Sunday, July 25, 2010

Anticipatory Delight

In the previous post we considered “remembrance” in the Lord’s Supper, how the story of God’s love is rehearsed from Creation forward through the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. In the process this Salvation History is brought again into the present, and Christ is recognized as being in the midst of those who break the bread and lift the cup.

Now we turn to the opposite direction and look toward the horizon, to the future.

When I was a little person, the mere thought of an approaching birthday or Christmas had its own measure of fun and excitement. That time was filled with promise and hope—possibilities of desired gifts and the chance to see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Lots to look forward to. And the looking forward was in itself an important experience of anticipatory delight.

Celebration of the Lord’s Supper has something of the same kind of anticipatory delight, looking forward with great expectation to the fulfillment of God’s promises and the return of the ascendant Christ to rule.

The Words of Institution set the tone with the final sentence in the voice of the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11:26 – italics mine):
"Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord,
until he comes. "

Using the first Great Thanksgiving (Book of Common Worship (1993), pp. 69 ff.) as a model, we can see how strong this expectant mood is in the Lord’s Supper. In the middle of the prayer, the bread and wine are set apart for this holy use with these words, concluding with an expectant phrase (italics mine):
"Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and this wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming. "

Four alternative acclamations are given, any one of which shifts from past to present and then to anticipation of the future (italics mine):
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.
Dying you destroyed our death,
rising you restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory.
We remember his death,
we proclaim his resurrection,
we await his coming in glory.
When we eat this bread and drink this cup,
we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus,
until you come in glory.

At the end of the prayer we see how important our anticipation of God’s future is to our living in the present. There is longing for what God has promised, yet that yearning becomes the motivation for faithful discipleship in following Jesus (italics mine):
"In union with your church in heaven and on earth,
we pray, O God, that you will fulfill your eternal purpose
in us and in all the world.
Keep us faithful in your service
until Christ comes in final victory,
and we shall feast with all your saints
in the joy of your eternal realm."

This boomerang effect, yearning for the future fulfillment of promise and hope and living life in faith and expectation that it is on the way, is a figure of speech called “prolepsis,” referring to something future as though it’s already done or existing. Just as anamnesis re-calls the past into the present, prolepsis anticipates the future as a present reality.

This is radically different from living in the future. Some folks focus their theology on the certainty of going to heaven, seeing life as it is in the here and now as merely marking time. This is commonly ridiculed as “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye.” The upshot of this approach is that we don’t have to do anything, because God will work everything out in the future the way it’s supposed to be. On the contrary, the followers of Jesus are to live lives toward the fulfillment God promises, lives that are consistent with the teaching and ministry of Jesus who will come again.

Now it becomes clear that both the anamnesis, re-calling God’s mighty acts of the past into the present, and prolepsis, present anticipation of God’s promises all fulfilled, conspire to make the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper an essential and central rite of the Christian church. The Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic prayer, pulls together past and future to the present enrichment of Christian discipleship in the world.

In your church, does the Eucharistic prayer contain both anamnesis and prolepsis? What other parts of the liturgy suggest re-calling the past and anticipating the future with joy?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Don't Forget

The Words of Institution of the Lord’s Supper come to us from the Apostle Paul as the instructions he received from the Lord about the meal to be shared “in remembrance” of Jesus. (I Cor. 11:23-26) Sometimes the Greek word Paul used is also translated as “in remembering,” occasionally “in memory of,” yet the English words all fall short of conveying what is meant in the context of the Lord’s Supper.

Therefore, scholars fall back on the original Greek word employed by Paul, which is “anamnesis”. Our word “amnesia,” loss of memory, is derived from this word. So an-amnesis means literally not-loss-of-memory, the opposite of amnesia. Anamnesis is all about having memory, being mindful, not forgetting, being reminded, remembering, recalling.

Yet even this most literal translation is insufficient. Anamnesis means recalling in the sense of re-calling. Rather than thinking backward into the past to remember Jesus, anamnesis re-calls the past into our present. In sharing the bread and passing the cup at the Lord’s Table we remember Jesus. Yet more than acknowledging that there was a man by that name a long, long time ago in a far-off land, we here and now re-call his life and teaching, his tragic death and triumphant resurrection and ascension. We call Jesus anew and meet him in the here and now. In the breaking of bread, our eyes are open and we recognize him, just as it was for those first followers of his. (Luke 24:30-31)

We speak of “the real presence” of Christ in the sacrament, which is supported by anamnesis. Memorializing Jesus, however, remembering him as a figure of past history, undermines this central theme. We do this sometimes with the best of intentions. On Maundy Thursday worship leaders might have a table set in the front of the sanctuary with twelve plates and trays of cups to mimic the original Last Supper. Or, using the Words of Institution along as the text for the breaking of bread and lifting the cup can send the whole experience into a rehearsal of a past event. As someone impiously put it, “Too often the Lord’s Supper becomes little more than a memorial to a dead Jew.” Rather, every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an encounter with the living Christ.

