Open Hands

July 17, 2011

We spent the third day of our El Salvador Trip with martyrs and an almost-martyr. First, we journeyed into Chalatanango to visit the home of Jesuit priest John Cortina, who spent his life working for the poor in northern El Salvador in largely FMLN* territory. Fr. Cortina was great, I’d love to tell you his story  later, but in the interest of keeping this focused in some way- let me skip to the afternoon. We drove about an hour and a half south, stopping by the grave of Ida Ford and Maura Clark, two of the four Maryknoll sisters murdered during the civil war, and ending at the church and grave of Fr. Rutilio Grande. Grande had an interesting relationship with Romero, and his murder (he was the first murdered priest during the uprising) seems to have catalyzed Romero’s own outspokenness for which he eventually received martyrdom.

At Grande’s church, our leaders gave us time for reflection and prayer integrating this sacred place with all that we have learned and experienced thus far on the trip. One huge mural dominates the visual experience of the small open air chapel. Over the altar of the church, on the back wall, a mural depicts a large table, the Lord’s table, set before Frs. Romero and Grande, who stand among children at the table. Tortillas, corn, and wine make a meal and Frs. Romero and Grande stand together in the Orans position*, hands extended, just as priests stand during much of the Eucharistic Prayer. Fr. Romero’s portraiture hands are styled in what appears to be a classical orans, perfectly stretched and tilted outward at just the right angle. This image could adorn the page of a manual for presiding: a well thought out posture, executed with perfect precision. But Fr. Grande’s arms are raised un-selfconsciously, held almost vertical,with his hands tilted slightly inward. Honestly, it reminded me of the priest who seems to have a lot on his mind while he celebrates, and assumes the most natural posture of prayer without focusing on his stance. There seems to be a nonchalance without carelessness that sometimes reminds me of someone unselfconsciously conversing with an old friend. I’ve seen several priests stand that way, seeming to place the prayer firmly in the hands of the Lord with wary but complete trust.

The Paschal Supper: Monsignor Romero on Left, Fr. Gante to the Right

Kneeling at Fr. Grande’s grave just that moment, it occurred to me that he lived his life just as he held his hands in this clearly idealized-eschatalogical** image of the mass. There seems to be an unselfconscious giving of self to the message of the Gospel shown forth in Fr. Grande’s life, leading to death by his persecutors, but more importantly, catalyzing the rumblings of grace into the eruption of God’s liberative Word among the people of El Salvador. Grande could never have known the impact his life and words might have on Romero. Neither could he have known (I don’t imagine) that a 27 year old American liturgical Methodist would be studying his prayer- posture more than thirty years after his death. But his faithfulness to God’s call in his life left not only a mark on those he served but quite literally changed the world in its small way.

The moment and its reflection prompted me to begin a process of wondering about the externals of prayer, and I continue nurturing the image planted in me that day. I realize that externals do not determine the “efficacy” of our prayer, in so far as we define efficacy as God’s listening. But externals matter. Bodies matter. Most liturgical texts, used for celebration in antiquity (and some in the present day) continue choreographing bodies into various prayerful postures. How do the postures we assume in our prayer shape our habitual life-posture. If God’s created physical world which surrounds us prays in varied ways, and if you read the scriptures it does, why should we not think more deeply about the physical posture of our own prayers? When I lift my own hands into the orans position each daily mass during the Lord’s prayer, I now find myself humbled (at least when I give it a little thought) to pray in such a posture that so many Christians before me employed. Most days I find myself standing alongside Fr. Rutilio with too many other things on my mind to lend even a fraction of a thought to my hands as the liturgy lifts up to their ‘normal’ place without my notice. Sometimes I remember Fr. Rutilio as I’m walking to my car or fixing supper in the evening, or closing the day’s box of everything said and done as I drift off to sleep, and I hear Christ’s voice echo from the thirteenth chapter of John’s gospel, “do you know what I have done to you?”

Some Notes
*FMLN: the resistance party during El Salvador’s Civil War. The first FMLN president was elected to the government in 2009.

