Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Power of a Time Tested, Traditional Liturgy: Notes From Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday was almost as late as it could be in the calendar this year because Easter is also almost as late as it can be.  Even though spring was barely two weeks away, yesterday afternoon, when I looked out the window as I was preparing to leave the house for the Ash Wednesday service, I could see snow flurries gently falling from the sky.  I thought ashes and snow should not be included in the same sentence let alone occur on the same day.

This year’s Ash Wednesday was the first in nearly thirty years that I was not serving a church as a Pastor and the first in several years that I was not responsible for all or part of the Ash Wednesday service.  Not even the church I have been attending was marking the day with a service so I worshipped in a church of a different denomination but one I was not unfamiliar with.  I have even preached and co-lead worship in another congregation of the same denomination, but that was over six years ago.

It felt both odd and refreshing to be sitting in the pews rather than standing behind the pulpit or presiding at the table and to not know anyone attending the service.  I find it difficult not to be critical when I am a worshiper rather than a worship leader and yesterday was no exception.  The priest fumbled the liturgy a bit, but so have I, and he recovered well.  I thought the sermon was a little lacking, the preacher trying to pack too much into it, but he proclaimed the Word nevertheless.

I lean toward high church but high church done in a relaxed and folksy manner.  Yesterday’s Ash Wednesday service came close to that.  Among the twenty some in the sanctuary I saw some dressed in suits and ties and others in blue jeans and T- shirts.  The priest and acolytes were robed and the appropriate liturgical color was used.  While candles were burning there were no smells or bells but we knelt for prayer and stood for the Gospel. Worshipers seemed relaxed rather than stilted.  The priest moved naturally and seemed comfortable with the liturgy.
Yesterday was the first time in several months that I have heard all four lectionary readings included in the worship and I have missed them.  After a sermon which seemed to touch on all four readings, worshipers were invited to the rail where they received the imposition of ashes, the sign of the cross being traced on their forehead with the ash left from burning last year’s Palm Sunday palms, reminding me that from dust I came and to dust I shall return. 

Hearing and participating with worshippers as the Priest led them in the Sursum Corda lifted my heart and spirit.  Walking to and kneeling at the rail to receive the Eucharist engaged my body in a way it has not been engaged in worship in a long time.  Drinking real wine from a common cup warmed my throat and faith.

Yesterday was only the second time in months that I have received the Eucharist. It was the first time in recent memory I drank from a common cup containing real wine.  I prefer frequent celebration of the Eucharist and, if I had my way, I would offer wine as well as unfermented grape juice in the cup, but as a worship leader I do not always get my way.
I have missed what I experienced yesterday.  I do not necessarily need to worship in a high church liturgical setting every Sunday and might grow tired of it if I did, but once in a while I need it. Once in a while I need the power of a time tested, traditional liturgy to carry the Gospel rather than relying on the hymns, sermon, or prayers  employing contemporary language but void of biblical imagery.

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