“Why do you do that?” Notes on certain liturgical practices
Part V in A Series of Articles on our Liturgical Heritage
SOMETIMES LITURGICAL PRACTICES and acts of piety in worship can produce confusion (maybe even anxiety) among those who have come from Christian traditions that are less liturgical than ours. Indeed, without an understanding of the meaning that lies at the root of any liturgical action or custom, such movements can appear antiquated, or worse superstitious, something for which contemporary persons have little, if any, tolerance. Moreover, over the years many liturgical practices have been abused by some and therefore rejected by others. The wisdom of this rejection is questionable. “After all,” said one liturgical observer, “we do not cease eating because gluttons are about.” What follows is a brief explanation of some of the most common liturgical actions one may observe in many parishes of the Episcopal Church. These descriptions are offered with the view that understanding encourages tolerance.
The Calendar of the Church Year
One of the most overlooked sections of the Book of Common Prayer is the calender that appears in the beginning. This calendar assigns particular days to recall certain important events and persons. Many of these assigned days are familiar to us: Christmas, Easter, the Epiphany, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Saint Mary and Joseph, the Holy Apostles, and so forth. Others are less familiar: Gregory the Illuminator, Jackson Kemper, William Laud, and the Martyrs of Lyon, for example. All these events and persons serve to remind us of the story of our faith and the development of the church. Included on the calendar are priests, prophets, martyrs and evangelists who have witnessed to the faith of the church, often in the face of hardship. Remembering these heros of the church is no less idolatrous than remembering George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, or persons who have lived more recently like Rosa Parks or Gandhi. Many persons have been added to the calendar since the Reformation. Those particular days are called “Commemorations” rather than “Saints’ Days” since we did not maintain a process for “making saints” after the reform of the 16th century. Commemorations are added to the calendar by action of General Convention.
Bowing as the Processional Cross Passes
This is simply a symbolic act of reverence for the cross. It is definitely NOT the clergy who are being reverenced! Interestingly, torches carried in procession have a much longer history in the worship of the church than does the cross. In a general sense, processional torches represent the light of Christ as do all candles used in worship.
Some question whether it is appropriate to represent Christ on the cross since it is a risen Lord we worship. However, the redemption we celebrate in Christ was bought with a price, as St. Paul often pointed out. The suffering of Christ reminds us that he experienced the fullness of life, even death, for our sake. Whereas a manger scene reminds us of the Incarnation, Christ on the cross reminds us of the Passion of the Lamb of God who came to take our sins away that we might be reconciled to God. Jesus did not remain a baby any more than he remained on the cross. Both scenes help us to recall aspects of God’s saving work in and through Christ.
Like many ancient symbols the altar represents a number of different things simultaneously. It calls to mind the altars of the people of Israel who made sacrifices to God. It recalls the table of the Last Supper where Jesus and his disciples ate their meal together in the Upper Room. It represents the tomb of Christ, in its sarcophagus shape reminding us of his sacrifice. And it represents Christ himself who is present through the mystery of his body and blood. When those serving in the liturgy bow towards the altar, it is the presence of Christ among us that is reverenced.
Bowing and Genuflecting
This practice is an outward sign of reverence, honor, and for God alone, worship. There are no rules regulating this gesture and most of us do what we learned to do in the parish where we grew up. Some people bow at the processional cross, some bow at the altar. Genuflection is usually reserved for the sacrament of the altar, either when it is placed on the altar, or in a tabernacle or ambry such as the one we have in our parish. Often you will see people bowing reverently at the portion of the Nicene Creed which says, “he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” Also people will sometimes bow their head at the name of Jesus. None of these gestures are required. Some people find their experience of worship enhanced by these outward, symbolic signs of reverence and solemnity. These worshipful actions simply make one’s worship visible and corporal.
Liturgical vesture has been worn by worship leaders for centuries. Each item has symbolic significance attached to it which has developed over many years. The stole (a narrow band of fabric that is worn draped over the celebrant’s neck and is usually decorated in the color of the liturgical season) is usually considered the only essential item of vesture when celebrating the sacraments. Vestments vary according to the role one performs in the liturgy.
Since antiquity worship has sought to include all five human senses. Our ears hear music and the proclamation of the word, our eyes behold the ceremony of the liturgy, our tongues speak the ancient prayers and our hands move in gestures of reverence. Incense is meant to engage our fifth sense, that of smell, so that we may enter worship with our whole selves. It is probably the most ancient liturgical symbol and represents our prayers ascending heavenward.
The Sign of the Cross
Places in the liturgy where this gesture is most commonly observed are: the opening acclamation, at the words introducing the gospel reading, at the mention of the resurrection of the body at the end of the Nicene Creed, and the priestly blessing at the conclusion of the service. Often one may observe three small crosses being made at the introduction of the gospel reading. Years ago I was taught in my confirmation class that this reverent gesture symbolizes this statement of faith: I study the gospel with my mind, proclaim it with my mouth, and hold it in my heart. Whether this explanation has historical foundation or was born of the imagination of the priest who taught my class I do not know, but it still makes sense to me.
Holy Water and the Asperges
Often one may find water that has been blessed for this purpose contained in a “stoup,” a small vessel most commonly attached to a wall, close to the entrance of the church. Many worshipers dip a finger into this water and cross themselves when entering or departing the church as a reminder of their baptism. Also water that has been blessed may be sprinkled on the gathered faithful during the entrance procession which begins the liturgy for the same reason, to recall the baptism which unites us in Christ. This act is especially appropriate during the season of Easter.
Unity in Diversity
Again, none of these gestures are required for worship to be meaningful. Just as people have different personalities and experiences informing their actions in other aspects of life, they also differ in their manner of worship. That’s okay. And, in our tradition, even celebrated. What is most important in worship is to maintain the focus on the one who unites us, our Lord Jesus Christ. To him be the glory.