By Dan Carew, Lay Preacher
Thank you God for the faith of Saint Andrew and through his actions we can see a way.
When I read these scripture passages together I see a number of references to commandments, decrees and edicts. It gets me thinking, what commandments are we talking about, why are they important and how are we to respond with our lives?
Since humanity’s awareness of God, it seems we have sought and heard from God about what it is we are to do, how we are to live, and what is required of us - in essence how do we obtain righteousness before God. Some of that history is referenced in today’s readings, and while I see this as a bit of an evolution, I don’t believe that God has changed their nature or character one bit, but rather we, as humans, throughout time, have missed the point, poorly understood the guidance we have been given, or let our personal thoughts and biases about the world around us get in the way.
In the passage from Deuteronomy, we hear Moses referencing a commandment in his words to the people of Israel. However, from today’s selection we do not have an indication of what it is. To know the context better we need to go back to the beginning of Deuteronomy 30, where Moses tells the people that when they “return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all of your heart and all of your soul” then God will do a number of things such as “restore fortunes”, “have compassion”, “gather the people” and bring them to “the land of their ancestors”. Verse 10 specifically states:
Obey his commandments and statutes written in the Book of the Law, … because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all of your soul.
The people of Israel have heard similar words from Moses before in Deuteronomy Chapter 6, where nearly the same thing is stated to them. “Keep all his decrees and his commandments” (6:2) and “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”(6:9). For the Israelites, turning to God with your whole being, meant that one would also adhere to the decrees and commandments in the “Book of the Law” - their right standing before God was directly related to their rule following.
So here in today’s lesson, Moses is petitioning the people to follow God with their whole being, heart and soul, and now knowing some of the previous context we can understand more of Moses' angle.
This thing that Moses is asking the people to do, surely it “is not too hard”, “too far way”, or requires one to “cross to the other side of the sea”. I imagine Moses taking on one of two roles in this instance. The first is that of a coach during the halftime of a sporting match, he’s giving the people of Israel a pep talk. The other role is that of a sarcastic, and perhaps cynical, sage who in anticipation and understanding knows how humans respond when they are asked to take action toward something they know that they should do – they create excuses to avoid doing that thing.
The commandment that he is speaking to the people is “very near” to them. It is in their mouths. It is in their hearts. It's right there. They’ve observed it before. They’ve followed the commandment before. They’ve had right standing with God previously through the Law.
Moving to the selection from the psalms, we see language referencing statues, commands and decrees and the benefits of adhering to them.
What has brought on these phrases? The psalmist is describing the natural world around them and it invokes an awareness of and actions towards something bigger than they are - the LORD, God. Much like Moses pleading with the people of Israel, the psalmist lays out a case for following and keeping the commandments of God. They are proclaiming something marvelous and powerfully life changing. They conclude with petitions for their purity (“cleanse me”), protection(“let them not get dominion over me”), restoration(“then shall I be whole and sound”) and their righteousness (“let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight”). They find their right-standing with God, through their adherence to God’s commandments.
In the selection from the Letter to the Romans, we hear of a new way. To understand this better we need to be aware of the verses that precede today’s reading. In this section of Paul’s letter, and what I mean is Chapter 10, he talks of Moses’ writings about righteousness based on the Law, and juxtaposes it with Christ, who Paul states “is the end of the law so there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”(verse 4). He continues and speaks of “the righteousness that comes from faith” (verse 6). Then we arrive at the beginning of today’s selection “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”, a direct reference to our reading from Deuteronomy. In the reading from Deuteronomy, the word was referencing the Law; here, as Paul clarifies, it is “the word of faith”. Paul goes on, “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” There is an internal and external representation to the faith - heart and mouth.
In verse 12, Paul continues with ageless words for the folks of all time - past, present and future - “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The “Jew” and “Gentile” indication should not leave us thinking all about Jewish people; we have two distinct people groups with their own history in the Bible - the Jewish people, chosen people of Yahweh, and everyone else. The promise that Paul is talking about is that while for many years God seemed to only favor one people group, Jesus’ incarnation has revealed that God's salvation is available to all people “Jews and Gentiles”. Elizabeth Shivley, summarizes this new revelation nicely in a commentary on Romans Chapter 8. She states, “The ease of God’s redemption is that people are justified (made righteous, given right standing) not by keeping the law, but by faith. The extent of God’s redemption is that this expression of faith apart from the law makes salvation accessible to both Jew and Gentile”
The Romans selection this morning ends with Paul posing some hypothetical questions for his Jewish audience to consider in regards to those that may be outside of Jewish understanding of God. Paul responds to his questions and assures his audience that the good news is being proclaimed and that it is how those who don’t know God become aware of God. It, the opportunity of faith, comes to us “through the word of Christ” because we have heard. In the last verse of the selection today, “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world”, you’ll notice that these are the words of the psalmist from verse 4 of today’s psalm selection. The generosity and graciousness of God has been proclaimed, is being proclaimed and will be proclaimed.
