Worship, Doctrine, and Life in the Anglican Way
Processions from homes all over town and county begin early Sunday morning. We wake from sleep and we rise from our beds. Sunlight, spreading from the east, pours through our bedroom window into our kitchens, our living rooms, and our baths as we groom ourselves for what we are about to participate in. The aroma of coffee or Sunday’s lunch slow cooking in the oven may begin to sweeten our homes. Today is different from all other days of the week. Whether married, single, alone or with children, we all join in the same ritual of preparation. Some of us will lay out our freshly laundered Sunday clothes. We polish our shoes and brush off our coats. We vest ourselves in the best we have, because we are about to meet God at the very place he has promised to be. Others will pay less attention to what they are wearing, but their anticipation will be the same – we all expect to meet God this morning. There are no abstractions here. This is all very concrete, very specific to time and place, very much localized. Yes, it is true that each person has a story to tell and each one is the narrator and the subject of his story, but now all our personal stories will be collected and given parts in God’s autobiography. His story is in our story and our story is in his story. This morning we have a common destination: a specific altar, within a specific parish church and that is where it will happen. It could be no other way.
As we enter the church friends greet us with smiling faces. We pick up a bulletin and walk into the nave with other parishioners who have just arrived. The organist is playing the prelude, a selection of music that corresponds to the church season. Let us say that this is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year. Some parishioners dip their fingers into the baptismal font as they pass by and make the sign of the cross upon their chest. Before entering the pew they genuflect or bow modestly, focusing upon the sanctuary that is situated eastward. Sunlight flows through the great window above the altar. The altar is the center of our attention. Candles are lit. Next to the tabernacle, which holds the consecrated hosts from previous worship services, the sanctus lamp burns. After slipping into the pew, we kneel and say a short prayer asking for God’s blessing upon this service of worship. We pray for the priests, the deacons, the lectors, the choir and the acolytes; and we pray for our friends and for ourselves gathered here in common prayer. The organist’s prelude ends and he trumpets the beginning of the processional hymn. We rise to our feet as we sing our first hymn of praise to the blessed Trinity as the gathered Body of Christ.
The hymn commonly used on this First Sunday of Advent, written by Charles Wesley, is the very first one in our hymnal:
Come, thou long expected Jesus, Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver, Born a child, and yet a king,
Born to reign in us for ever, Now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone
By thine all sufficient merit Raise us to thy glorious throne.
Now all of our scattered lives, all of our personal processions are gathered up into this great procession of the Church of God at the beginning of the Eucharist. The crucifer leads the way, holding high the Cross of Christ, followed by the choir, the other ministers and finally the celebrant who is vested in a plain white alb and a purple stole. Before the hymn is ended the ministers pass through the altar rails into the sanctuary and line up facing the altar, which is elevated above them. They genuflect together. As the assisting ministers go to their stations within the sanctuary, the celebrant ascends the steps, his back to the people, and his eyes on the golden crucifix upon the altar. At the end of the hymn and a brief silence the celebrant declares: “Let us pray” and everyone in the parish church, but he, kneels as he prays the prayer known as the ‘Collect for Purity”:
“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hid;
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love thee,
and worthily magnify they holy Name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Thus the Holy Communion between the Holy Trinity and the Church has begun concretely and specifically.