Serving the Table of the Lord

One of the best things that the church has done in the past quarter century is to regain an appreciation for the ancient Eucharistic liturgy. Many of the elements of the new (ancient) liturgy have worked themselves into my subconscious. I’ll find myself silently singing the “Sanctus” or the “Gloria in Excelsis.” Phrases from the creed or the Eucharistic prayer pop into my mind at the strangest times. The Eucharist – the sacrament of word and table – is the central means of grace for those who are already united to Christ in baptism. The work that God does through word and table for those who abide in him is transformation I can believe in.

In worshiping with my “high church” brothers and sisters, however, I’ve started to think about the things that I think are important to preserve in becoming a more liturgically-focused Christian.

Keep The Main Thing the Main Thing

First, too many signs crowd out the one central sign. Vestments, smells, bells, parading, kneeling, standing, bowing, crossing, kissing objects, veils for the elements folded just so – some of this is fine, but too much is too much. I know that there are probably good, historical reasons for all of these things; when my friends explain them to me, they make sense. But, if you don’t come into the liturgy with these traditions, I don’t see a need to add them. First of all, a lot of it is confusing. Most members of my denomination aren’t used to such things, but neither are those whom we want to join us, first at the baptismal font and then at Christ’s table. Even more significantly, overlaying the main actions of the Eucharist with multiple layers of rather arbitrary signs and symbols obscures what should be central in all of this. The best thing about the liturgical structure that we’ve adopted is that it clearly lifts up the mighty acts of God from creation to redemption, coming to a head in Christ’s death and resurrection and culminating in Christ’s coming at the end of the age. Christ’s body given to his people in the bread we share; his blood given in the cup: these are the central signs of our Eucharistic life. I often worship with our liturgical cousins who get this right – who keep the main thing the main thing. Others, it seems to me, gild the lily. I hope that as we grow into our new liturgical vestments, we keep it simple.

Be an Instrument of Community

Let’s face it: there is a lot of reading that takes place in a liturgical Eucharist. The celebrants have a lot to say to the congregation, and they mostly read it from a book. How should the celebrant sound as he reads the words of the liturgy? On various occasions, I’ve heard celebrants who sounded hurried, bored, holy, enraptured, syrupy, dramatic or distracted. The best ones are the ones who connect with the members of the congregation, engaging the worshipers in the words that are being said. Why should it be any less important to make a genuine connection with the people during the liturgy than it is during the sermon? Yes, I know that the prayers are offered to God, not to the people in the pews. The “liturgy,” however, is the “work of the people.” At least that’s what the word means. Unless the people connect with the words of the liturgy, the spoken prayers aren’t their prayers. The best celebrants have the ability to engage the congregation in such a way that the celebrant’s words represent the thoughts, feelings and aspirations of the people gathered to worship. Celebrants should always remember that they are instruments of community as they lead the people in the worship of God in Christ. I know quite a few Catholic priests who are excellent at this. They have a lot to teach me.