The idea for this blog was born in a moment before a funeral liturgy began. Interesting, how from dying there comes life.
One of our other cantors, Carolin, leaned over and asked me what the white cloth atop the coffin was. “It’s a pall,” I told her. “It symbolizes the baptismal garment, and is a reminder that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. The same reason we light the paschal candle at funerals.” “I’ve never heard that before,” she said, “but it’s awesome!”
So much of what can be labeled “holy things” might elicit a similar reaction. Once we know the back story, the reason why, the veil is lifted from our eyes and we see things differently.
I grew up in a era in which what were considered the “trappings” of a more formal time were being abandoned left and right. To be sure, many had seen and experienced those trappings as a means of oppression, and as such they deserved to be abandoned. But I think we are coming into a time now when we long deeply for meaning in what we do. Drawing one another into the dance that is our life together, telling that back story, has become very important.
Certainly, different circumstances call for different approaches. Worship with Eucharist at camp is going to have a very different feel than a joint Eucharist with the local Episcopal diocese, at which the respective bishops preside and preach. But understanding what “holy things” are and what they mean informs the whole process in a fascinating way.
I mentioned the pall. It’s not just a pretty cover so we don’t have to look at the coffin. No indeed. As a reminder of the baptismal garment, the pall states clearly whose we are. No need to fear. God’s got this. There are lots and lots of other “holy things” – let’s talk about a few of them.
In the “Gather” portion of the liturgy, there might be a procession. Some parishes do this every Sunday; others save it for festival days. The processional cross goes first – Christ goes before us – then the torches/candles – Christ brings the light into the world – then the lectionary or Bible, reflecting John’s gospel “in the beginning was the Word…” and that the Word of God is life – and finally the presider and assisting minister. The presider is ordained – the ordination vows speak of the pastor as a “steward of the mysteries of God” and presiding at Eucharist is the most immediate of those stewardship moments.
In the transition from Word to Meal, the presider may prepare the elements (bread and wine) for communion, and in the process remove the corporal from the bread. Some parishes use a corporal – a square of white cloth – to cover the vessel that contains the bread. The root word for ‘corporal’ is, of course, the same as for ‘body’ – corpus. Using a corporal may hold meaning for some congregations, and may simply be confusing for others – but its symbolism is that of the shroud as well as the baptismal garment, death and life. That juxtaposition of death and life is classically Lutheran; we live in constant tension between opposite ends of a spectrum.
Our baptismal font is another holy thing. It is anchored at the intersection between the sanctuary (seating area) and the chancel (table area) and you always pass by it as you come to communion. That is intentional. We aren’t trying to clutter up the place! Martin Luther offered great advice: “Remember your baptism.” It is said when he was troubled or afraid, he would splash water on himself and proclaim: “But I am baptized!” True that, Martin. To remember our baptism as we receive communion – to dip our fingers in the font, and then make the sign of the cross – says with utter conviction that we are children of God, claimed and gathered, fed and sent.
In his book Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology Gordon Lathrop, professor emeritus of liturgy at the Lutheran School of Theology at Philadelphia, makes a strong case for the liturgy and its attendant theology. But he does not permit the mindset of “we’ve always done it that way” to remotely permeate the discussion. Careful consideration and thought are encouraged. We are reminded of the exhortation from Amos: “…I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” (5:21b). Going through the motions, doing something because that’s how we’ve always done it, is not life-giving. It’s essential that we be able to answer the question “why?” at every turn.
And if we can, in our answers to those “why” questions, always point to Jesus, it will be a good start.