The Gathering of the People of God
Part II in A Series of Articles on our Liturgical Heritage
SOME OF US know a secret. I’ll let you in on it. Arriving for worship a few minutes early allows us time to settle-in, to loosen the yoke of responsibilities and tasks that have pulled us along during the week just past, and to simply bask in the aesthetic pleasures of the organ prelude. Not so long ago the idea of taking time to prepare for worship was understood as a norm in Anglican worship. However, it seems that the complexities of modern times have convinced us that we must cram as much activity as possible into every minute of every day, even Sunday. The notion of simply “being still” has come to be viewed as a spiritual luxury few can afford, or even a waste of precious time. I recall the words of the Dean of the Cathedral parish where I took my confirmation instruction many years ago who said, “Before worship we talk to God, during worship God talks to us, after worship we talk to one another.” Still makes sense to me.
But, even though there is spiritual value in allowing the organ prelude to assist us in becoming “centered” and freed from the distractions of other demands, that benefit is only secondary to the prelude’s main role and purpose. The organ prelude is actually the beginning of our worship. Since ancient times when the faithful made music with ram’s horns, cymbals and harps, worship of God has been understood to include music that is non-verbal. Once the organ music begins, it signals the gathering of the people for worship, the “work of the people” that is so central to our life together. Throughout centuries Christians have understood worship to be an act that joins together the living and the dead, the church expectant with the church triumphant, gathering into one all those who have been joined with Christ, through time and space, to offer praise and adoration to the Lamb who was slain. In and through worship we enter with the saints into deeper communion with the Triune God. And, while that description may sound like poetic hyperbole, our worship is nothing less.
Perhaps the grandeur of that liturgical theology helps to explain the sometimes elaborate entrance rite. Indeed, on those days of the church year that are especially festive and celebratory in emphasis, the simple procession of an ordinary Sunday spills out into a Solemn Procession with stations, collects and sublime introits by the choir. It is as though the joy of the day’s Good News cannot be contained. Many people (who let themselves!) experience a palpable sense of that joy during the procession which is then echoed by the scripture readings and music appointed for the day’s feast. Incense is often used on such occasions as a way of engaging the fullness of human senses, smell as well as hearing and sight, so that we might enter worship with our whole selves and not our intellect alone. Also, the rising of incense has long represented our prayers soaring heavenward, or as Psalm 141:2 has it, “let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”
Continental reformers rejected this tradition of music in procession, vestments and incense, along with numerous other aspects of historic worship, preferring a worship aesthetic and theology more in line with the emerging church of the early centuries. These radical reformers considered aesthetic enjoyments and elaborations to be a distraction to worship rather than enhancement. English reformers disagreed. Indeed, English cathedrals celebrated the tradition of procession even beyond the Mediterranean church by extending the length of their churches and employing architectural devices along the side aisles and galleries to visually emphasize the horizontal axis of the building, creating a space specifically designed for procession. And so we carry on that English tradition in our own modest way on principle feasts like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, as well as other special days of the year, celebrating a worship heritage that extends back through the centuries.
It seems a simple thing to enter a small neighborhood church on a Sunday morning in New York City, to take a seat and perhaps look for friends who we’ve missed during the busy-ness of the week just past. And simple it is, but not uneventful or unimportant. Gathering for worship is a Holy Act, something like a reconstitution of a Holy People, and it can change us, individually and corporately. When we come to take our place here, we present ourselves to God, to be taken into God’s life, so that we might be made whole and strengthened to go back out into the world for the sake of Christ. If it feels simple, it is only because we were born for it. Perhaps that is why it feels right and good, and somehow we know when we leave that we will never be quite the same for having been here.