I continue to be astounded by the richness of our Anglican liturgy, the way the colors and seasons weave into one another to create a fascinating and beautiful tapestry of time.
It is a liturgy shared, of course, with Roman Catholics and to an extent Eastern Orthodox: the love of symbols, saints, and sacraments; the dramatization of deep and joyous beliefs; the pleasure taken in incense, song, chant, processions, and common prayers we know by heart so we can pray in common together.
We call our sixteenth-century prayer book The Book of Common Prayer, for it provides prayers learned by rote for those of us in the pews so that we can pray as one voice. It also provides assurance that the prayers prayed at the altar are theologically true, for they reflect words chosen carefully through the centuries. We call this catholic in the sense that it represents what is true for all time in all places for all people.
I read recently that new education studies show that children are better prepared to succeed in life if they learn the old fashioned way, that is, by rote, by memory work and drill. I learned the old fashioned way and while it took effort and patience, I was rewarded with a strong sense of accomplishment. We learned poems and times tables and history dates. Often boring, but usually productive. I think I also learned how to accept boredom, how to not expect constant entertainment, how to go the distance, how to, in essence, work. I learned how to meet goals set by teachers so that later I would learn how to meet goals set by myself or employers.
Our liturgy is full of these small and large milestones. It is not meant to entertain (although it often does in a glorious way, suddenly, unexpectedly), but rather it is meant to meet certain goals. “Liturgy” is the “work of the people.” We call the Holy Eucharist an action in the phrase the “Action of the Mass.” Something truly happens, and we, with God’s help, help to make it happen. We add our unified, voiced prayers, memorized (eventually through repetition), to those of the priest who celebrates the Mass. As the priest stands before the altar he stands before God, representing us. But during the Action, he represents Christ, consecrating the bread and wine into body and blood; Christ is made manifest in the “creatures” of bread and wine through this action.
To be worthy of receiving Almighty God into our hearts and bodies, we examine our lives for deeds done and undone, those things separating us from God. We need to be perfect, washed clean, to meet him at the altar rail. And so we confess together, as one and as many, and are absolved. We are made perfect in that moment.
Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is called Laetare Sunday, meaning “Rejoice,” named for the traditional Introit, “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her…”. It lands midway in Lent, and is meant to be a lighter brighter more joyful Sunday than the others in Lent. Rose vestments and altar cloths sometimes replace the somber purple, and flowers are allowed on the altar (not so the other Sundays in Lent).
We draw closer to Passiontide, the two weeks before Easter, and so it is as though we are refreshed today, before we return to the road to Jerusalem and the way of the Cross. We consider our Lenten rules – our self-discipline of time and desire. I for one am not midway through my memory work: First Corinthians 13. I have the first few verses down, sort of, but it has been a struggle, as is anything worth doing. It may take Lent and Advent and another Lent for this old soul to learn it by heart. Nevertheless, I keep at it, the passage printed out, handy for the odd moment of time. Perhaps it is discipline that, in the end, forms disciples.
Today’s Gospel is the account of the feeding of the five thousand, the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, one of many feeding miracles recorded in Holy Scripture. But John’s Chapter Six account is followed by Christ’s stunning announcement that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to attain eternal life. It is not surprising that many followers left him after that statement, confused and probably overwhelmed at the very least.
Christianity is not a religion for the faint of heart, although our God mends broken hearts. It is not for the lazy, although our God empowers us with his own life. It is definitely a faith for those who admit helplessness in these matters, for with steady slugging along, we are rewarded with stunning joy. Not a bad exchange. It is an exciting journey with God to God, full of miracles and happiness. I’ve had more Road-to-Damascus moments than I could possibly count.
So it is with great delight that I am certain that all I have to do is show up at church on Sundays. All I have to do is pray with the Body of Christ, the Church, and be part of the great Action of the Mass. All I have to do is repent and be forgiven. I do these things every Sunday and everything else falls into place, as though angels rain grace upon my life. I don’t need to see and understand everything all the time. All I need to do is go to my little parish church and be faithful.