Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sacramental Absence

A while back I attended a church service in a majestic nineteenth century structure, with an arching, spacious sanctuary.

Immediately my eye was attracted to a table located in the focal center of the worship space. I had to assume it was the Communion Table, because it was resting incognito under a brightly colored, patterned cloth which had no liturgical meaning as far as I could tell. Since there was nothing on it resembling dinner ware or even a modest plate and chalice, there was no hint that the table had any use whatsoever.

After several minutes of visual searching, I sighted the baptismal font stowed off in a corner. Obviously wherever this piece of furniture had been before, it was in the way, so it was safely transported virtually out of sight, thus out of mind.

The service itself was well thought out and well led; musicians, lay readers and clergy prompted worship by the congregation for the most part. As you might guess, however, neither Baptism nor Communion was celebrated, nor even mentioned. They were absent, completely.

As I pondered this experience for the rest of the day, another memory popped to the surface, of a local gathering of Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy to reflect on the recently concluded Second Vatican Council and its pronouncements.

The priests wanted to know how we Protestants managed to come up with a sermon week after week. From what they said, this part of their worship was minimal, a few devotional words, something supplied by a homily service maybe, or just some ad lib remarks. But, for them, a full-fledged sermon was a scary new concept.

On the minds of the Protestants was why and how did the Catholics celebrate the Eucharist week after week. Not that we were particularly eager to do so in our churches, but it was an intriguing thought. We got by with only four Communions a year, maybe fine.

Swapping stories and theological rationales was the beginning of both groups discovering the dangers of minimalizing major parts of worship. Suppress preaching and the sacramental rite gets more and more complicated and cumbersome, and the principal, maybe sole, bearer of theology. On the other hand, push the sacraments off in a corner, and the proclamation of Scripture dominates worship to the point of making everything else in the service of minor importance.

Going back to the top of the page, in the Victorian church where I was that morning, it was clearly a preaching-centered service. While the offering appeared after the sermon and prayers of the people, there was no indication that it had any distant connection with Communion or represented a vestige of the Eucharistic liturgy. The Scripture-sermon section was the heart and soul of the service.

I want to be clear that in no sense did I perceive that the preacher was deliberately managing any of this. The sermon was thoughtful, timely and relevant for that congregation, and well presented.

The problem came from the absence of the sacraments. When they are not present, everything else expands to fill their space. Liturgy, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and where one is created, other things get amplified, whether they like it or not.

For one thing, minus weekly Eucharist, the service becomes word dominant. Listening is the main occupation of the people in the pews. The senses of touch, taste and smell are minimized.

What is more, worship becomes mainly a mental activity. Not that thinking during worship is a bad thing, but sermons might tend to lean in the direction of being polemical or argumentative rather than prophetic and evangelical. Giving a theology lesson from the pulpit is different from preaching the Good News the preacher-sinner needs to share with the sinners in the pews.

Also, preaching from a pulpit three steps up from everyone else is not the same as sharing food and drink across a table. The intimacy of the sacraments is needed to balance the authoritarian atmosphere of the pulpit.

That’s what it’s all about, I decided. Balance. Word and Sacrament. Not “just Word, and when we get around to it maybe we’ll have a Sacrament.” Both sacraments need to be present every Sunday. If there are no actual baptisms to take place, the font, with water, should be placed where everyone can at least see it, even better walk past it on the way in. Every Sunday, Communion or not, the table should be set, with bread on the plate and wine in the chalice.

The absence of the sacraments from regular Lord’s Day worship can create imbalance not only to the order of service, but to the meaning of worship.

Where you worship, is sacramental furniture set for use and visible even when the sacraments are not observed? How often does your church have the Lord’s Supper? Why?

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