Thursday, November 27, 2008

5. The Gifts of God, for the People of God

Many years ago, as I was running away from my Southern Baptist background, I was attracted to the Episcopal church. Its liturgy and deliberate emphasis on the Eucharist were like a beacon to my theologically confused soul. I began attending a local church and even sang in its fine choir for several months. But as I fell into my work as a church musician I kept getting hired at Methodist and UCC churches. Finally, in November of 2005 I fulfilled a long time dream and began working for an Episcopal congregation. It wasn’t many months later that I became an official member of the parish, receiving the Bishop’s anointing on my forehead.

I am intrigued with the idea of communion, as we called it in more “Protestant” churches. In the Episcopal church, as in Catholic and Lutheran churches, the Eucharist is paramount, the whole “raison d’etre.” Not the sermon, not the music, nor the social aspect of going to church: it’s all about the taking of the Body and Blood of Christ.

At my church I arrive each Sunday morning just as the first service, with no music, is finishing. If the sermon or scripture readings have been a bit long the early crowd is still in the midst of the service in the chapel. I quietly sit down in the church with a bird’s eye view of the small group of worshippers. It is very quiet: the sounds of shuffling feet, of the priest’s voice saying “the Body of Christ,” the “amen” responses. I like to watch the people as they return to their pews and sit or kneel while considering the sacrament they’ve just received. .

Recently I attended the Church Music Conference at Sewanee TN, which is specifically for Episcopal musicians. And I had the great privilege, and responsibility, of being a chalice bearer at one of the morning eucharists. Normally I don’t get this opportunity as I am doodling something on the organ during this part of the service. Even after receiving instruction from the priest on how to hold the chalice and wipe it with the white linen cloth, I was very nervous. Would I spill the wine down someone’s shirt? Would I drop the chalice? Would I forget my lines? “The Body of Christ; the Cup of Salvation.”

I was mesmerized: the humility, the need, the hunger of those who came to partake of the bread and wine. The power and mystery of these sacraments. The emotion welling up in me as I repeated my lines 50 or so times.

I have noticed this power with the children in the choir as they anticipate and take communion, too. Even though part of their excitement is related to tasting a drop of wine on their wafer, they also sense something deeper than their encounters in everyday life. Already it is the pinnacle of worship for them.

Several years ago, when I was working for a UCC church, I invited an Episcopal friend who was visiting the area to attend “my” church on Easter. “It’s going to be great!” I said, “Brass, majestic hymns, even Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. We’ll pull out all the stops!” She thought carefully for a minute, then replied, “That all sounds lovely, but do you have communion?” “No,” I answered, “that makes the visitors uncomfortable and the service too long.” Slowly she answered that on Easter she really must partake of the Eucharist. I was rather hurt and didn’t understand.

But now I do.

Eternal god, heavenly father,
You have graciously accepted us as living members
Of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
And you have fed us with spiritual food
In the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
And grant us strength and courage
To love and serve you
With gladness and singleness of heart;
Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)

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