Anamnesis finds full expression in the Eucharistic prayer, the Great Thanksgiving. With thanks, the story of God’s way with God’s own people is re-called in a summary of Salvation History from Creation through covenants made and the voices of the prophets, to the coming of Jesus, the Christ. The life and ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and his ascension, are re-called in considerable detail. God’s actions of the past become present realities, re-called now in the worship experience.

As we approach the Lord’s Table and hear the instructive Words of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, we are told by Jesus to perform acts of non-forgetfulness. Bread and wine are the elements, but the acts of not-forgetting are eating and drinking. In the sacramental actions performed in obedience to our Lord’s command, we meet him face-to-face. These actions, then, become the down payments on all our obedient actions as we follow him into the world. The Lord’s Supper is food for our journey as disciples of Jesus, nourishing us as we pick up his ministry where we are.

Now as we remember Jesus, we re-call what his ministry means for us, for example: giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46); bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19); and the many other instructions and challenges of his teaching, parables, and actions throughout his life and ministry.

In short, the anamnesis in the Lord’s Supper brings home to us the reality of our calling as Christians. This is not a ritual act isolated unto itself without consequences. Eating the bread and drinking the wine are acts of obedience to the risen Christ who said “…eat…drink….” It is by these acts that we commit ourselves to be obedient disciples in following his lead. So we pray in the Great Thanksgiving, “As this bread is Christ's body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”

In what ways have you experienced the Lord’s Supper where Christ is a real presence? What in the liturgy has contributed to that experience? What has detracted?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Presider

I was invited to be the “guest presider” at one of the churches in our presbytery a while back. Which means that all they wanted me to do was preside at the Lord’s Supper.

The Presbyterian congregation was joining for the Sunday service with a neighbor Episcopal church. A visiting priest from New York City would preach, and the local Episcopal pastor would lead in other parts of the service.

The Presbyterian session was anxious to have a Presbyterian minister administer Communion, since their pastor would be away. Taking seriously the provisions of the Directory for Worship, they recruited me. “For reasons of order the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper shall be administered by a minister of the Word and Sacrament….”(W-2.4012c)

Of course there are other possibilities, commissioned lay pastors, for example, and even elders under certain circumstances. But “for reasons of order,” it should be a minister.

The Roman Catholic Church requires that the Eucharist be administered by a priest, especially one ordained in “apostolic succession.” They are very concerned with “order,” in this as in other ways.

The Roman polity, a top-down hierarchy, prescribes a fairly rigid order as a means of control. During the exhilarating years following Vatican II, we took advantage of some laxity and some looking the other way, and even had experiences of “con-celebrating” the Sacrament with our Roman brothers, as well as presiding at tables where Catholics and Protestants came together. But those days are gone. Order has been restored in the Roman Church.

One might say, for discussion’s sake, “What’s the difference between them and us? Presbyterians require order also.” The difference is that our hierarchical polity is bottom-up rather than top-down, and those who preside are elected from and by the people. Our polity assures that Communion is celebrated by the whole church, of which the presider is the representative. It’s a very different kind of orderliness.

A better reason than “order” for ministers to preside at the Lord’s Table is found in the latter part of the line from the Directory for Worship: “…the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper shall be administered by a minister of Word and Sacrament.” The Sacrament is linked to the Word. The proclamation of the Word in Scripture and sermon and the sharing of God’s gifts in the Sacrament both present the risen Christ.

Therefore, the presider at the Sacrament should be one who is also authorized to proclaim the Word, namely a “minister of Word and Sacrament.” This is not a new idea. The Scots Confession (3.22) has it this way:
“Two things are necessary for the right administration of the sacraments. The first is that they should be ministered by lawful ministers, and we declare that these are men appointed to preach the Word, unto whom God has given the power to preach the gospel, and who are lawfully called by some Kirk.” (The other necessary thing is that the Sacrament should be “ministered in the elements and manner which God has appointed.”)

In a previous post I wrote about the problem with the Lord’s Supper celebrated detached from the liturgy of the Word. Word and Sacrament are a matched set. It is the Minister of Word and Sacrament who should keep them together. Ordination is the way we assign necessary responsibilities in the church. Ordination helps keep things in order. If we are to do our worship “decently and in order,” the presider at the Table should be one ordained to proclaim the Word.

Now I confess that I wondered how this “guest presider” thing would work for me. After all, I would not be the preacher. So would it be proper for me only to preside at the Lord’s Table? Reflecting on the experience, I had no misgivings whatsoever. I presided, but the other clergy joined me in serving the people, and we served one another. It was truly the Sacrament of the whole church, and an ecumenical blessing besides.

Does it make any difference to you whether or not it is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament presiding at the Lord’s Supper? Have you experienced Communion in other denominations?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

You Can Say That Again

Repetition in liturgy has a bad reputation.

Yet that’s the way we learn. Saying responses week after week, the creed, familiar prayers and singing the hymns we love over and over are ways we fill our memories with basic theology. Someone once said that if the truth be known, we learn theology from the hymns we sing. I’d add, we are taught by the whole liturgy as well.

So, like it or not, there must be a certain amount of repetition in our worship. Some forms of dialogue regularly appear, for example, “The Lord be with you.”/”And also with you.” Verses of Scripture show up again and again as calls to worship or introductions to prayers. The Apostles’ Creed and other affirmations repeatedly express belief. Classic prayers are repeated from time to time and serve as models for personal prayer beyond corporate worship. Hymns and other music, of course, have a powerful cumulative impact on worshippers.

The problem is, however, that repetition can go stale very quickly and turn to mere rote. It’s easy for congregations to say the Lord’s Prayer just as they’ve said it for years without much thought—they put it on liturgical cruise-control and coast through it. This can happen with much of the liturgy. It can even happen with familiar hymns that are just “gotten through” without a lot of feeling.

Changing things constantly or bringing on everything new all the time doesn’t help. Liturgy can be flooded with “the latest and greatest,” to the end that there is little to file in the memory. There is not sufficient repetition to learn it.

I wonder when I go into a church and there is a hymnal with some 600-plus hymns, and next to it a supplemental book with another 300 songs, while on the pew is a notebook with another 50 or so congregational favorites. That approaches 1000 musical pieces available to the pew-sitter. The congregation will either focus on a relatively small number, or try to do them all and no one will really absorb any single song.

There was a time when church school children learned, even memorized parts of the liturgy in preparation for the times they worshipped with their parents. They were even taught hymns sung in the church service. I don’t think memorization and teaching of liturgy happens much any more.

So saying prayers and singing songs again and again is how we learn. Repetition plants things in our memories. Still, there is the danger of dullness, over-familiarity, routine, boredom.

One way to avoid the deadliness of rote is for the leaders, lay and clergy and musicians, to do the liturgy with feeling. I’ve heard many worship leaders, including clergy, read prayers with inflection patterns that numb the listeners’ brains. Even when leading a unison prayer, the leader should speak loudly enough with meaning so everyone else is prompted to say it with meaning as well.

When liturgy sticks in the memory of the worshipper, it can make a great difference. Here are to real-life examples.

I went to a nursing home the other day to see a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. She was not able to communicate much to me, but her daughter was there and we spoke at some length. The daughter told me that her mother was a life-long active church member, teaching Sunday school, working with deacons, and most of all singing in the church choirs. Singing gospel music and hymns of the Methodist tradition was her greatest joy. Her daughter told me that while her mother was unable to do anything to care for herself because of the Alzheimer’s, she could still sing the old songs, and she would sing every last verse. Alzheimer’s, devastating as it was for her, it could not overwhelm her songs. I thought immediately of the wonderful old hymn, “How Can I Keep From Singing?”

My other example has to do with a conversation I had with a man after church one morning many years ago. He’d asked to speak to me in private. “It’s about that Charge you give to the congregation every week,” he said. He was referring to:
Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Well,” he went on, “a few months ago one of my co-workers did something that undermined a project I was responsible for. And this past week I had a chance to get even with him, and I was poised to do so. But then I heard those words in my mind, ‘return no one evil for evil,’ and I held back.” With tears in his eyes, he said, “I couldn’t do it. Thanks for continually reminding me. It stuck with me.”

Repetition in liturgy allows us to reclaim some of the treasures of the past, the great prayers and hymns that have moved hearts and minds and lives in obedient service of Jesus Christ for generations, and can shape our lives, even our behavior still today.

What are the pieces of liturgy that you see worthy of repetition? What hymns deserve to be sung again and again?