*Orans Position: an ancient posture of praying dating to imagery found on Christian graves in Roman Catacombs. Priests (both Catholic and mainline Protestant) typically employ an orans position with arms outstretched in the celebration of the Eucharist/ Holy Communion.

** Note in the image at least three important elements, including the types of food, the eschatology employed, and the centrality of the tabernacle to the table. The food used are indigenous foods, not the traditional foods typically seen as having “proper matter” for the celebration of the Eucharist. This may imply God’s use of indigenous symbols which would relate closely to the ideology of some liberation theologies. The table is clearly set in the eschatological joy of the resurrection where the beloved priests are united with their people around the table of the Lamb. It evokes the invitation to the table employed in the Roman Catholic Mass, “This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, happy are we who are called to his table.” Finally, we note the tabernacle in the midst of the table, connecting the eucharistic food consecrated, consumed, and reserved in the midst of THIS congregation to the heavenly food that nourishes God’s people in eternity. In short: the concept made my little liturgist-heart go pitter patter.

Kissing the Cross

April 22, 2011

I’ve had the delight this Triduum* to spend my liturgical hours with my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It’s important for me, as a liturgist, to learn about the tradition of the church that predates my own. Also, it’s a wonderful gift to celebrate our Lord’s Passion (and soon resurrection!) with my ND family. Yesterday we celebrated Maundy Thursday with the washing of feet and the Eucharist in the evening and a late night Tenebrae. Anybody who thinks young people don’t like liturgy, make a pilgrimage to ND during Triduum. There will not be an empty seat or place on the floor to kneel. I’ve never seen churches this full… seriously, never. Most of us aren’t exactly going gray yet, either (o.k. I have found one little gray hair but its gone now!).  But back to the main reflection.

I sometimes struggle with the ecumenical question. Loving the church gets hard sometimes, and that’s just on day-to-day stuff. Schism makes such love quite a bit harder, and frustrates me to the point of tears sometimes (a fact to which my poor boyfriend can attest). My confessor reminds me that schism is a sin, and should continue to break my heart, and the hearts of all people in the church (this includes the Church). But constantly breaking hearts grow heavy. And I have struggled, very much uphill, this Lenten season, and I expected Triduum to make my struggle only that much worse. But, quite the opposite, I  found my relief (dare I say, my present help in time of trouble?) this afternoon in the most unexpected of places.**

This afternoon we commemorated our Lord’s death on the cross, venerating the wood of the cross and celebrating communion.***  At the veneration of the cross, the liturgy reminded me that Easter hope dawns eternally for Christ’s pierced body the church, because we all kiss the same Cross. The Cross draws all persons baptized into the death of Christ, to adore its blessed wood. A tree of infamy, the cross looms above us all, reminding us not only of our brokenness but more importantly of the ultimate triumph of The Broken Body. The powers of this world seek to destroy that Body by starving, beating, humiliating, piercing, suffocating, and finally killing it. Yet, on this (truly) Good day, the Cross reminds us that upon its graceful branches hung our salvation, hung the answer to schism, hung the broken body that heals our wounds.

Crux Spes Unica: The Cross, our Only Hope.
Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for us now, in this hour of death.

Have a holy Triduum and a truly joyful eastertide, my friends.




*Triduum concludes Holy Week and includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in the Easter Vigil. It’s a fancy way of saying “three days,” because for Christians these are the three days in which Christ’s gift of love in the incarnation culminates in the death and resurrection.

**Yeah, not unexpected to anybody else, but I didn’t see it coming.

***For my non-RC-liturgically-formed friends, celebrating communion and the Eucharist are liturgically different. The liturgy of the Eucharist includes the entire Eucharistic Prayer, while the communion is a briefer liturgy with the distribution of already consecrated bread. The real presence is the same, the bread is the same, it’s just consecrated somewhere or somewhen else. In this case, it was consecrated at our Maundy Thursday service yesterday.

