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The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Body Language in Worship


Recently I was trying to put together a brief welcome brochure for folks who are visiting St. Matthew's, and I wanted to say something about all the physical gestures we use, so I did the obvious (to me) thing, and did a Google search. I ran into the blog post below (it comes from Holy Cross Episcopal Church of Weare, New Hampshire), which seems to cover the basics nicely.

As you read it, you will probably notice subtle differences between their practice and what we do at St. Matthew's. I think that's OK. We really do not have an "Episcopal Liturgy Police" that will make trouble for you if you cross yourself at the wrong time—or even go the other direction according to the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church! The ending advice of Holy Cross is good: Be reverent; don't disrupt the worship of others or call attention to yourself; let this be an outward expression of your inward devotion.

Body language

Someone coming to from another denomination remarked, “The thing I like about it here is people are free to do different things at church: sit, kneel, stand, cross themselves, bow or not.” We do have that kind of flexibility. But sometimes people want a bit of guidance in feeling their way to what works for them in worship. So here’s an attempt to provide that.

First of all, the ground for what follows is a reminder that we worship with our bodies, not just with our minds and hearts. Just as Jesus was God “embodied” in human flesh, so we are spirits in flesh. If you’ve ever watched people of other cultures dance or move in worship—Africans, Latin Americans, gospel choirs—you get the idea. Some of us are more comfortable with that than others, but exploring a little movement is something we all can try.

Standing, sitting, kneeling. The old rule in the Episcopal Church used to be stand to sing, sit to listen, kneel to pray. But scholars of worship have told us that until the Middle Ages people stood to pray, often raising their arms to heaven (as the priest does at the Altar, and as is common in the charismatic tradition). So now the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer generally lists standing before kneeling when giving the options for prayer. Standing is more a corporate posture; kneeling a privatized one. Standing is also the customary posture during the reading of the gospel lesson. Of course, sitting is most comfortable for those with disabilities—and it’s just fine.

Crossing yourself. Here again, it’s a matter of what works for you. Making the sign of the cross is a way of expressing bodily the love of Jesus on the Cross for us. It’s done in the Western Christian tradition by taking the fingers of the right hand and touching, in order, forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, and (optional) chest again. A safe practice for beginners is to cross yourself whenever the priest crosses him or herself and when he or she blesses you or signifies the forgiveness of your sins by making the sign of the cross over you. When the gospel is proclaimed, it is also the custom to make a little cross gesture with just your right thumb over your forehead and your lips (signifying that you believe the gospel in your mind and will proclaim it with your mouth). There are a few times in the Eucharist or Mass where you may see people making the sign of the cross when it is no longer deemed appropriate. These times are at the Benedictus (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”)—because it’s Jesus who is blessed here, not you; at the mention of the resurrection of the dead in the Creed—the sign of the cross here is a superstitious relic to ward off death; and at the conclusion of the Gloria in excelsis. There are, finally, a few places where you might want to make the sign of the cross when the priest doesn’t: notably when you receive Communion. And, of course, making the sign of the cross is often a part of private prayer, at meals or bedtime—or even before attempting a free throw! Again, if it’s helpful to you, go for it—just be reverent in your gestures as you would be in your words and thoughts.

Bowing, genuflecting. Two other gestures of reverence are used in worship. The first is bowing, which properly should be a real bending at the waist, not a token nod of the head. This is a gesture of reverence traditionally given to the cross, especially when carried in procession at the beginning or ending of a service, and to the Altar, when entering or leaving the church or moving towards or past the Altar. Genuflecting means bending the knee, again more than just a little bob if your joints permit. It is the traditional gesture of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament (the consecrated Bread and Wine). When the Sacrament was reserved behind the Altar, people would genuflect to it there; that gesture tended to carry over as one of reverence to the Altar when the place of reservation was moved to another site, but technically it is appropriate to genuflect only when approaching the Altar on which consecrated Bread and Wine are actually present.

Having written all this, it should be stressed again that fussiness is to be avoided in body language; the aim is achieving a harmony of body, mind and heart. Also remember that when we worship in a congregation, it is not appropriate to do ostentatious or disruptive gestures that might interfere with others’ worship or call attention to ourselves. That goes among other things for the way we exchange the Peace of Christ in the Eucharist. Read other people’s body language and adapt your own to theirs when exchanging the Peace with them!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sacred Space¹

Humans are amphibians … half spirit and half animal … as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.
—C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
I love that Lewis quotation, partly because it sums up so neatly who we are as Episcopalians and as Christians. We're neither/nor; we're both/and.

I offend and startle some by saying that, in a sense, we are far less cerebral and spiritual than many other Christian groups. What I mean is this: In many other traditions, worshipers are asked to pray silently, to imagine things, and to do things "in their spirit." I used to be part of a church where we would sing many songs about bowing our heads, getting down on our knees, and even, occasionally, about prostrating ourselves. If anyone had actually done any of that on a Sunday morning, it would have created quite a stir. We were supposed to (in the words of the pastor) "kneel in our spirit."

