Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Home Stretch

This post originally appeared as the cover article in our parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and to learn about what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, please click here.
In the Episcopal Church, we like to think of ourselves as friendly and welcoming, but we regularly ask newcomers to juggle a prayer book and a hymnal, often jumping from one place to another without warning. Some of us are put off by that feeling of lostness, but I have always found it strangely appealing. Even when I was new to the Episcopal Church, I loved being asked to keep up with so many moving parts. Everyone around me seemed to know what she was doing—all bowing, kneeling, and crossing themselves in unison—and I knew that if I was to get the most I could out of worship I had to give it my full attention. Sometimes, though, I am keenly aware that, despite everyone’s best efforts, I have lost a considerable portion of the congregation.

Once a month, one of the clergy from our parish offers a Communion service at a local assisted-living facility. We started that back when there were six or seven members of our congregation living there, but several of them have moved or died, leaving only a few Episcopalians in the group. The success of that gathering, however, was never measured in the number of parishioners around the table. From the very beginning, most of our worshippers were from a different tradition. As you might expect, we use the Book of Common Prayer for the liturgy, and we distribute service leaflets that have most of the words of the service printed in them, but there are always a few gaps that trip people up. In particular, there is one point in the service at which the presider says the proper preface for the season or the day, and invariably several worshippers begin flipping back and forth, looking for words that are not in their leaflets.

Even if we don’t realize it or can’t find it in our prayer books, the proper preface is a part of the Eucharistic prayer that we hear every Sunday—the part immediately before the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy…”). It changes with the liturgical season, and its words reflect the focus of our worship. Most seasons (e.g. Easter, Advent, and Christmas) have only one preface associated with them, but Lent has two (plus a third preface just for Holy Week). For the first six weeks of Lent, therefore, whoever is presiding at the table has a choice, and, when it is my turn to pick, I always try to choose the preface that ties in more closely with the gospel lesson and/or the sermon.

Although there are exceptions (most notably Ash Wednesday), the first four weeks of Lent usually remind me of the first preface, which recalls Jesus’ victory over temptation—a victory in which we share. Once we pass the fourth Sunday in Lent, however, things change. The readings begin to focus more clearly on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the death that awaited him there. Accordingly, the preface to which I feel drawn during these last few weeks reminds us that God “[bids his] faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast.” In that way, we recognize that our Lenten journey is nearing its end—its consummation—and that there are steps we need to take to get ready for it.
This past Sunday our church was particularly full. Perhaps you have felt a gentle tug on your heart these past few weeks. Perhaps the warm weather and the lengthening days have stirred up in you a desire to return to church. Whatever the reason, I cannot think of a better time to worship with us. Easter is right around the corner. Lent is almost over. Whether you gave something up or took something on doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you find a way to prepare your heart to celebrate the joy that is coming. We are nearly there, but it isn’t too late. As the preface bids us, now is the time for “fervent prayer and…works of mercy.” Now is the time for renewal through God’s Word and Sacraments. God has prepared an immeasurable grace for us. Now we must prepare to receive it again.

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