The Sunday Service for the People Called Methodists in North America:
Wesley’s Revisions Considered

As we turn to examine the revisions offered by Wesley in the Sunday Service from the form for prayer found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer it is helpful to remember that Wesley offered fairly conservative changes to both the order and content.[1] We must keep in mind that Wesley’s formation as both a Christian and as a priest occurred within the liturgy of the BCP.  He highly esteemed the liturgy of the Anglican Church, and did not take lightly the idea of revision. Wesley himself writes, “I believe there is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England.”[2]  Convicted to the theological and formational soundness of the BCP, we remember that Wesley changed only those things he thought he believed could be improved for the formation of disciples within the American context.[3]

Background for the Sunday Service: Wesley’s Theological and Pastoral Influences

            Wesley’s Sunday Service was formally adopted as the “prayer book of the Methodists in America” at the Christmas Conference in 1784.  Included in the Sunday Service are orders for morning and evening prayer, to be held specifically on Sunday, as well as liturgies for the Lord’s Supper and Baptism and other special services, an abbreviated form of the Psalter, and scriptural sentences appropriate for worship along with the Articles of the Faith and General Rules. Here, I want to focus on a few aspects of the orders for Sunday morning and evening prayer and Wesley’s prescriptions for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  We will return to it later, but it is helpful to note here that Wesley intended that the orders of prayer found in the Sunday Service be used only for Sunday worship, with the possible exception of the Psalter. For prayers during other days of the week, pastors were encouraged to extemporize.[4]

Wesley’s revisions especially show his esteem for and study of patristic texts. During the eighteenth century an increasing number of European theologians and liturgists began turning toward the texts of the patristic era for inspiration as they sought further reformation within the Protestant church.[5]  Wesley was himself liturgically influenced strongly by patristic texts including the writings of Justin Martyr[6] and documents from the early liturgy of the church such as Apostolic Constitutions and Apostolic Canon.[7]  Here we see that Wesley’s instruction for the Methodists in North America to follow scripture and the primitive church actually meant to prescribes certain practices and a theology not unlike Wesley’s own.[8]  Understanding Wesley’s revisions to be informed by his reading of patristic texts, particularly his liturgy for the Lord’s Supper, we realize that such “liberation” is no grounds for complete liturgical freedom.

Instead, he expected the American Methodists to follow a liturgical structure similar to those early Christian texts he had studied.  Therefore, the structure of the Sunday Service aligns fairly closely with the orders for morning and evening prayer in the BCP, and only those things Wesley considered superfluous are revised or removed.  Since Wesley preferred that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper each Sunday, he designed the liturgy to be appended to the order of prayer each Sunday.  On Sundays with no celebration of the Lord’s Supper, an ante-communion would be inserted just prior to the apostolic benediction.

Though a conservative reviser, we note that Wesley did make fairly significant changes to the Book of Common Prayer itself.  Wade points out that at least half the size of the existing prayer book is not included for this version produced by Wesley.[9] If we consider this deletion in light of the Sunday Service’s purpose, which White has pointed out was strictly for Sunday Morning and Evening worship,[10] it seems less striking.  That material deleted by Wesley for the most part included material not properly belong in Sunday worship including prayers for those at sea, and special orders for use at state dinners.[11]

What does seem helpful, however, is the room Wesley’s edition makes for extemporaneous prayer.[12]  By pairing down the material in the orders of prayer for different segments of society and different times, Wesley opens the possibility for a much greater flexibility of practice both in Sunday morning and outside of the Sunday Service. Webb points out that along with the Great Litany, to be celebrated on Wednesdays and Fridays, Wesley encouraged pastors to pray extemporaneously.[13]  This focus on extemporizing, along with other alterations, show both Wesley’s emphasis on the formational aspects of the liturgy as well has his provision for experiencing the presence of God through les formalized orders of worship.  Having considered Wesley’s liturgical influences and his understanding of worship, we now turn to examine three key liturgical changes and revisions Wesley offers the American Methodists in his liturgy the Sunday Service.

[1] James White. Sunday Service, 10-11.

[2] John Wesley, “Preface” to The Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America, James White, ed. 3.

[3] White points to a letter by John Wesley in which he writes, “Dr. Coke made two or three little alterations in the Prayer-Book without my knowledge. I took particular care throughout to alter nothing merely for altering’s sake. In religion I am for as few innovations as possible.” We see here clearly Wesley’s hesitation to changing significant portions of the service, and he will even require Coke to change his revisions to re-include the manual acts at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and making the sign of the cross upon a baby at its baptism (White, 11-12).