The Episcopal Church, like most liturgical churches, is incredibly active and incredibly physical. We stand, sit, kneel, bow, and cross ourselves. People carry things around. We light candles. Many of us will not simply sit down when we first enter the room—we bow first. And we bow again as we go up those steps to get to the place where the lectern is. We get in a line and walk up to the front of the room. We eat and drink. People wear special clothing of several different types. If you have never been part of a church before and wish to join, someone will put water on your head. If you are sick, someone will make the sign of the cross on your forehead with oil. In a couple of weeks, with great ceremony, we will remove all the decorations from the room, only to bring them back in a couple of days later. (As a relative newcomer to the Episcopal Church, I was astonished on my first Easter morning when someone started an enormous fire in the back of the room before anything else happened.)

All of this gets back to the C.S. Lewis quotation: Unlike the angels, we are both spirit and flesh, and it makes sense to get both the spirit and the flesh involved in the business of worship.

What's Holy?

We wouldn't prefer it, but using a common coffee mug for Eucharist in place of a special chalice would not seem like a sacrilege. But is it OK to use the Communion Chalice as a candy dish?

I've been to conferences where a cafeteria table was used as an altar, but is it OK to use the altar for a craft project?

If you were horrified by the idea of the chalice as a candy dish or the altar as a craft table, that's your sense of the sacred kicking in. There's nothing wrong, really, with either candy or craft projects, but the chalice and altar have been set aside for something different. (That's the root meaning of sacred.) In a sense, they belong to God's service now. Find something else to fill with candy.

Where's Holy?

In the Old Testament, the Temple was arranged as a series of concentric courtyards. There was the world outside. The first real "temple" item was the "court of the Gentiles," which anyone could enter. Inside that, an area for ritually clean Jews. Inside that, an area for priests. And at the center of the whole, the "holy of holies," which only the High Priest could enter, and only once a year.

For more than a thousand years, Christian church architecture has echoed that arrangement:
  • Narthex is the outer vestibule. (Historically, it was the place where the unbaptized and those who needed to do penance could listen in on the service without actually participating.)
  • Nave is the room where most of the people gathered. (The name really does refer to ships, possibly because the roof beams look like inside of a ship, turned upside-down. We're all in the same boat.)
  • Chancel is the place for the altar and the people who have special responsibilities there. In some traditions (and in our own if you go back a few centuries), the division between nave and chancel wasn't just a low fence; it was a solid wall. (Sister Nadine mentioned the other day that it's quite recent for women to be allowed beyond that dividing line.)
The point here is not that God's presence is limited to one location. It's always been possible to pray in a fishing boat or workshop or family home. The point is rather to say something about the "otherness" of God. For a human being to enter His presence isn't quite like walking into a classroom or an inn.


All this talk of holiness (especially the part about the wall between the nave and the chancel) emphasizes the strange, unwelcoming nature of God's presence, but there's also the "still, small voice" heard by Elijah (1 Kings 19:12). That's the other side of "sacred space." I like the way the movie A Series of Unfortunate Events defined "sanctuary":
Sanctuary is a word which here means a small safe place in a troubling world. Like an oasis in a vast desert or an island in a stormy sea.

¹I'm supposed present a teaching on February 25 at our weekly Lenten Preparation session. This is the first part of that teaching.

²By the way, if you are new to the Episcopal Church, the best way to figure out what to do is simply to watch the priest. And don't get too obsessed with it. Nobody will notice if you don't cross yourself at the right moment.

Liturgical Colors*

In the words of Robin Williams, one of the ten best things about the Episcopal Church is that the year is color-coded. The idea isn't unique to us; many other traditions have a changing color scheme for such things as clerical vestments, altar cloths, and the like, but the colors differ from ours.

I don't want to get into the history behind these colors (you can find a good discussion in this blog), but things can get pretty complex, especially in the larger churches that have daily services. The list below is just the basics

Through the church year by color

Advent: The traditional color is blue, Mary's color. (If you are in an art museum and you see a painting with a woman who is wearing blue, chances are that it's Mary.) In some places you see purple as the color of Advent because it's the color of royalty and Christ is the king who is coming. (Purple can also be a money-saving strategy: in the Middle Ages, blue dye was very expensive, and even today, not every church can afford all the extra vestments and cloths that only get used four times a year.) Some churches use pink for the third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete Sunday).

 Christmastide: Not just Christmas day, but the entire season until Epiphany, the color is white, the color of celebration, joy, and peace.

Epiphany: Green, the color of of revelatory experience.

Lent: Many churches use purple, the color of penitence. We follow an ancient tradition and use something called Lenten Array, sort of an undyed sackcloth, to recall the tradition of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.

Holy Week: Red, the color of excitement and energy.

Good Friday: Black, the color of deep sorrow.

 Easter: The color is white, the color of celebration, joy, and peace.

Pentecost: Red, the color of excitement and energy. Red also recalls the flames of the Holy Spirit that rested upon the Apostles in the Upper Room.