Lastly, in our Gospel reading today we see a call and a response; an opportunity to have faith and an action expressing faith. We read of one of our namesake saints and his brother being given an opportunity to follow Jesus the Christ, and their immediate action of following. Now, here is something interesting to consider: Andrew could have been Greek. He has a Greek name. Born in Bethsaida, in Galilee where the Greek language and culture were very present at that point in history. However, it is more likely that he is Hellenized, coming from a family that adopted Greek culture, hence the two brothers, one with a Greek name, the other with an Aramaic name. In either case, Jesus’ actions, not just here in Matthew but throughout the Gospels, foreshadow Paul’s statement of salvation for all - “Jew and Gentile”, thus cracking open the door of enlightenment that God is the God of all people, not just a selected group of people group.
At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned an evolution of how we obtain right standing before God. If we think about this in chronological order, we start with the Old Testament and the adherence to the Mosaic Law as a form of obtaining right standing with God. We then get a glimpse through the life and ministry of Jesus - his words and actions towards people of various backgrounds - that access to God is beginning to change. Lastly, we have Paul making the proclamation that there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” Right standing before God is accessible to all people. If we confess with our mouth and believe in our hearts, salvation is ours.
May we all take advantage of God’s generosity and grace by proclaiming our belief in Jesus Christ. Amen.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Last Sunday we reflected on our shared Christian hope. Our confidence and trust that the entirety of the human family and creation will be reunited with God and all whom we have loved and lost. We believe that at the Incarnation, the Eternal Source of Love poured themselves into Jesus of Nazareth, who modeled for us what it means to walk the Way of Love in his life, death, and resurrection. We also believe that Christ will come again, in some manner that is beyond our comprehension, and will bring about the completion of God’s purpose for creation. The vast expanse of space between these two events is a strange time that we might think of as ‘in the meantime’.
The early Church, and possibly even Jesus himself, believed that Christ’s coming again would be imminent. As in, during their lifetime. Can you imagine the disciples' shock if they were to learn, here we are, still hard at it, in 2023?
In some ways, we have it easier than they did. While it’s possible Christ may come again this week, it’s just as possible it will be in another 200 or 2,000 or 200,000 years. We have our whole lives to explore what it means to wait faithfully. We also have the benefit of being able to observe the many ways the Church has discerned, explored, and embodied waiting faithfully over the centuries. In particular, we can look to the saints that we celebrate in our church calendar, as outlined in Lesser Feasts and Fasts and A Great Cloud of Witnesses. These folks figured out how to live ‘in the meantime’. In doing so, they inspired future generations on how they, too, can wait faithfully.
Of course, we also have Jesus’ teachings. Waiting faithfully is an important focus within chapters 24-25 of Matthew’s gospel. Here Jesus offers his disciples an eschatological discourse, or rather, teachings on Christ’s coming again and the completion of God's purpose for the world. Today’s parable of the talents is from this section, and it is meant to guide Jesus’ followers on how we are to live faithfully ‘in the meantime’.**
The parable begins with an employer who is about to depart on a long journey. In anticipation of his absence, he entrusts three servants to care for his wealth, each according to their ability. One servant is entrusted with five talents, a second with two talents, and a third with one talent. Their task is to wisely choose which risky investments will generate the most amount of wealth for their employer.*
Commentator Carla Works brings home just how much money we are talking about. She writes:
“Although the first receives five times as much as the last, each receives a
significant sum of money. A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since
one denarius is a common laborer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly
equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the
largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one
hundred years worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money.”*
The first servant immediately traded their five talents and made five more. The second servant did the same, turning their two talents into four. Their employer was overjoyed to learn about the return on their investments. What wise and faithful servants!