[4] White, “Introduction” to John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, 9-10.

[5] White, Introduction, 12.

[6] Westerfield Tucker points out the irony in the likeness between Asbury’s service and the liturgy described in Justin Martyr’s first Apology. While Wesley’s education included interaction with and inspired a deep appreciation of texts like Justin Martyr’s it is not Wesley’s Sunday Service, but Asbury’s, that aligns most closely with the style of worship described in the first Apology (Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 9).

[7] Wainwright, Our Elder Brethren Join, 6-7.

[8] Westerfield Tucker, 4.

[9] Wade, History of Public Worship, 24. This can, however, be accounted for by Wesley’s provision for extemporaneous prayer during services held other days of the week and for home visits by pastors. A great deal of what Wesley removes is occasional prayers. Wesley expects his ministers to pray extemporaneously under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to a greater extent than provided by the BCP.

[10] White, Introduction, 9.

[11] Wade, History of Public Worship, 24.

[12] White, Întroduction, 19.

[13] Webb, History, 25.

Re-Membering Church

October 6, 2010

In a recent post on the United Methodist Portal, Andrew Thompson offers some great thoughts on the UMC Re-Think church campaign. You can find that article here, to get those thoughts in detail (and I definitely encourage you to do so!). In his article, Andrew talks about a few ways we can engage “Re-Thinking”* church by “remembering.” Remembering can be an action we do with our minds, but it also means a deeper action, a putting back together of our church, our hearts, and our lives in Christ.

The question is, “how do we re-member?” Catechesis is one significant access to the memory-deposit of the church that many mainline Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Evangelical pastors and theologians alike encourage our churches to turn toward. Catechesis engages new (and old!) Christians in a process of learning the content of the faith we profess. Catechesis trains Christians to remember the deposit of hope placed in us at our baptism, when we are initiated into Christ’s body.

But for re-membering to be a serious desire for the re-ordering of our lives, (and if we are seriously not Pelagians who believe we can do it all ourselves) we must also ask, “How are we re-membered individually and as a church?” Here we must expand our catechetical engagement to include sacramental catechesis. In other words, we must learn and teach the faith first in the school of Worship of our Living God.

In all worship, but especially in the sacraments, we remember and we are are re-membered by Christ. Now let me clarify my terms here: our sacramental memory is no “mere” memorial. Our sacramental memory is dynamic, our sacramental memory is anamnetic.** As we remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper, we are re-membered into faithful disciples obeying the call of the Lord. Our sacramental celebration of the Eucharist presences us within the broken body of Christ for the transformation of the world when we affirm the prayer of the church, “Pour out your Holy Spirit upon these gifts of bread and wine make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by His blood…” with our (hopefully vigorous!) Amen.

I’m a United Methodist female candidate for ministry attending a Roman Catholic university. I attend Mass as often as I can at school and Eucharist at my UM Church on Sunday because I take John Wesley’s admonition to “constant communion” seriously. Living in the liminal sacramental space of Christ’s severed body the church hurts my heart. This is not a statement to say that anybody is “wrong” in their open or closed table. It’s not a placement of fault: that’s an unhelpful dead end conversation. But the sacramental broken body of our Lord should break our hearts so that they can remember the love of our God in glory. Like Paschal, I am convicted every single day when I worship that “Christ is in agony until the end of the world.” I am convinced that re-thinking must begin with re-membering and being re-membered. Re-thinking church can only begin by allowing ourselves to be re-membered as the sacramental body of our Lord and by being renewed through the memory and mind of Christ offered to us in the liturgy of the Church.


*Re-Think church names a recent United Methodist movement to open the windows and doors of the church to the renewal of the Holy Spirit. For a more in-depth discussion see the UMC website.

**Anamnesis is a greek term, and by it the church means indicates a type of memory that places us at Christ’s eschatalogical table. We remember the passion of our Lord in such a way that it becomes real in our twenty first century reality. We affirm that in the sacraments God’s Holy Spirit re-members God’s church to be the body of Christ even as we partake of the bread and the wine.