Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The deeper reason for reverence in worship

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

This week I spent some time away on an Eastertide retreat with other clergy. The focus of the retreat was Eucharistic Spirituality; that is, how the sacrament of Holy Communion shapes the spiritual lives of Christians.

No matter your views on sacraments, whether protestant or catholic, Holy Communion is one of the unifying aspects of Christianity. We may each celebrate it differently. Some of us may believe that it is a memorial to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross while others may believe that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the elements. For some Christians, it can be a daily practice at their local parish, and for others it can be something only done a few times a year.

Yes, there is a variety of approaches and practices, but communion — no matter the form, shape or belief — is an essential unifying key across Christianity. In Anglicanism, my own Christian tradition, there had been massive bloodshed during the Reformation between protestant and catholic views. It was Queen Elizabeth I who said that she didn’t believe we should try to make windows into people’s souls, figuring out what they believed about the sacrament. Instead, in Anglicanism, we find ourselves united in the practice of Communion, knowing that individual beliefs may vary.

No matter your own beliefs about communion, there is very likely a degree of reverence attached to this holy tradition. I was raised in a very strict protestant tradition. However, when the crackers and grape juice were passed down the pews, I had a sense, even as a child, that something special and holy was going on. Later, when I began attending the Episcopal Church, going up to an altar rail to receive the bread and wine heightened that sense of holiness and reverence.

Some in Anglicanism who affirm the catholic traditions of our church even practice Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction, spending time in quiet silence before the sacrament, reflecting upon a God who comes near to us in bread and wine. For those Christians, the blessing of Benediction, as the priest makes the sign of the cross with the Eucharistic host, is a blessing from Christ himself, present in the sacrament.

There are indeed a variety of practices around communion. It might be tempting to want to start talking about where we disagree, how one group doesn’t do it right, or how you disagree with another person’s experience and beliefs regarding the presence of Christ. It might be tempting to do that, but I think Queen Elizabeth I was wise in encouraging us not to make windows into people’s souls.

Instead, I would encourage us to note our common reverence for this holy tradition. We may express that reverence differently, with different theologies and worship practices. However, at the heart of it all is the truth that Christians, though divided by tradition and belief, can all believe that God is active in this tradition. We find the presence of the divine in simple bread and wine, whether in our memory or in the elements themselves.

But there is a reason for that. This was the topic of my own meditation to my fellow priests at our retreat: the goal of reverence in communion. In this, I find myself moved by the words of Frank Weston, bishop of Zanzibar, who said in 1923: “And it is folly — it is madness — to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.”

Bishop Weston sought to remind those gathered that our reverence for Christ in the sacrament must extend to Christ as he is present in our sister and brother Christians, and as he is present particularly in the poor and oppressed. I would suggest that this point rings true for Christians of all traditions. Our reverence for what Holy Communion means — no matter how our individual traditions might express it — is intended not only to bring us closer to Christ, but to propel us to see where Christ is present in the world around us. Reverence in worship should be training for reverence for the presence of God in others out in the world.

To have a deep reverence for God in worship and then to be cruel, or to hold onto anger, toward another Christian is a failure in reverence. For the Christ who is present in our worship is also present in the Body of Christ — particularly those parts of the body which might frustrate us the most. Our Christian reverence should encourage us, therefore, to give special care to those parts of Christ’s body we might find, um, troublesome. St. Paul exhorts us to this in the 12th chapter of Corinthians, where he reminds us that those members of the body we might find less honorable are the ones we are called to treat with special honor and care.

Further, to have a deep reverence for God in worship and then to participate in oppression of the poor and marginalized, to ignore the orphan, immigrant and widow, this is also a failure in reverence. After all, our Lord himself said in Matthew 25 that he is most present to us in the immigrant in need of welcome, the poor in need of clothing, the sick in need of care, and the prisoner in need of a visit that reminds him he is worthwhile as a child of God.

It is good that Christians have deep reverence for God in worship. We should encourage and cultivate this in our churches. But we must not stop there.

As Bishop Weston concluded his address nearly 100 years ago, “Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

By the Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist. He serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven.