Grant, O Lord, that what we have taken with our lips we may receive with a pure heart; and from a temporal gift may it become for us an eternal remedy.
When people ask why I became Episcopalian, sometimes I respond by saying I was converted by the ablutions. When I was working on my M.A., a priest encouraged me to attend a daily Mass. I didn’t make it every day, but on the days I did I would try really hard to make sure I stood and knelt at the correct time, and learned the responses that everyone else seemed to know by heart. (In hindsight, it was actually pretty stressful!) But the time I liked best was the ablutions. There were no lines I had to speak, no standard posture the other Mass-goers assumed which I felt obligated to match. I could just sit and watch the celebrant do the ablutions. They were mesmerizing to me, how carefully they were done and with what deliberation, even tenderness. I didn’t know much about eucharistic theology then (or even that there was such a thing), but the ablutions were a clear signal to me that something Important had just happened, which required extreme reverence to administer. They were an invitation further into the eucharistic mystery, and they were the beginning of my own sense of vocation.
When I tell that story, invariably someone says something about “Mystery” and how wonderful it is, especially in the liturgy. “I just love the mystery of it all, don’t you?” they say. And I get what they mean, but to me it never quite seems to capture what I’ve been trying to say. Much of our contemporary discussion about emerging church movements and other liturgical experiment emphasizes the recovery of a sense of “mystery” in worship, acknowledging a limit to our knowledge and the kinds of things we can say about God (or to God, for that matter). I am sure that all of them, in their various ways, are trying to articulate the same kind of experience I enjoyed at that quiet daily Mass years ago: an invitation deeper into the eucharistic mystery. They are trying to preserve it, and to extend the same invitation to new people in new ways. And yet mystery, understood as so much incense, candles, and intentional silence, only goes so far.
When I arrived at seminary, I was fully hooked on exactly that kind of mystery, eager to learn the secrets of creating the same effect at the altar that had been so meaningful to me as a grad student. I was in for a rude awakening! Church, I soon learned, was hard work. Trying to learn what candles went where, how to navigate a maze of propers and ordinaries (not to be confused with ordinals), when to stand, sit, kneel, and even prostrate myself — not to mention studying the Bible, homiletics, theology, church history, and how to fold leaflets in just the right way to maximize utility — it was all a little like the person who goes to the proverbial sausage factory, watches it being made, and begins to wonder if he is really hungry after all. Where was the mystery in this? Disenchantment lingered in the back of my mind. I began to think it might all be just so much smoke and mirrors. Is the perception of “mystery,” whatever that may mean for each of us, really so far from the reality in practice? And what could that mean for our faith?
This is the same danger to which contemporary attempts at defending or recovering “mystery” in liturgy are prone. As a category, mystery is ephemeral. As a quality, it seems to require the opposite of mystery in order to be manifest: pure, unadulterated showmanship. The distance between a brazier of incense at Compline and a fog machine at a concert is not all that great. Clergy, scholars, altar guilds, and others who find themselves responsible for the Church’s worship should be careful they do not end up like the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain, throwing switches and pulling levers to create a fantastic effect. It may produce holy fear in a band of pilgrims or a congregation, but when the curtain is pulled back and the wizard is revealed, his religion can end up looking like a lie. Insofar as I wanted to capture and replicate the mystery my priest had expressed in the ablutions, I failed to grasp it. I made the mistake of thinking the point of the liturgy was the effect it produced, and neglected the truth it was communicating.
Recently, on a visit to another parish, I overheard someone compliment the preacher on the way out. “You know, you spoke as if heaven were a real place.” My first reaction was to think, “Wow, has it come to this?” But as I thought more, I realized what an important insight it was. It seemed to this person that the preacher had confidence in the truth of what he had communicated, in the reality of heaven, and that this enabled the listener to participate more fully in the sermon. Likewise, the liturgy is mysterious not because of any effect we can create by dramatic exercise, but because the One with whom we communicate in the liturgy resides in light inaccessible, beyond the cloud of “superluminous darkness;” because, despite the great chasm between here and there, he comes to us, has taken on human flesh for us, passed through life and death for us, and now feeds us with his own body and blood, “that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). If we wish to invite people into this eucharistic mystery, we do not need to freight our texts with mystical language (though we might); we do not need to add layer on layer of ceremony (though we may!); we do not even necessarily need to shift our symbols to reflect contemporary priorities (though occasionally it might be profitable). Rather, to invite people into the eucharistic mystery, all we need is to be utterly convinced ourselves that “heaven is a real place” and that at the altar we commune with the One who dwells there.
I think this was at the heart of my experience with the ablutions, which I intuited without knowing how to articulate. The celebrant was not creating mystery, he was not concerned with the effect he was producing. Instead he was rapt in the task of worship: in responding to the One who reveals the mystery of his love in such common, un-mysterious things as bread and wine, a chalice and paten and altar, a Son’s love for his Father, and a Father’s forgiveness of a world that crucified his Son. Rapt in this task, my priest silently communicated to me more clearly than any Wizard of Oz could have thundered: that Christ died for my sins too, that he calls even me out of darkness into his marvelous light, and that in church I come into his house forever. However liturgical revision proceeds in the Episcopal Church, I pray that we never lose sight of this great mystery: that our chief task in worship — and in everything else — is not to be purveyors of the mysterious, but to be lovers of God.
The featured image is “The sacrament of sacraments” (2013) by Fr. Lawrence, OP. It is licensed under Creative Commons.