Friday, January 11, 2013

Rest Your Head, Sacred Child

One of the unexpected delights of parish ministry for me has been how much affection I develop for our children. Though I have only been at St. John's for a little over two and a half years, I have begun that wonderful experience of watching children grow up. And I love the time I've spent with them, the ability to tell them stories from the Bible, to tell them how loved they are by God and their church.

The kids are a true joy of parish ministry.

A few weeks ago, on one of our "Messy Church" Sundays, where we put the children at the center of our community worship, I had a particularly powerful experience of this.

The children had joined me in the Gospel procession, standing around me as I proclaimed the Gospel for the day. We went back to the chancel steps, where I sat down and read to them from the book Some Things Are Scary by Florence Parry Heide. We talked about how things are scary sometimes, and how Advent is a time when we as a church remember that things are scary around the world (and even in our lives) while at the same time hoping and waiting for God's return. We talked about how even when things are scary, we can know that God is with us because it was in a very scary time that God became human in Jesus.

Later, during the offertory, as the bread, wine, and alms were brought to the altar, the children joined in that procession, too. As they were coming up into the altar area, one boy whispered to a friend, "Wow, I never thought I'd be able to be up here." My microphone was off and I told them it was OK, to come stand right up near the altar. I told them how the altar was a holy place, that it was special, but that didn't mean it was scary. That just meant that we loved it and treated it carefully, like with anything special.

Once all was ready, I began the Great Thanksgiving. Something you eventually realize as a priest, particularly when you are a solo priest, is how quickly the Eucharistic Prayer becomes muscle memory. The words themselves become almost memorized, the actions become fluid and almost automatic. It becomes a particular discipline as a priest to remain present in the prayer, grounded in the holy now of God's people asking God to turn simple bread and wine into Christ's presence.

About halfway through the prayer, I noticed one of the younger girls in our parish had rested her head on the altar. Her right arm was folded, her head laying upon it, and she watched the bread and the wine while I prayed. This made one of the boys nervous, and he tried to reach to her to tell her not to lay her head on the altar... but he couldn't reach without making a scene and so he decided to stay where he was.

All of this was happening out of the corner of my eye as I prayed, as my hands moved over the bread and the wine, and as the community asked for the Spirit of God to effect the Eucharistic miracle.

Something about it, though, has stuck with me. I mentioned it to my spiritual director this week, how powerful it was to see this young girl do this. I told her how I was glad the little boy couldn't reach her, couldn't get her attention. I love that she felt so comfortable, so at home, that she simply rested her head on the altar and watched. I love that she was more present in that moment that I am sometimes... I love what she taught me in that moment.

In chapter 31 of the Rule of St. Benedict, we get a section entitled, "What Kind of Man the Cellarer of the Monastery Should Be." Upon first glance, it might seem like one of the more arcane sections of the rule, something difficult to interpret in modern life, but there is an important line in it. Benedict writes, "Let him take the greatest care of the sick, of children, of guests and of the poor, knowing without doubt that he will have to render an account for all these on the Day of Judgment." And then, after highlighting this important task, the very next line says, "Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar."

The altar is a holy place. It is a place of reverence, respect, and grace. In Celtic terminology, you could say that it is a "thin place" in the church, a place where the spiritual and the physical world blend together....

And yet, Benedict suggests that the care the Cellarer pays to the sick, to children, guests, and the poor is the care upon which he will one day give account. He is called to care for all things in the monastery with reverence, as though they were sacred vessels of the altar... but the sick, the children, the guests, and the poor—God will be most interested in how he cared for them.

We're doing another "Messy Church" this Sunday. Once again the kids will join me in the Gospel procession. Once more they will sit at the chancel steps with me while I try to tell them how much God loves them and how that should make them live life in a certain way. On this Sunday, we'll baptize two infants, making them a part of the church. The children will be there for that, too. And then, during the Eucharistic Prayer, once more they will be invited to stand up around the altar with me.

And I have to say, I hope that one of those precious children knows that she matters more to God than any holy place in the world. I hope she rests her head on the altar, knowing that she is safe in that love.

Because each Sunday, before I leave the altar area in the exit procession, as I bend down and kiss that white linen... I always whisper a quiet thank you...

Because I need to be reminded too... reminded that I also am safe in that divine love.

So rest your head, sacred child. Rest your head and teach this young priest, still trying to learn how to do this calling well, teach this young priest once more what is truly important, what is truly sacred.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Unintended Ablutions & Unexpected Grace

This was not the way I intended it to happen.


The plan was for once everyone had received communion, after the chalice and paten were wiped and put away (an act known as the ablutions), for the lights to go low while the organist begins the introduction to "Silent Night." All would then kneel and we would all sing that familiar Christmas carol together.

It is, of course, a rather common Christmas Eve practice. And though some might find it sentimental, I've always found it delightful and moving and wonderful. I think these sorts of traditions are important. I think it's important for all of us, dressed in our Christmas best, to wrinkle our clothes and kneel for a bit as we sing a song welcoming the birth of God in Christ.