Meanwhile, the third servant took a different path. Like the other two servants, he would have been accustomed to taking financial risks to increase his employer’s wealth. Yet this time around, the servant was keenly aware that if he lost money in a bad investment, he would be ruined.* The third servant knew his employer was a harsh man, and that he could not afford to get on his bad side.* So instead, he plays it safe and buries the talent in the ground to avoid it being stolen, which was a common practice at the time.*
Upon the employer’s return, he is furious with the third servant’s unfaithfulness. The employee failed to carry out the task he was charged with; he couldn’t even be bothered to invest the money in the bank, which would have at least yielded a small profit. In the end, the third servant is thrown out, the very thing he feared most.
So, what exactly is Jesus trying to tell us about waiting faithfully ‘in the meantime’? Commentator Works reminds us:
“[The employer’s] willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any allegorical interpretation of the parable that would directly correlate him with Jesus, who never acts in a manner to seek personal gain.”
In other words, this parable is not an allegory. When we muck up, which everyone does, God, the Eternal Source of Love will not actually throw us ‘into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Mt 25:30). That is another psychological thriller we can remove from our ‘continue to watch’ section on Netflix.
Generally speaking, when we make big mistakes, we feel bad enough, and are harder on ourselves than anyone else possibly could be. We are tempted to ruminate on our mistakes; weeping and gnashing our teeth with worry, anxiety, and regret. Which so often leads us to remove and distance ourselves — whether that be emotionally, spiritually, mentally, or physically — from family, community, and most especially, God. Having created a form of personal hell, we may find ourselves bereft of hope.
All this is to say, parables like the one we have read today have often been used by church leaders to tell us ‘do the right thing, or else’, bringing forth fears of a fiery hell and a vengeful God. However deeply those ideas may be ingrained in us, I would encourage us to set them down and return them to the compost heap. Instead, let us use God’s Love as our measuring stick when we try to make sense of the holy scriptures. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.”
What if instead this story is teaching us about the ramifications of selfishness? That when we put our own security above and before all else, we will in turn, create our own misery. Waiting faithfully ‘in the meantime’ is using our wisdom and skills to help bring about God’s dream for this world. Jesus is urging his followers to use what precious time we have to help bring about that dream.
My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be quick to love, and make haste to be kind, and rest assured that God is infinitely more concerned with the promise of our future than the mistakes of our past.
There is a reason that is the blessing you will hear most Sundays at James and Andrew. The time we have is precious. And we have such a privileged opportunity to help communicate the unfathomable and unconditional Love of our Creator God, as embodied in Christ, and as made known in the Holy Spirit. We have seen a glimpse of a better world, the dream of God, and we are privileged to play a small part in sharing that dream with God’s world.
What a gift, to know of such a vision. To be nourished and inspired by it. To in turn share the Good News of God’s Love in the ways we tend to and care for those we encounter in our daily lives and in our mission and outreach ministries. God is so very good. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
So, dear ones, what does it look like for us to wait faithfully ‘in the meantime’? Jesus continues to answer this question further on in Matthew 25. He reminds his followers that waiting faithfully is seeing Christ, the incarnation of the Eternal Source of Love, in each and every person we encounter.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison, and you visited me” (Mt 25: 35-36)
Soon we will begin a new church calendar year as we enter Advent, a season dedicated to waiting faithfully. Advent can feel very much at odds with the secular aspects of the holiday season, and at the same time, it can also encourage us to be more intentional about embodying what it means to wait faithfully. In anticipation of that holy tension, as we live into ‘in the meantime’, I would invite each of us to do some reflecting:
By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today, let us turn our attention towards the second reading:
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Thessalonica was located in what is now modern day Greece, in a port city along the Aegean Sea. In antiquity, port cities were often information and resource hubs, where new ideas and goods were exchanged and spread. The Thessalonians proximity to the sea put them in the direct path of Paul and his missionary partners as they went about sharing the Good News of Christ beyond Syria-Palestine.
Scholars believe this letter was composed around 41 CE, written several months after Paul left this newly formed community.* This means the letter was written roughly eight years after Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection. There were no gospels written yet, or any other significant early writings. Let alone church canons, catechisms, policies and procedures. The early Church is relying on word of mouth, and trusting wholeheartedly in the Holy Spirit.
This letter is considered the earliest of Paul’s writings, making it quite probably the earliest composed document within the Christian Scriptures.** While we refer to the letter as Paul’s, scholars remind us that it would have actually been written by Paul and his missionary partners, Silvanus and Timothy.*** The content of this letter is not Paul’s personal opinion, but rather the opinion of a few early Church leaders.***
Paul’s missionary partner, Timothy, had recently visited the community, and reported back on how well they were doing. He also conveyed some of their concerns. In the segment of the letter we heard today, Paul responds to a matter that had been deeply distressing to the community, leaving them bereft of hope. The Thessalonians wanted to know: What will happen to believers who have died when Christ comes again?