Ordinary Time: Green, the color of of revelatory experience. By the way, "ordinary" does not here mean "mediocre." It's related to the idea of counting—we're counting the days and learning about Christ. This is, after all, where we spend most of our lives.
*This is the second part of my Thursday talk concerning Holy Spaces.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shrove Tuesday

So today is Shrove Tuesday, and for a couple of background reasons, we're not having our traditional church pancake supper. I miss it.

This is traditionally the last blow-out before the somewhat dreary season of Lent, and also the time when frugal housewives would get rid of expensive ingredients they couldn't use during the season of fasting. So if you have eggs, butter, and sugar, why not make pancakes?

I might do pancakes on Thursday. (Don't let the authorities know!) Today for lunch was leftover chili from Sunday's contest and my first attempt at a home-made tortilla. The tortilla was pretty terrible, but I can always try again. Tonight is steak with a nice red wine, so the tradition of a "last blow-out" will continue.

I rather like the idea, new to me, of a church year in which the seasons actually mean something. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I'm still new enough to the whole idea that ashes on my forehead is a new and somewhat disturbing big deal. I think this will only be my third or fourth Ash Wednesday service. My previous tradition gave a lot of credit to the notion that "every day is the same," to the extent of singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" in January, but this new-found attention to church seasons and traditions makes me feel like I'm part of some sort of divine drama or dance.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Such a Big Deal

Sunday was the 25th anniversary of our priest's ordination. As usual, I was not prepared for what a big deal this would be. Dozens of visitors showed up, including the Bishop. We had dinner for 75 (40 is our usual attendance). There was a profusion of clerical garb and robes—most of the Episcopalians in some form of white with a lot of decoration, while our UCC friend was in dove grey. We had special music and special food and gifts.

I'm not used to all this.

Perhaps I'm not used to it because my family played down birthdays and anniversaries, rarely celebrating anyone's birthday after childhood.

Perhaps I'm surprised by ecclesiastical celebration because of my previous church experience. Before St. Matthew's, I was in a church where people joined up by simply asking for their names to be put in the church directory. That was it. And that's why I almost missed my own Confirmation—it came at an inconvenient time in my schedule, and I wondered why I should cut my vacation short just to return to Ohio and stand up during the church announcements. Little did I realize that Bishop Williams would be there and that Confirmation counts as a Very Big Deal indeed. Gifts, photos, decorated cake and the whole nine yards.

I could get used to this. There's a lot of celebration in the New Testament, particularly when Jesus comes to town. And these celebrations make the point that my life is significant and so is my history with God and with the Church. Good to remember.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Afraid of the Church

I spent last weekend at the 2016 Diocesan Winter Convocation in Sandusky, Ohio. It was a great weekend of old friends, good food, and deep thinking—with the added benefit that it isn't actually a decision-making body, so we didn't vote (or argue) about anything.

I came away with a brain full of ideas, but one selection of thoughts stands out.

Anyone who reads newspapers, listens to the TV news, or spends time on Internet news sites has gotten a truckload of words about Christians in general, and (at least for a week) the Episcopal Church in particular. It's not good. We Christians come across in the news articles as a disagreeable bunch who don't like one another, who don't believe in science, and who are in the business of supporting political candidates. Then there's the whole gay business. To listen to the news reports, one would think that the whole Gospel is summed up in "support heterosexual marriage and hate gay people." (I think that's a misrepresentation of even the most conservative churches' view, by the way.) Then there's the news (again somewhat misrepresented in the popular press) that the Episcopal Church USA got into some sort of trouble with the international body for supporting gay marriage.

Back to the roots

An outsider, looking at all this, has a right to feel uneasy, maybe even frightened. And yet, God draws people to himself, all the time. People aren't necessarily looking for the Episcopal Church; they are looking for God. If we can remember that priority, and remember, that for all our fine buildings, ancient words, and fancy robes, we are—at our best when we remember our true mission—a way for people to find God through Jesus Christ.

Then there's the Fear Factor. It takes a lot for people to walk into a church, especially if they haven't been there much before. Newcomers who are returning to the Episcopal Church they knew as children aren't quite as ill at ease, but those who are total newcomers know absolutely nothing about what they are supposed to do, what is expected of them, and how they can avoid looking like idiots. (Remember the prominent political candidate who recently, apparently on his second or third visit to a Presbyterian Church in decades, mistook the plate of Communion bread for an offering plate when it came down the row, and dropped some money in it.)

We sit, we stand, we kneel, we cross ourselves. Most of us know enough about the Sunday liturgy to do the responses from memory. When all those people go up to the altar rail, we all know what to do. It's frightening to the outsider. One speaker at the convocation asked how comfortable we would be if we decided to visit a mosque for prayers. Or a synagogue.

So much of it is just housekeeping! I can name two or three churches that don't have an obvious front door! And what does it matter if I'm kneeling to pray while you are sitting and the person next to you is standing?

So one final take-away from that conference is simply to put ourselves in the place of the newcomer and try to see things with fresh eyes.