Friday, January 11, 2008
Facing East: The Great Lenten Experiment
This picture represents my clearest childhood memory of the Celebration of The Eucharist.
I don't ever remember being either repulsed or necessarily inspired by it. God was 'up there, out there' and the priest was leading us to . . . . . . HIM (but, of course).
We were all very clear, then, about who had the authority to decide these things, so no one asked questions or wondered why we did what we did the way we did it. It was just the way it was - like the way Spring always followed Winter.
I'll admit that there was a certain comfort and freedom in that, a certainty and reliability that inspired a sort of quiet confidence and provided a sense of solace and sanctuary in a world which was being rapidly changed by The War in Viet Nam, The Civil Rights Movement and The Feminist Movement.
It also paralyzed a few brain cells and inhibited religious imagination in the process, but this was no "thinking person's religion." We left that up to the Protestants who were, to a person my mother asserted, "educated idiots."
Until Vatican II. Then, everything changed - including the Celebration of the Mass in The Episcopal Church. While some are loathed to admit it, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is a result of the theological considerations which were being discussed in the time after Pope John XXIII opened The Second Vatican Council in 1962 and Pope Paul VI closed it in 1965.
One of the first issues considered by Vatican II was the revision of the liturgy. Vatican II went much further in encouraging active participation of the people than previous Popes had allowed or recommended. The council 'fathers' established guidelines to govern the revision of the liturgy, which included allowing the very limited use of the vernacular (native language) instead of Latin. It also began to shift the theological emphasis from the mystery or transcendent nature of God to the immanent or nearness of God.
A very brief word on that before I continue, because it is important to understand these things and how they were very active in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was in use at the time, and the shift to the 1979 BCP.
The word 'transcendence' refers to the great mystery that is part of the nature of God. God is above, beyond, outside all that God has made. God can never cease to be God nor can anyone become God. Belief in a transcendent God inspires awe, reverence and humility.
The language we use to address the transcendency of God is regal and formal. The liturgical role of the priest, the alter Christus or stand-in for Jesus, like Jesus, leads the people who have gathered to worship God. The nature and character of the priest is not important, so the priest faces God which means his (sic) back is toward the people. This is not a denial of the presence of the people, but rather, the posture of liturgical leadership, the ancient idea of bringing people to God through the intercessions of the priest, the alter Christus, who is our 'great high priest'.
The word 'immanence' refers to the nature of God that is inside all that God has made as well as outside. God is the Sustainer and Preserver as well as Creator, and the source of all power and beauty. Belief in an immanent God leads people to see God in all things - in themselves and others and in all creation. An understanding of the ever-presence of God provides comfort and solace in the midst of our busy, post-modern lives.
The language we use to address the immanence of God is informal and more intimate. The liturgical role of the priest, the alter Christus or stand-in for Jesus, like Jesus, leads the people who are gathered to worship God by facing them, being one among them. This is not a denial of the great mystery of God, but rather the posture of liturgical leadership, bringing people a sense that God is less than a heartbeat away and closer than the next breath they take. It is intended to bring people closer to the full embrace of God in Christ Jesus.
If you've gotten this far, you may be scratching your head and asking, "Yeah, so? Where are you going with this, Elizabeth?"
Well, hang onto your hats, kids and fasten your seat belts. We're going on The Great Lenten Experiment.
Let me explain why.
Bishop Mark Beckwith has set forth a marvelous vision for the next three to five years. You can find it here.
Very briefly, Bishop Mark has set forth a vision of 'The Gates of Hope' and provides us with what he understands to be four core values he has seen at work in our diocese: Worship, Spiritual Formation, Social Justice / Noviolence and Radical Hospitality.
He says this about the Core Value of Worship:
“Enter gates with thanksgiving; go into God’s courts with praise.” Psalm 100.3
Worship gathers and grounds us as individuals and as a community. Worship has the capacity to quicken the souls who come through the “gate of holiness” – and transform them into disciples of hope as they re-enter the world.
He asks us to consider these questions:
• What is your worship designed to do? What is its intention?
• How is the worship experience creating disciples of hope?
• How does each congregation design liturgy that invites the gift of mystagogia (which is the experience of living more deeply into the mystery of the divine hope), and then evaluate it?
• How best to use space, music, silence, language and, movement in the context of worship – for the soul’s health and transformation?
So, that got me to thinking.
+ In this affluent, suburban community of Northern New Jersey, how is it that our experience of worship on Sunday calls us to look beyond ourselves?