This question may seem odd to us, as we’ve had two thousand years to acclimate to the idea that Christ will come again…someday…probably long after we’ve been gone.* Like the Thessalonians, we too have our own worries that cause us distress, but this particular concern is lower on our list. But here is why it mattered so much to the Thessalonians.
Members of this early church community in Thessalonica had previously been pagan, having been formed by the beliefs of ancient Greece.* Commentator Kristofer Phan Coffman explains:
“For many ancient Greeks, the dead were thought of as doomed to separation from the living in the underworld. They were shades of their former selves without thoughts or feelings. This separation from the living was not a punishment, but it was permanent….[The Thessalonians] look forward to Jesus’ triumphant return, but many of them are grieving because they believe that death has permanently separated them from their loved ones. These are the people whom the senders of the letter describe as having no hope.”*
Last week we celebrated the Feast of All Saints, where we shared photos of our deceased loved ones. We did so with trust and confidence that we will be together again. Yet the Thessalonians were operating under the cultural beliefs of ancient Greece. While they were eager to be with Christ in the second coming, they felt hopeless about being permanently separated from their loved ones. And so, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy did their best to respond to this distressing concern. Commentator Coffman goes on to write:
“The trio then begin their work of introducing a new way of thinking about death to the Thessalonians. Their new way begins with their bedrock belief: Jesus died and rose again (4:14). Right away, this strikes at the heart of the Thessalonians’ understanding of death. Unlike Greek heroes, Jesus was not held down by the power of death. Unlike the Greek underworld, death has no permanence for those who die in Christ. Death and the world, though they seem eternal, will one day pass away.”*
This letter is a word of hope.* A word of hope for the Thessalonians, and for each and every person to come after. We have loved and lost children, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors. We know the pain of grief, the ache of mourning. This letter boldly reminds us: There is always hope in Christ. It is death that is temporary. Christ will forever be stronger than death. It is life which is eternal.
In eternal life we are reunited with those we have loved and lost, and God, the Source of Love. As our reading concludes, “…we will be with the Lord forever.
Therefore encourage one another with these words” (4:18).
In the meantime, in the vast expanse between the incarnation and Christ’s coming again, we are invited to lean into our shared Christian hope. Unlike the Thessalonians, we do have a catechism which outlines the core tenants of our faith. Our catechism is located in the back of our prayerbook, and on page 861, is a section that outlines our shared Christian hope. It is the Episcopal Church’s effort to answer the same questions that had initally left the Thessalonian community so bereft of hope.
The catechism poses a question, followed by an answer:
Q. What is the Christian hope?
A. The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness
and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in
glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the
This question is followed by another question:
Q. What do we mean by the coming of Christ in glory?
A. By the coming of Christ in glory, we mean that Christ
will come, not in weakness but in power, and will make
all things new.
While there are several more questions, it is the last one that we need to hold onto.
Q. What, then, is our assurance as Christians?
A. Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even
death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in
Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
I would argue that the Episcopal Church’s theology has expanded since the prayer book was published in 1979. There is an even more expansive sense that God’s love is not solely for Christians, or those who might be perceived as ‘the chosen’, or those who opt in. God’s love is radical, unconditional, and eternal. God’s love is for the entirety of the human family. God’s love is poured out into creation and furthered through the incarnation, as we see Jesus model a life of love, and then commission followers of the Way of Love to further God’s dream for this world. As Michael Curry said in his 2021 Easter sermon,
“Our work goes on. Our labor for love continues...We will not cease, and we will not give up until this world reflects less our nightmare and more God’s dream where there’s plenty good room for all God’s children. Hallelujah anyhow.”
A brief aside about today’s reading, and the verses that follow into next Sunday’s second reading. This text, which is meant to affirm our Christian hope that we will be reunited with those whom we love in the Eternal Source of Love, has also been used in more recent history to perpetuate what I would describe as harmful theology. Drawn from today’s text are some of the primary verses used to formulate ‘rapture theology’, which is a broad term that covers different but similar teachings that believe Christ will seize or abduct the true believers, leaving everyone else behind. While rapture theology was initially meant to bring comfort, I think it sounds a bit more like a psychological thriller. I’ve seen the harm it can cause up close.
