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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.


Mary Sue said...

Hmmm... sounds like fun!

Mr. Bob Horwath, M.A. cMPH said...

Dear Mother,

As a student of Feminist theologies, amongst other things ecclesial and liturgical, I would normally promote a "versus populum" orientation of the presider, but there may be wonderful truths that the people can appropriate with seeing a woman presider face "versus Dominum." I have seen photos of a woman presider doing an Anglican Missal liturgy, facing East, and it was lovely and inspiring--to have women presbyters claim their inheritance as priests after the order of Christ the Priest.

Please post photos or even videos of this. I, and probably most everyone else, would be edified by this.

Thank you, Mother


Fr Timothy Matkin said...

I never thought I'd see the day, but of course, it sounds like a good move to me.

By the way, your picture at the top of this reminds me why figures of the saints should not be overly prominent when compared to the cross or image of our Lord (especially at the high altar). When the priest says, "By him and with him and in him," the celebrant is not talking about St Ignatius.

I would prefer something more like this.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

TP - Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. My goodness but that is, well, hmmmm . . . very impressive.

Robby - we have a 'crack staff photographer' who, I have no doubt, will take TONS of pictures. I'll make sure to post them.

And yes, MS, it does sound like fun. The more I think about it, the more excited I get. Sometimes, I can hardly sit still.

Mr. Bob Horwath, M.A. cMPH said...

Thank you, Mother!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

One of the things that "cemented" my already firm resolve in favor of the ordination of women was being in a liturgy about 20 years ago celebrated by one of my sisters in the Gregorian Way at one of our Convocations. This was in the Founder's Chapel at Graymoor (RC) -- and the founder could be heard rapidly rotating in his tomb just outside the chapel! Anyway, when Sister Clare, facing eastward at the tiny altar with the disturbingly lifelike cherub faces carved into the reredos, reached the point in Prayer B when she referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it suddenly hit me, viscerally: My God, we've made a terrible mistake. ONLY women should be priests, as only a woman can do what Mary did, bringing Christ into the world without the aid of any man, making him really present in the bread and wine as he was in his flesh and blood (HER flesh and blood) so many years before.

I'd been to any number of liturgies with women priests -- I preached at Clare's ordination! -- but this was the first time it hit me that the priest at the altar is not so much Alter Christus as Altera Maria: the bearer of Christ to us.

Lindy said...

well, I don't buy into Tobias Haller's alter Christus or altera Maria either... I want my priest acting as a member of the congregation, one of the baptized. That is why I'm cheering for you. My last priest really should have followed her calling into show business because that's what the mass felt like. And, don't get me wrong, she could belt out the Celtic Alleluia like an angel. But, that's not really the point is it? I hope you'll post your parishioner's responses. And, yea for you on this brave experiment.

Frair John said...

Very cool
i have worshiped both ways and admire the theology of both positions.
I think this is a grand adventure for you and for the rest of us.

klady said...

I think it's great how you've thought about this and presented this. I recall one parish where we did Rite I at the main service, but only for the four weeks of Advent (how's that for mixing things up?). It makes us all be more conscious of what is going on and what all it can and does mean.

I have to admit, however, that the facing the wall part of the East-facing thing used to hit me quite negatively. Part of it is that my first real experience of the Eucharist was just watching it at a Roman Catholic church I regularly attended the last couple years of high school (and boy did that torment my anti-Catholic mother). This was way back in the early Vatican II days and it was a marvellous thing to see in a building where the altar was placed in a circle in the middle. (My first encounters with the Episcopal church were in a similar setting). For them, going back to "versus Dominum" raises all sorts of awful spectres of domination, especially since the Roman Church has since veered course so strongly backwards in other respects.

While my love for Anglo-Catholicism accepts the wall thing as arising from a different context (the Oxford Movement, etc.), that is one aspect of it that personally I find hard to take. I can't help but recall the Roman context where, for many, the notion that the representative of that male hierarchy had to actually start facing them, literally, for the Eucharist and, in that sense, make them the laity feel like part of it all, was and sometimes still is critical. I think Joan Chittister, for example, has written about this.

Sometime back I read Tobias on this and that really opened up my mind on the issue. So, I'm less inclined to get all huffy about it, especially now I see that the rationale can very well be presenting the priest as one of the people (and knowing that there are historical grounds for this approach, which, I presume, is what set the Oxford movement back in that direction).

Nevertheless, I still have the following concerns. First, I believe Tobias spoke about the need to make the Eucharist non-theatrical. I guess I think that all liturgy has a legitimate and probably necessary theatrical element to it and theatre, itself, does not make something less truthful or genuine. The problem is when it is bad theatre (whatever that means). In the realm of liturgical practices, many clergy are not instructed in either the meaning of traditional practices or the way to "perform" them in a way that is intentional and, to at least some, meaningful. So someone who rushes through the Eucharist, perhaps feels and looks bit self-conscious because of being "center stage," may give a bad or at least less than ideal impression to the participants.

Now, most Episcopal priests, by necessity, sooner or later learn to do it both ways and may or may not have a preference for one over the other. The problem I have as one of the persons in the pew is that I really don't care or think in terms of whether the priest feels like she or he is "one of us" facing the altar -- I want to SEE what is going on, I want to see the hands over the elements, I'd like to see them raised, I want to know the moment the bread is broken (and hear it if I can), I want the Presence visible to me. I can't do that through the priest's back.

Now I realize that some of this can be mitigated by some turning back and forth at various times. But I guess the real question to me is whether the folks in the pews really feel more like participants, more like on an equal spiritual footing with the priest, having the priest's back to them? Dunno. Would love to hear what your survey produces.

(BTW, I'm still spitting coffee over my computer over the Jesus in the fridge story. Loved it!)