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Part 1: The Beauty of Liturgy

Beauty resonates in my soul. You can ask my mother. As a small child one of my favorite activities was looking at beautiful jewelry.

As a teenager, novels and poems were my solace and escape. During my sophomore year in college, as I groped through a dark night of the soul, I leaned heavily once again on beautiful words, both in written and sung in ancient Christian chant I learned from my Jewish music professor. It was during that time that a good friend dragged me, a devout Southern Baptist at college in rural Louisiana, to a Roman Catholic Mass on All Souls Day. The priest spoke words of worshipful poetry, lifted up the bread and wine, broke it, and gave it to the faithful while I sat knowing I was witnessing beauty and mystery and desperately wanting to participate.

It was several years before I again sat in Mass. By then I was in medical school, and I credit my medical education for preparing me to embrace liturgy and sacrament. As I learned about the biology, behavior, and pathology of humans, I was overwhelmed by the fact that the spiritual, the mental, and the physical are inseparable. What we do in the body has implications for our mind and spirit, what we think about has implications for our body and for our worship, and what we worship changes how we live and how we think. This mystical understanding drove me straight into sacramental theology. And it was sacrament that opened my eyes to the place of all people, women and men, in the Body of Christ.

St. Martha and St. Mary with Christ

Catechized in this way, I attended Holy Week services with my medical school roommate Cliff, a devout Roman Catholic. I experienced worship on a new level that week, and my heart leapt. The prayers of worship and praise, and the physicality of incense, kneeling, standing, and blessed water all reinforced the mystery of the Passion of Christ and my redemption. While I still could not fully participate in the services, the stirring I felt at the liturgy moved me toward greater understanding of the reality and depth of the sacraments.

Sacrament can be defined as an outward or physical sign instituted by Christ to impart the grace of God. It is the mystical point where physical action, blessed by the Spirit, brings the grace of God into our lives. It is the divinely ordained union between the physical and spiritual, a both/and where the eternal God reaches out and touches us through the common things of this world. Bread, wine, service, marriage, water, birth, death—the Sacraments of God are all present realities and foretastes of the new Heaven and new Earth. Sacrament is a place where kairos-time meets chronos-time. This is a mystery before which I can only stand in awe.

While I did not, and do not think I will, become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, I knew my soul craved the eternal beauty of liturgy and sacrament. I entered the Anglican Church at that time through a fairly Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church in New Orleans. The rich Anglican tradition that embraces liturgy, sacrament, and being part of the whole while knowing that it alone is not the whole, resonated with the interplay of the spiritual, mental, and physical.

The High Altar at Canterbury Cathedral

Moving to a liturgical and “high church” theology set the stage for my understanding the equality of all people in Christ. As I allowed collective worship through the Eucharist, creeds, and liturgy and the daily office to permeate my life, my relationship to and understanding of the Body of Christ changed. The Body of Christ is not a collection of Christians, the Body of Christ is, it is the Church, and we are joined to it, grafted into the vine that already exists, to paraphrase our Lord. This allows no hierarchy of power. We are all truly equal in Christ – “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)

The series continues tomorrow and Saturday.