My grandmother was a devout Christian, who worshiped with various Christian communities that did not belong to any particular larger denomination. She made it her personal mission to always ensure people knew they were loved by God, including with her answering machine which proclaimed ‘and remember, you’re special’. She truly meant it. Yet after her sudden death, as we emptied out her apartment, we found evidence of an enduring doubt that she would not be considered a ‘true believer’, a worry that she had not been good enough, that she would be left behind. It breaks my heart to think she, or anyone else, would leave this life with even a trace of doubt that they are wholeheartedly beloved by God.
Because if there is one thing we can know for certain it is that yesterday, today, tomorrow, and always, God is the Eternal Source of Love. When we come across teachings that challenge the reality of God’s Love, we need to ask ourselves:
As we prepare to head back out into the world today, I would encourage us to heed the advice at the end of today’s passage, ‘encourage one another.’
Or maybe we feel as though we have lost hope. Might we be brave like the Thessalonians? What teacher or friend might we turn to and share our concerns?
Always remember that we are loved beyond measure, and nothing can separate us from the Eternal Source of Love. Amen.
* The first part of this sermon was heavily influenced by the commentary offered by Kristoff Phan Coffman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32/commentary-on-matthew-251-13-9
** The Jewish New Annotated New Testament, Second Edition, pg 419.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today’s teaching sermon is focused on the way we pray with our bodies during worship. This is sometimes playfully referred to as Episcopal Aerobics. We will explore some frequently asked questions, such as: How, when, and why do we…sit, stand, and kneel? …make the sign of the cross? … bow? And what exactly is genuflecting? As we explore this topic, I want to invite us to keep three things in mind.
First and foremost, any and all body prayers are meant to enhance our worship experience; to help draw us closer to the Sacred. If any of it is getting in the way, distracting us from God, then it may be time to set down that practice. Bad knees? Confused about how to make the sign of the cross? Maybe those particular body prayers or gestures are not the ones for you. On the other hand, if those gestures help draw you closer to God - please continue.
The second piece to bear in mind is there are ever so many personal gestures of devotion, and they have a wide variety of symbolic meanings.* If you ask any two people what a particular gesture signifies, you are likely to hear three or four different explanations. What matters is that these gestures are meant to make worship more meaningful for the worshiper. They are a way of remembering and drawing closer to the Sacred.
There is a shadowside to our rich tradition of body prayers. Some of us were taught these are ‘rules’ to be followed with an unspoken ‘or else’. As a young person, I served as an acolyte at an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish that regularly used incense, sanctus bells, and a whole lot of body prayers. Carl, a beloved surrogate grandfather figure, served as our church’s Acolyte Master (yes, this was a real title, that a real church gave a real person.) I still poignantly remember one Sunday when the youth acolytes met with Carl, and he was chewing us out. While I can’t imagine he actually yelled at us, that was the general tone and volume. In his eyes, we were sloppy. We didn’t take tight corners, we didn’t bow precisely, we lit the candles in the wrong order, we did not stand or kneel at the right times, and so on. I remember going home crying. While I didn’t understand it at the time, I can now see that for Carl, these rituals were important. For him, they were a way of praising and honoring the Sacred. Yet his insistence that this was the way things had to be left me feeling as though I was somehow failing at following God the ‘right way’.
Yet there is no “right” way to pray with our bodies in worship. Instead, it’s personal preference. I was a bit slow to realize this, but it turns out Jesus of Nazareth did not leave the disciples a handbook about how to pray with our bodies. Rather, these gestures of personal devotion are rituals that have evolved for followers of the Way of Love over the years. All this is to say, do what is helpful, but do not worry in the least about the rest.
Lastly, as Anglicans we know that the way we pray shapes what we believe. The words we pray, the songs we sing, the way we move our bodies - all of it communicates to one another, the world, and God what we know to be true. As we stay awake in our faith, we will see the Holy Spirit at work, and She will expand our theology and understanding of God and God’s world. This is why over the last few years we have incorporated more inclusive and expansive language for God in our liturgies, paying special attention to our call to tend to God’s creation and engage in the ongoing work of racial reconciliation. How we pray with our bodies says something about what we believe to be true, and from time to time, we need to reflect on our practices.
We can ask ourselves:
… What does this body prayer proclaim about the story of God?
… about God’s relationship to the human family or creation?
… Does this body prayer still reflect my beliefs?
… Or has this gesture lost its meaning?
There can also be some cognitive dissonance. Sometimes our muscle memory wins the day, and we keep on praying with our body in ways that no longer reflect our beliefs, but might reflect a ritual we once found meaningful, a bit of comfort food for our souls. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s important to be aware of.