The last person had taken communion. The Eucharistic Ministers and I had finished serving Communion to the Christmas Eve worshipers. We all returned to the altar, set the remaining sacrament down and bowed. The Eucharistic Ministers returned to their positions on either side of the altar and before I had begun the ablutions the lights dimmed and the music started playing.

"Whoops," I thought, "That was supposed to happen after I finished this." However, when something goes a little off in the liturgy, I've learned it is best to act as though this is what was supposed to happen. So instead of hurriedly putting the Eucharistic vessels on the credence table and kneeling with everyone else, I simply began washing them. The congregation began to sing "Silent Night" as I poured some water over the paten into the chalice.

Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright...

As the congregation sang, I performed the ablutions. I'm usually pretty efficient with them. I can perform them reverently and quickly, being done in less than a minute and ready for the service to continue. However, since the congregation was singing, I decided to take my time.

Pour the water. Swirl. Drink the water from the chalice. Wipe the paten with a purificator (a small white linen used during communion to wipe the chalice after each sip and then to dry it during the ablutions). Pick up the chalice, wipe it around the edges, and then place the purificator into the chalice. Put the paten on top and set it all down on the credence table.

It seems rather complicated, but when you do it after every service of Holy Eucharist, it become muscle memory. And since there are always some in the congregation on a bit of a rush to get to the rest of their day after Eucharist, I do try to do it reverently but efficiently. But that night, as I said, I did it slowly. The congregation sang while I did the dishes.

There is a line of thinking in liturgical circles that the priest should not perform ablutions at the altar. As my beloved teacher, now passed into the nearer presence of God, Marion Hatchett, used to say, "There is nothing edifying to the people about watching their priest do dishes." And while I do love Marion, I'm not sure I agree with him on this one. Because I find the practice of ablutions to be profoundly humbling.

In most churches, there are many things lay people do to assist their priest with Holy Eucharist. Altar Guilds set up and take down. Eucharistic Ministers assist in the distribution. Vergers make sure all things run smoothly. All baptized people take their place in the worship of the church.

But I'm a dishwasher.

When I used to wait tables, when the dish-room would fill up in the afternoon before the evening dishwasher arrived, I would pull off my black dress shirt and go elbows deep into the dishes. Dishwashers work immensely hard in restaurants, often with little pay and even less respect. I liked to try to help the dish-room be a little less demolished when they arrived. I loved the rhythm of doing dishes.

In my marriage, my wife is an amazing cook. She cooks gorgeous meals and does a truly fantastic job cleaning up as she goes. But our rule is whoever cooks, the other person does the dishes. And since she usually cooks, most nights I'm the one over the sink at the end washing up. And I love it. I love that it's my small contribution to a meal.

I love the sense of satisfaction and completion you get from dishes. Priestly ministry is work where you rarely see completion. You see bits and pieces, but the fruit of your work is almost always shrouded in mystery, hidden in souls and hearts and only ever revealed long after the cultivation. It's a job where you can wonder some days whether you are doing concrete good.

But you never wonder that when doing dishes. You know what the task is, you complete the task, and then you can stand in the clean kitchen, looking at the sparkling counter-tops and know you actually did something just then.

Like I said, I'm a dishwasher.

And that night, as I washed our dishes while the people sang, I was grateful to be a dishwasher. I was grateful for the generosity of spirit that my congregation gives me this chance to do this holy act. I was grateful that though there may be more efficient ways of cleaning up, I was allowed to wash and clean these holy vessels. I was allowed to wash and wipe, to dry and put away, while they sang.

I thought of the Holy Family, crowded in a cave and surrounded by animals. I wondered who it was who bathed the Christ child, who washed the birth off of his cold, crying, naked body. I don't know if they had a midwife with them, someone in the village who heard the crying. I don't know if Mary did it, but I doubt it because she was probably exhausted...

I wonder if Joseph did it. I wonder if as he washed this child's body he remembered how he had been tempted to dismiss Mary. I wonder if any of the doubts came back as to where this child, this child that was not his but who came from his beloved, where this child came from. I wonder if washing the child helped wash the doubts from his mind. I wonder if this simple act of love would have been healing for him.

I hadn't intended any of this to happen. Ablutions were going to happen quickly, reverently, and efficiently so that I wasn't left at the altar washing dishes. But as I was left up there in dim light, washing and drying, as the congregation sang that beloved carol, I really was grateful.

And I prayed quietly, deep in my soul, that God would continue to give me these moments of grace. I prayed that God would continue, in the midst of all the energy and action of this life, moments of grace when I could simply be still and be useful, in a small way. When I could be entrusted to wash something holy, to perform this act of love.

I thanked God that for a moment I could see what I was doing, I could see what I was called to.

All is calm.

All is bright.