Questioning our Worship (V): Why so many words?

This is part 5 of a 10-part series.

One of my favorite movies, and one of the ones I love to watch with my six year old daughter, is The Neverending Story. I love this film because in it, the main character, a little boy who simultaneously longs for and fears adventure, listens, night after night, to his grandpa reading a story to him. It is a story about flying dragons, enchanted castles, and many more wonderful things. What is so interesting, though, is that at some point during his enjoyment of this story, he actually gets “sucked into” the story itself, and becomes a character on the inside of this narrative world, right alongside the dragons and other magical creatures.

Now, something very much like this is what happens in the Christian life. You are brought up as a young person in a secular culture and you might have an awareness of the Bible, but it is just a static book over there on the shelf, whereas you, on the other hand, are a real person in the real world of televisions, automobiles, etc.

But then, at some point, it gradually dawns on you that the story-world of the Bible is what is actually real.

It is the liturgy of the Church (through which the Holy Spirit works) which prompts this epiphany, this shift in consciousness. My favorite example of this shift – a reality which the Church calls anamnesis – is the Prayer of Thanksgiving over the waters of Baptism (BCP 306): “We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water…. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” In this prayer, we realize that these baptismal waters are the same waters as the ancient Red Sea, just as they are also the same waters as those of Noah’s flood (see I Peter 3:18-22). This shift of consciousness, this getting-in-touch with true narrative reality, is anamnesis, the “re-membering” of the narrative of Holy Scripture*. (We could multiply examples of this from our Eucharistic prayers, as well.)

St. Paul’s theology, shot through all of his epistles, is also about this “remembering.” Over and over again Paul encourages the Church to realize that we are “members of Christ’s Body,” that in his death we have died, and that in his resurrection we have risen to new life. Christ’s narrative draws us in; we are now inside the Story. We are living inside the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This is exactly what is going on in the Creed, which occurs immediately after the Scriptures and the Gospel are proclaimed and interpreted. The Creed is not an expression of our private beliefs; it is our narrative world, our world of words, in which we live and move (note: we sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross during the Creed) and have our being. It is more real than TV’s and cars and yahoo.com.

Why are there so many words and sentences and paragraphs and texts – so much reading and talking – in our worship? I hope you can see why. We have a rich and interesting story, a story of words which culminate in the Word Made Flesh, Jesus.

But, more to the point, it is a story that we don’t simply “have.” It is a story in which we live.


* This word anamnesis occurs in Luke 22:19 and I Corinthians 11:22-23, accounts of Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion.

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Questioning our Worship(IV): Why all the Standing & Kneeling?

This is Part 4 of a 10-part series.

Before giving some reasons why we as Episcopalian Christians use our bodies in the worship of God, I would like to point out a reason why some (indeed, many) Christian traditions do not use their bodies in worship.

Bishop NT Wright in his (highly recommended) book Simply Christian devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of Christian worship. In it he mentions the Quaker tradition as an example of one group of Christians who, historically, have resisted ritual and bodily movement in their worship. In many Quaker gatherings, the people simply sit in silence for most of the service.

Often such traditions fear that any kind of ritual movement in worship is some kind of “deed” which might tempt folks to think that we are “earning” our salvation before God. As Bishop Wright points out, however, the decision to sit in silence is still a decision to do something, and any kind of action or decision to “do” (or not do) something can be seen either as an act of merit (as if we are “earning our salvation”) or as a response of gratitude to the gracious initiation of a loving God.

Moving now to some positive considerations of why our Anglican worship in particular so involves our bodies and its movement, there is, first of all, the simple yet profound fact that God made us not just as souls but as bodies. Historic Christian theology has always affirmed that “I am my body.” A moment’s reflection serves to underline the point. We don’t say “the ball hit my body,” but rather “the ball hit me.” Any kind of worship which tries to deny my embodied existence as a human being denies a basic aspect of who I am, and is therefore radically incomplete.

In addition to this point about who we are as human (“theological anthropology”), another reason for our bodily participation in worship has to do with liturgy and liturgical action as a movement through time. Christian theologians down through the ages have pointed out the fact that (as Plato first said) “Time is a moving image of eternity.” As both ancient philosophy and quantum mechanics agree, movement and time are connected. Motion is something we do with our bodies. In our worship, as the altar party and the choir process through the nave from the font to the altar, as the priest rehearses the paschal mystery of Christ in the Great Thanksgiving, as God’s faithful people sign themselves at specific points during the liturgy, we are “copying” the Triune God, whose infinite life takes place not in time but in the reality to which time itself points: eternity.

Related to this last point is a third: we cannot fully image God without our bodies. St. Maximus the Confessor famously taught that the church is the image of God. As we have pointed out in previous installments of this series on Anglican worship, God is eternally and unendingly involved in something like a Great Dance. In the liturgical worship of the church we are participating in that Great Dance, caught up in the movement of love between the three Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How could we do this dance without our bodies? One can no more dance without a body than one can eat a succulent steak fajita or drink a salty margarita on the rocks without a body. It’s just not possible!

Have you ever noticed that there is only one place in the Creed where we sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross? It is when we say (in that version of the Creed which we call “The Apostles’ Creed”) “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” This is no coincidence. In so doing we are saying (among other things) that we believe that one day we will participate in the indestructible life of God, fully and finally, not just with our souls, but with our bodies.

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