Christ Church, New Haven
The Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
August 30, 2015
For me this has been a wonderful summer. A time of coming together in worship week after week, of strengthening the ties that join us together, and of coming to know each other better. A time of growing in faith and love and trust. Part of the joy of summer has been the presence of children. In many parishes children disappear over the summer. Here they have been a constant presence.
As a priest offering the host to children has been a particular delight. I remember one year in the parish where I was serving when the three to five year olds came in late and rather than go to their parents lined up with their teachers at the altar rail one after another. Each of them had magenta and purple strips of crepe paper tied around their heads—the adults as well. It was very unusual, yet there was pure delight in their abandon. The lesson that week was the wedding feast at Cana, and they had been having a wedding feast of their own. And when they opened hands to receive the host, their hands held bits of paint and glue and even some glitter.
I remember other times when much to chagrin of their parents, it was clear their child had forgotten to wash their hands before getting in the car to go to church—they were gray and grimy. And you’d see these parents preparing to receive communion glance over to the side to look at their children and see their serene glance take on a brief look of horror as they saw the hands. But then they relaxed and I smiled—it was clear God didn’t care. God only cares that they come.
There are many reasons why we wash our hands. The Hebrew people were deeply aware of their call by God to be a holy people. They saw eating as a holy act. In order to partake of this holy act required sacred, not profane hands. There needed to be preparation to handle holy things.
But what had been a simple act of cleansing in preparation for a holy act became washing that had to be done correctly, for its own sake. The fingertips had to be pointing upward. Water need to be poured only down to the wrists. And the fist of one hand needed to be rubbed into the palm of the other. If this wasn’t done correctly, no matter how clean one’s hands actually were, the act was invalid and person remained “unclean”. (1) Obviously there had been a dilution of meaning of the act. An emptiness. The people had lost their reason for doing it.
Jesus named the reality for what it was. "The …Pharisees … looked at the external activity whereas Jesus looked at the heart, the source of activity. They looked to the fulfillment of law and tradition while he looked to love and commitment. They looked at the letter of the law while he looked at its spirit."(2)
We all have many rituals in our lives. While they may be very simple actions, they're important to us. They are experiences that through their repetition and because of what they signify hold deeper meaning than the immediate action. At their best, they can bring us a sense of security, and they can open us up to insight and reflection.
When I explain the Episcopal Eucharist, I always say it engages all our senses. Never more than in Anglo-Catholic worship. We have added to the traditional postures of stand, sit, kneel. We bow. We genuflect. We make the sign of the cross. The actions jolt us out of any complacency we may bring with us. They also bring us into right relationship with God. To bring a blessing upon ourselves awakens devotion. To genuflect, to put our knee to the ground, is both a sign and an enactment of devotion through which we are changed.
I have been among you as Interim Rector three months today. As our liturgy moves from Rite I to Rite II and back over the summer, so do the liturgical roles. Yet I’m learning anew how the acts of devotion deepen my personal devotion. How my physical actions, the bowing, the kneeling, the genuflecting, freshen my grasp of words I have been saying for decades.
God awaits the opening to impact our lives. It is exactly in the midst of the rituals of our lives that the opportunity can come. This is especially true of the ritual of the Eucharist. May I suggest that as you settle into worship, you pray to experience God’s presence. Some days you might be especially aware of the impact of your postures of prayer and adoration. Be attentive to see what words catch your attention, what seems to jump out at you. Be aware of the thoughts that appear in your mind in the midst of the ritual. You might put the book down and let the words wash over you. Experience the power of God, a continual offering beyond anything that we might ask or imagine. A continual offering through which we, and our world, are changed.
Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes “The liturgy begins…as a real separation from the world.” He suggests that in trying to make liturgy understandable to a mythical “modern” man in the street, we have forgotten the importance of this separation. The point of our liturgy is that it underscores separation. It takes us out of our world and ushers us into a strange new world, to show us that, despite appearances, the last thing needed in the world is more of the world out of which we’ve come. (3) The grandeur of the liturgy isn’t found in it being interesting entertainment, or hollow ritual, but in making tangible the Sacred that we cannot otherwise summon.
The difference between meaningless ritual and an experience that draws us beyond ourselves rests with each of us. A respect for the power of ritual, that connects us to a profound truth, can enable us to engage in it fully. To reflect on the experience of participation can tap its transformative power.
The value of the gift of the Eucharist is beyond our ability to estimate or gauge. We enter a different realm in which the mystery of God’s action is accepted and sought. Whether we have prayed the Eucharist for decades or it is a fresh experience, the energy, the power, the healing, the hope, the individual resurrection it offers us in the midst of the mystery is tangible. It is real.
In response to this gift, in the words of the Eucharist prayer, we actively offer and present unto God our selves, our souls, and bodies. Each of us in our communal and individual experience, both salient and profound, come to embody the power of God, to discover it within us and to be a difference, and make a difference in the world we inhabit.
Synthesis: A Weekly Resource for Preaching Proper 17 B August 13, 1997
Pierse, C.Ss.R., Gerry. Diversionary Tactics: Ordinary 22B. Sundays into Silence, Reflections on the Sunday Gospels in the Light of Christian Meditation. Claretian Publications. http://www.bible.claret.org/liturgy/daily/sundays_pierse/cycleB/B_22ndSu
Galli, Mark. Beyond Smells & Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy. Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2008, p. 57.