Localize the Liturgy!

This is a post by The Abundant Table Farm Project‘s Sarah Nolan and was originally found on chedmyers.org.  The Abundant Table and YAC Blog editor Sarah Holst are working jointly to create resources that support an Earth-to-Altar movement to Localize the Liturgy. Sarah Nolan is the Director of Programs and Community Partnerships at the Abundant Table and is the recipient of the Environmental Stewardship Fellowship through the National Episcopal Church.  “Localize the Liturgy!” is posted here in a spirit of ecumenism. 


Every week, our little house church in Ventura County, CA practices a ritual ceremony, along with millions across the globe, that calls us to touch, taste, smell, see and” re-member” the life and work of a man who equated his body with bread and his blood with wine. Along with these central elements, other powerful symbols such as candles, water, flowers and oils make up these rituals that provide texture and life to the liturgy.

As we participate in liturgy, we are engaging in a cycle of reconnection and re-membrance that draws us closer to God and ourselves, while at the same time pushing us out into the world and towards our neighbor. The ceremonial elements serve as reminders of and guides to this ongoing journey deeper into the divine and into the created cosmos. It is with this journey in mind that we must ask ourselves about what these rituals elements say about our how we relate to the world and, in turn, to God.

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“Cold-blooded mercy”

LentGraphicI recently attended Wednesday Lenten vespers at my dad’s church. Dad is not Catholic. He belongs to a conservative Lutheran denomination. I go with him sometimes.

Part of it is about attachment to my heritage. My family has been active in that church for well over a hundred years. Back then, Dad’s grandparents and great-grandparents were relatively fresh arrivals from Germany. The congregation still rented a room adjoining a tavern. They would request that beery patrons hush during services.

Part of my attachment is also aesthetic. I appreciate the arresting beauty of the old building: the wooden altarpiece with its elaborate spires; the stained glass windows, dating from around World War II, that display ships, shields, swords, and emblems of the four evangelists; the paintings of Jesus knocking on a door, of an angel whooshing down from Bethlehem’s inky night sky; the Corinthian columns touched up with gold leaf.

And part of it is about deliberate immersion. From time to time, I seek to be around worshipers who are not like me. While the visual environment and liturgy at Dad’s church are almost Catholic, my fluid, humanistic Catholicism is unorthodox and dangerous in that space.

There, to a degree I have never heard preached in any Catholic setting, you are a sinner. Grace does not build on nature. Grace replaces nature. In Adam, all stand condemned. You are hell-bound unless you believe in Jesus’ sacrifice. “We are not good,” one of the pastors once said, “any of us.”

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Ever ancient, ever new

A friend of mine, a member of my old parish, received the following email and responded to it. I’m emboldening the text I consider important:

Dear Rally Captain,

Congratulations on becoming a Rally Captain in the 2013 Public Square Rosary Crusade!

At this crucial historical moment, you’re part of a Rosary Crusade scheduled for thousands of cities at noon on October 12, 2013, the Saturday nearest to the 96th anniversary of the Fatima miracle of the sun.

The intention for our Rosary Crusade is to beg God and Our Lady to save America from today’s immorality and secularism.

Please know that here at America Needs Fatima, we’re committed to giving you the best assistance possible for your rally preparations.

My friend answered thus:

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Holy Week and the now

Maybe the Eastern Orthodox have a better name for Holy Week. They call it Great and Holy Week.

It’s holy, sure, but lots of things are holy. “Great” emphasizes just how set apart Holy Week is, like the Passover observance it’s related to. In the ritual dialogue of the Seder meal, the youngest person at table asks why that night is different from all other nights. This week is different from all other weeks.

Because it is totally different, we should expect totally different challenges. We should be right there in Gethsemane, with no exit, wondering if it hurts to die and if we’ll feel it when we stop breathing. We should stand grim and tight-lipped with Joseph of Arimathea, incredulous that he has to politely ask his friend’s killers, of all people, for the body.

We should sit with Peter in Friday’s doomsday sun, asking why we’re only bold and loyal when it doesn’t mean anything–and hearing no answer but the wind in the olives. We should get violently nauseated with Judas when we suddenly understand, in a god-awful thunderclap, that we’ve all betrayed innocent blood.

Palm Sunday starts the immersion. We are shoved into the middle of the action. We are the “Crowd.” And no matter which Gospel is in the rotation this time, the “Crowd” always has to make the same shrill, embarrassing demand: “Crucify him!”

By participating in the Passion reading, we confront ourselves in the mirror. Our love for God and each other is brittle. We constantly fight our instinctive, reptilian-brain preference for the Barabbas of the moment. Our inescapable human condition is to live in the “Crowd,” which is no more civilized than it was two millennia ago. The ghastliness in the glass demands that we pause and stare.

So I was a bit disappointed at my church this Palm Sunday when, once the Passion according to Mark was finished, Father turned immediately to preaching about God’s love. Ordinarily I’m all about God’s love. But somehow the transition was just too awkward this time.

The homily went like this: Jesus died for us because God loves us, so we should spend the week meditating on metaphors for God’s overflowing love. Father suggested a blasting fire hose (“any of you ever try to drink from one of those?”), or maybe a dump truck (umm, God’s love is a whole bunch of dirt?). And Niagara Falls (“wow, that’s a lot of water”).

Let’s just say he lost me back at the dump truck.

These folksy images comfort us. They are expectations of abundance. They skip ahead a week. They evade the urgency of the now.

Let’s slow down, way down. Let’s stay, just for now, with the roosters that accuse us, the thirty silver pieces that feel so cold and greasy we can’t get rid of them fast enough.

For here and now, God is still lost in the crowd, lost with the excluded, the vulnerable, and the scapegoats. In them, God is still getting betrayed, crucified, and exchanged for Barabbas.

It’s never stopped.

On Easter Sunday, Jesus will comfort the afflicted. During the Great and Holy Week, let him afflict the comfortable.

In What I Have Failed to Do

“…I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…”

My gaze lowers every time the Penitential Rite begins at Mass. I wish this was a gesture of reverence. It’s actually an act of embarrassment:  Despite growing up in the Church, I don’t know the words to this prayer—this prayer that many recite every Sunday at Mass!  I’ve simply never belonged to a community that regularly recites it in the Mass, so I never learned it.  I’m an employed Catholic minister, though, and a theology student, so naturally I’m a little humbled, even embarrassed, by my lack of the fundamentals here.

One blessing of the Rite’s unfamiliarity is that I am compelled to actually pay attention to its words rather than unthinkingly delivering them like many habitual prayers at Mass. Every time I hear it I listen closely, trying to memorize it as I stare at the floor and pretend to lip synch the words (watermelon, watermelon, watermelon…). There is one early line I never miss.  I actually say the words out loud because I never forget them: “I have sinned…in what I have failed to do.” Continue reading