions for Eucharist

Mike: In the last post, we poked the bear. Jason, you asked whether the Eucharistic prayers needed to be read verbatim. People responded, a lot.

Jason: Thanks to everyone for the feedback over social media. It’s nice to know that this is a dialog that folks care about.

Mike: I’m convinced we need to be able to adapt the language if we don’t want liturgy to become a museum-piece, but I was persuaded by Jason in the first post on Eucharist that actions often speak louder than words. Today, with the help of the “Order for Celebrating The Holy Eucharist,” we present eight essential actions for Holy Eucharist.

Action 1: Gather in the Lord’s Name

Mike: Gathering the Community, in my opinion, should consume more of our energy than worship planning. “Change the liturgy (or music) and they’ll come” has been our default for too long. Our congregations still don’t reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods in terms of race, class, gender, orientation, and age. We have work to do in gathering the community.

Jason: Mike and I frequently talk about how important community organizing skills are for leading congregations. If we intend to minister to our communities we need to first know them. Building community from the outside in will change the face of our congregations.

Hack (from Mike): Who is leading worship? Maybe your congregation isn’t that diverse, but do you have a few young people, a few people of color who you can invite to serve, to read, to join the choir to put on the fancy robes? Model the diversity you hope for your community up front. It says to people in the minority: there is a valued place for you here.

Action 2: Proclaim and Respond to the Word of God

Mike: Eucharist always involves hearing and responding to scripture. Eucharist always involves hearing a lesson from the Gospel proclaimed. After the proclamation, there are very few rules about what the response to the text looks like. A lot of Episcopalian friends of mine probably get nervous that the prayer book is encouraging dance, talk, and other forms of art, to respond to scripture, but here it is, from 1979.

Jason: There’s a reason why we read passages from all over the Bible every week. Those that composed the framework of our liturgy–as well as those that compiled the canon of Scripture–believed that these books “harmonized” with each other. That is to say, they sing the same song, participate in telling the same over-arching story.

Hack (from Jason): If you’re providing a homily, don’t get bogged down in one passage, and don’t avoid the hard one’s. Ask yourself what the common message is across each of the passages for that day. And don’t forget that this precedes the Eucharist. How might these passages lead us to prepare us to come together around the Table? Keep it simple. Tell stories. Be practical. If you can do that then you’ll come across smarter than those trying to sound smart.

Action 3: Pray for the World and the Church

Mike: Eucharist always makes room to pray together, to give thanks together. There are official forms for the prayers of the people. They can be adapted. There is a list of categories of required prayer on page 383 that can be really helpful when writing or adopting prayers.

Jason: This can be such a meaningful and engaging aspect of the service for me. It can also be an invitation for those that need attention to hijack the service. Offering clear direction and encouraging brevity is really important here.

Hack (from Mike): In a smaller congregation, I used to write out prayers for each of the categories in the Prayer Book and cut them up on slips of paper, with directions on each slip. When it came time for the Prayers of the People, the prayers would bubble up from around the room. This also helped people feel invited to pray out loud for their own needs.

Action 4: Exchange the Peace

Mike: The peace can be really embracing, or very isolating. In some congregations, peace can become “half-time” lasting upwards of ten minutes. Newcomers greet their neighbors in the pew and then feel isolated while conversations happen between long time friends. Peace is meant to be sacramental, a sign of God’s love shared in community. Attention to the outsider is important.

Jason: Remember the theme song from, Cheers? We all want to be known. By name.

Hack (from Jason): Make it a point to offer the peace and learn the name of one visitor at every service. But don’t stop there. Introduce them to at least one other person. Outsiders are more likely to return if they are genuinely welcomed and feel as if they are known on that first visit.

Action 5: Prepare the Table

Mike: This is a moment of transition. We prepare the table by presenting our gifts of bread and wine, and our gifts of money. We offer all that we have and are to God in Eucharist, and here when enact the offering.

Jason: Many traditions have unintentionally embedded a lot of guilt into preparation to come before the Table. I think that confession, which comes earlier, is a great leveler. We’ve all fallen short of who we are intended to be. As I said before, no one is better than the other as we approach the Table. At the same time, we all bring gifts of the same worth. How to acknowledge this best seems to be a case-by-base basis. You have to know your community, your context.

Hack (from Mike): I wonder whether we might expand the use of the offering plates. Yes, money should be offered, but what about pledges of time, requests for prayer, email address changes, newcomer cards. The congregation I belonged to in Tegucigalpa included some Garifuna, a culture that blends African Diaspora and Indigenous ancestry and tradition. Garifuna women often danced the offering plates forward. Could a size-able minority make such an offering of culture in your congregation?

Action 6, 7, and 8: Make Eucharist, Break the Bread, Share the Gifts of God

Mike: Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican monk and liturgist agreed with Jason. Action is key he said. Dix said that in scripture and ancient practice there is a four-fold shape to Eucharist. Four actions: Take, Give Thanks, Break, Share. “Take” was covered above when the presider receives the gifts and prepares the table. “Make Eucharist” is about Giving thanks. Eucharist directly translated means “Good Thanks.” The people respond with Amen! (My Hebrew professor said the best translation of Amen was “True that.”) The bread is then broken and shared. We’ll do a supplemental detail post on the traditional elements of the Eucharistic Prayers, but I thought Jason you’d like the focus on action here.

Jason: After this, we pray “… Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart …” This is so important! What we just celebrated is intended to shape how we go back into the world. The Grace we have just participated in is what we are to be to our loved ones, neighbors, colleagues, enemies. Connecting the worship service to our everyday lives seems to be a critical aspect in making it actually worthwhile. Why would I participate in this weekly ritual if I didn’t think it mattered to the rest of the week? Everything that follows the “ministration of Communion” is intended to communicate this. But make sure that it is.

Hack: in our next post, we’ll talk about the Eucharistic prayer in detail, and hacks to make it come alive throughout the week for people.