+ How, in fact, might our experience of Sunday worship contribute to our insulation and isolation as individuals and as members of a community?
+ How might our use of space, music, silence, language and movement in the context of worship, reinforce the 'rugged individualism' and our fierce reliance on our own intellect and resource?
+ How does our worship invite the gift of mystagogia, to live more deeply into the mystery of divine hope?
Which has led me to invite you into The Great Lenten Experiment. Ready? Here we go.
Beginning February 10, the first Sunday in Lent and throughout the Season of Lent, I will say the Eucharistic Prayer facing east. Well, actually, at St. Paul's, that means southeast, but mostly south. No, we're not going to get into a discussion about the architecture of our sanctuary. It is what it is and it is an excellent example of the architecture of the time. Let's leave it at that, shall we?
Why is it important to face east?
For me, the the importance is held in the power of the east as a symbol of that point of the compass so rich in symbolism all through the sacred Scriptures both the Old and the New Testaments. As far as is possible, all altars face the east, so that all Celebrations of the Eucharist face the east as well. The significance of the east was well known to the early Christians. Like the rising sun, Christ (the Sun of Justice and Light of the world) rose in the early morning on the first Easter Sunday.
The visual impact of the first rays of the rising sun piercing the rich stained-glass windows towards which the priest was offering the Body and Blood of Christ have always been overwhelming to me whenever I've attended Mass in the hush of the early morning. This is also the inspiration and motivation for those who attend "Sunrise Easter Services" to arise even before dawn. It's quite powerful.
While we still have a few of the 1928 Prayer Books tucked away, there are not enough to go around, even for the eight o'clock crowd, and I won't kill another forest by reproducing booklets for the pew, so we'll be using Rite I at the eight o'clock service, which has become part of the traditional Lenten experience for that community.
We'll be using Rite II for the ten o'clock service. As we did last Lent, we will sing the most ancient form of the Creed, "Jesus is Lord, we are the Body of Christ" instead of the Nicene Creed. Every time I lead the congregation in prayer, I will face the altar. The Lector will continue to go into the congregation and face the altar for the Prayers of the People.
I'll be doing an Adult Forum after church on Sunday, January 27 and there will be printed material around which explains what it is we're doing for those who aren't able to attend. This will also be on my Blog and on the St. Paul's Blog and in the next issue of The Epistle.
I'm going to ask you to be very intentional about noticing your reaction as well as your response to this experiment. I'm going to ask as many of you who can to make a commitment to attend both services - at 8 and 10 AM and compare your experiences. I will have copies of a very brief survey which I will leave in the Narthex and ask you to fill out immediately after the service ends. At the end of Lent, I will ask you to respond to the entire experience.
Not to worry. I'm not doing this as a prelude to making a permanent change. I'm doing this to have us all consider the questions asked by our bishop about what is undeniably one of the core values of our community. I'm doing this so we can have a greater sense of balance between the transcendence and immanence of God. I'm doing this so that we can be more intentional about what we do as a community, and why we do it, and to evaluate the effect of our Sunday worship on the rest of our lives.
Because, if the experience of church on Sunday is not connecting you with the rest of your life and that of others, if you do not have an opportunity to enter more deeply into the great mystery that is God, if Jesus isn't transforming your hearts and minds, your souls and bodies through worship, then why bother? You should probably just stay home.
One of the buttons one of our kids once gave me says, "Going to church will not make you a Christian any more than going to the garage will make you a car." Well, that's true, but only in part. Hopefully, the experience of church will inspire and nourish and sustain you to be a Christian in the world all the rest of the week.
So, are you ready? Will you 'Face East' and enter into The Great Lenten Experiment? I think it has the potential to be a great Lenten Discipline which we take on as a community of faith. I'm looking forward to it.
Let us join our bishop in what he calls "A guiding and galvanizing prayer" which he as adapted from a prayer by Victoria Safford:
O God, help us to claim our mission: to stand with the living Christ at the gates of hope. Not the prudent gates of optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges; but a very different, sometimes very lonely place. It is the place of truth-telling, about our own souls first of all and its condition; the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which we see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which we glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle – with the Christ who sets us free; and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we see, asking people what they see. In Christ’s name we pray. -
And, let all God's children say, "Amen."
Update: My dear friend, Tobias Haller, BSG, has written his usual intelligent, thorough piece on this which you can find here.