Bearing all that in mind, here is a bit about the how, when, and why of some of the body prayers folks use in our tradition. This is not an exhaustive list, so if you see someone doing something that I don’t talk about, I would encourage you to politely inquire what that gesture means to them.
Sit, Stand, Kneel
We sit when we want to listen and reflect, such as during the lessons and sermon. We stand to praise God. We kneel to express our penitence, supplication, and humility. In the early Church, the entire congregation joined the priest in standing in the orans position, which is when we stand with our arms raised and extended like the letter Y, with our palms up. As the Church evolved over the centuries, more attention was focused on personal penitence, and as such, kneeling became customary in many aspects of worship. Traditionally, folks often kneel for the general confession and absolution, during parts of the Great Thanksgiving, the post communion prayer, and to receive the blessing. Yet in more recent liturgical reform, we have returned to the early Church’s practice of standing. This shifted the focus of the eucharist from personal penitence of individuals to a celebration in community. ** My former bishop in the Diocese of Maine, Stephen Lane, has been known to say, “Stop Kneeling! We’re a resurrected people!” Ultimately though, the prayer book invites us to stand or kneel—what really matters is to hold the posture that helps you draw closer to God and know that both standing and kneeling are always welcomed.
The Sign of the Cross
The practice of making the sign of the cross on one’s forehead dates back to the second century, and is a form of personal piety. Cyril of Jerusalem, a theologian of the early Church, wrote about the sign of the cross in the third century. He wrote:
“Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils…”***
To make the sign of the cross, one touches their fingertips to their forehead, chest, left breast, and then right breast. Many of us also finish the sign of the cross by returning to our chest. In the Orthodox Church, you’ll see the cross be made from right to left. As we make the sign of the cross, we are praying with or without words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
There are many times one might make the sign of the cross in our worship, such as when we proclaim God with us at the opening acclamation; at the end of the Nicene Creed; during the benedictus, when we sing, ‘blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’; whenever a pray says ‘bless us’ such as during the eucharistic prayer; before receiving the eucharist; during the blessing, and so on. Some also make the sign when they enter or leave a church, and many other instances when it helps remind one of God’s presence in and among us.
We also have another special version of a sign of the cross that is used before the gospel is proclaimed. One makes a small cross on their forehead, then their lips, and finally their heart. This gesture is a prayer asking for Christ to be with us in our thinking, speaking, and understanding.
Bowing is an ancient act of reverence.**** Some bow at the name of Jesus at various times in worship. Some bow when the processional cross goes by or when they approach the altar. Still others will bow at the words of institution when the bread and wine are elevated. Others bow when the mystery of the incarnation is mentioned during the Creed. These are all acts of honoring God.
Genuflecting is an alternative act of reverence that developed in the eleventh century. This involves briefly touching a knee to the floor, while keeping one’s upper body upright, and then returning to a standing position. I’m not going to demonstrate it as I have the knees of a former basketball player who dove for balls without abandon. Though I welcome live demonstrations at Coffee & Conversation.
Turning our Bodies
There are a few important times when we turn our bodies in worship. By tradition, the Gospel is read from the center of the congregation, so the word of God will be proclaimed with the people, not at them. Worshippers customarily stand and face the Gospel book to signify our heightened attention to this most important reading. If you have ever been to a Jewish worship service, you may have observed how closely our Gospel procession resembles the Jewish tradition of bearing the Torah scroll into the midst of the congregation. Similarly, some folks will turn their body in the direction of the recessional, as the procession leads the congregation back out into the world.
Every week our service transitions from the liturgy of the word to the liturgy of the table with the Peace. The Peace is an ancient Christian practice where we share a sign of reconciliation, love, and renewed relationships in the Christian community by greeting one another “with a Holy Kiss” as it says in scripture. These days we tend to instead offer a handshake or nod our heads and smile. During the pandemic we shifted away from our practice of handshakes or hugging, and instead began to offer one another the Peace sign or a nod. While it is perfectly fine to return to handshake, I would invite us to do so with a sensitivity and awareness that sometimes folks do not want to hug or shake hands. Make it a habit to read people’s body language, and always ask before moving in for a hug or handshake.
While there are more movements we could dive into, let us leave our Episcopal aerobics there for now. More than the how or why of any particular body prayer, what I hope we might take from this teaching sermon is that:
**** Learn more: https://www.stjvny.org/the-body-language-of-worship
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