One of the perennial discussions that comes up at this time of year is a discussion of the liturgical color of Advent – should we don the traditional purple or move to using (what some term Sarum) blue. There have also been the seemingly requisite complaints that such a discussion is a waste of time and steers us away from more pressing concerns.
I have always thought that liturgical churches and particularly those with a robust Sacramental life do a disservice when they avoid discussion of those external markers of parish identity. The forms and manner with which we engage in worship necessitate a considered and well-thought-out approach to each aspect of our worship life. A robust life of worship and adoration is one in which gestures, movements, colors, hymns, and more each have a defined part of the whole fabric of common life.
It is easy to make an idol of such things – I have watched with a mix of amusement and horror as discussions of where and when a sub-deacon holds the paten during mass went into a toxic overdrive. Yet, to not have some understanding of the form and function of varying aspects of liturgy creates a scenario in which a group of people gathers with only a vague sense as to why they are gathered at all.
Worship is first and foremost worship – it is the lovingly rendered adoration of God. Worship that is attentive with out being pendantically punctilious gives space for all to enter the space with both a sense of their first purpose for being together as well as the grace to focus on the essentials when things seem to go wrong. It is often when things go “wrong” that the character of a worshiping community is revealed. Are people gentle with each other when mistakes are made? Can the congregation see the error yet not be distracted from their focus on God?
This grace comes with practice – great musicians can “go with the flow” when they have made patient study of source material and have practiced again and again.
When we study and seek to understand the forms of the rite we are better able to understand the deeper teachings of the shape of the liturgy. In a tradition in which we believe external things (bread, wine, and water) communicate essential deeper truth we are bound to the study of the externals of our common life. While a discussion of color might go deeply awry when its primary concern is the attractiveness or lack thereof of the choices that same discussion might become profound when its focus is on the deeper revelation of the choice.
Might a discussion of purple or blue for Lent not rest so much on what an individual or a congregation likes but on what the deeper meaning of Advent is? Could a congregation benefit from a discussion of the themes of repentance that purple might communicate with its obvious connection to Lent? Could the same congregation be enriched by a focus on the Marian themes of Advent (and the frequent use of blue for Marian feasts)?
So much in parish life is not so much about the conversations themselves but about the way in which we engage the conversations. In a tradition that spans broad, low, and high (whatever those might mean nowadays) practice and theology there is enormous value in establishing and understanding those elements of our common practice (or where we diverge). These external markers help shape and mold parish identity and congregational ethos. They also mark in particular ways both the shifting of the Church year and those things which are so essential that they never change.
This year, our interim dean, Fr Patrick Malloy has been leading a parish-wide discussion on Sunday mornings about liturgy, tradition, and Sacramental theology. The parish hall is jammed with people every Sunday who are yearning to learn more about the tradition and our Anglican identity within the Catholic spectrum. They are coming for discussions that range from the biggest of big pictures (what is a ritual) to the most focused of topics (why do we chant).
This focused attention on the externals of our common life has given people a deeper insight into the core mysteries of our faith. For example, a discussion of the use of the lavabo leads to a discussion about the connection between our ritual and the temple rituals of the Jewish people. This leads to a discussion about the Jewish elements of our faith more broadly and those things which we find in our faith that are direct inheritances from Judaism.
A discussion of the commixture and the placing of the fermentum in the chalice after the consecrations leads to a discussion of the nature of bishops and the connection of each celebration of the Eucharist to another – and to a discussion of the role of a Cathedral in the Sacramental life of the diocese.
Patient attention to our rites is a rich engagement with the mysteries of our faith as we find points at which we can more deeply enter the respective ways in which Christ continues to offer himself for us and is present with us. This is an ongoing process of deepening our engagement with the worship of the ages – with those who have come before and to whom the Holy Spirit gave inspiration. We enter the realm of holy mystery and immerse ourselves in the seemingly superficial so that new insight might be found at a deeper level.
The trappings – the décor – can be a distraction if we see them only with the superficial eyes of the faithless. Faithful people are trained to see more at the heart of everything. This is a sacramental imagination that finds divine promise ready to come forth from the most common of moments. Meaning-making happens at a number of levels and a well-executed liturgy can be like a dance or any other work of art in which something of the Creator is revealed in the lovingly crafted work.
This kind of revelation does not happen by happenstance – though some may come and be transfixed by unfolding beauty. There is a kind of deeper learning that happens though when we have taken the time to investigate and dwell in the mysteries to which we are heirs so that we find fresh life in the well-worn habits of the heart.
Perhaps we do lose focus when we get caught up in endless discussions of superficial markers of our common life – yet when approached with grace and joyful reverence we might find ourselves taken anew with the passion of a God who reveals himself in the mundane and the routine.