Of Palm & Ash

Lately I’ve been thinking about the life cycle of a palm branch.

Just under a year ago, I purchased hundreds of palm branches from a florist down the street, and spent the afternoon trimming them down so that the following Sunday – Palm Sunday – my congregation could wave them around and mark the beginning of Holy Week in style. These leaves were vibrant and fresh, recently plucked from a tree in some perpetually lush part of the world.

The leftover branches ended up on the floor of my office next to my desk. They sat there unnoticed for the better part of a year. And they died: they gradually lost their color and their moisture, turning into crunchy, pasty-yellow things. Continue reading →

The God of Bread and Wine

There’s this painting by Salvador Dali hanging somewhere in the National Gallery entitled “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” Here, Dali is depicting what many other great artists before him have depicted – one of the most crucial, remembered, and celebrated meals in history. His rendering of this moment is transcendent. Christ, surrounded by his followers, is clean, pure, and translucent. The communion elements are laid out on the table before him in perfect symmetry. It’s a cleverly crafted and deeply thought-provoking work of art, an excellent demonstration of Dali’s genius and skill.

But it’s all wrong.

At the last supper, Jesus does indeed represent the clean and pure lamb of God – figuratively. But he had just spent the day hanging out in ancient Jerusalem, and, in an act of great humility, washed his disciples’ feet (with his hands, without gloves. Disgusting, and beautiful). His clothes were not clean and his hands were not pure. And he was there, physically, tangibly; not hovering above the table like a ghost or something. He was and is God, and he was and is man too. His body was at that table and with his friends, breaking bread and sharing wine.

And that bread and wine were not pre-packaged or store-bought, purchased hastily and thoughtlessly on the way to a friend’s house for dinner. Someone, possibly someone in that household or eating that Passover meal, made them from scratch in a very physical process.

Days before, that bread was grain, gathered from a nearby field and ground into flour. It was prepared quickly – unleavened – and taken out of the oven just hours before God himself took it and said, “this is my Body, broken for you.” The wine, on the other hand, would have required much more time. While unleavened bread is a helpful reminder of the Israelites‘ urgent flight from Egypt, wine reminds us of something else. Waiting and patience, perhaps. Those grapes were taken from a vine long ago, processed and left to ferment in a cool, dark place, for months, or possibly years. Jesus loves good wine, so I suspect that this was a particularly excellent batch, brought out just for this occasion. And he took it and said, “this is my Blood, shed for you.”

There’s a version of the Prayer of Thanksgiving that we say during ordinary time that really captures the holy physicality of this sacrament. Just before ordaining the elements, the minister prays, “And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf, and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant, O Lord, that your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

When determining how his people would eternally remember him, I don’t think Jesus chose to use bread and wine on a whim. He didn’t have some sort of arrangement with Welch’s or Franzia, nor did he simply grab whatever was laying around the house. To be sure, it’s no coincidence that bread and wine are simple and common household items, but they are also delicious, skillfully prepared, and point to an Incarnate God, a bloody sacrifice, and a united Church.

The gifts of God, for the people of God.

A Tradition Worth Returning To

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Icon Depicting Constantine at the First Council of Nicea. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One Sunday morning, a few weeks into my semester in Italy, my roommates and I accidentally stumbled into a Greek Orthodox mass. It was beautiful and mysterious, but we hardly participated. We were much too focused on observing, trying to figure out what was going on, and praying that we didn’t accidentally commit some sort of international/interdenominational faux pas. But after the priest gave his homily, something deeply familiar happened. The congregation stood up and said something in unison, in Italian. It was not the words that were familiar, but the rhythm with which they were said, the pace, the pauses, the melodic quality to them. It was the Nicene Creed, which was, of course, soon followed by communion. For these moments, I was no longer a foreigner in this church and in this country, but at home with the Church all over the world reciting those same words, and the historical Church that has preceded her.

That was the day that I knew I loved liturgy.

I’m writing about this now because I’m one of many millennials who has proudly returned to this kind of worship, and I’d like to think about why this is. This is also in response to a couple of articles that were published last week which speculate about this alleged trend.

The American Conservative’s Gracy Olmstead suggests that millennials are making their way back to the high church because – in true millennial fashion – we’re looking for meaning. Quoting Jesse Cone, a PCA-turned-Anglican high school English teacher, she writes that  “the single greatest threat to our generation…is the deprivation of meaning in our lives. In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form. We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God.”

In a soft rebuttal, J. David Nolan, a blogger over at First Thoughts, argues that this turn toward liturgy has less to do about meaning and experience, and more to do with the fact that liturgy is grounded in doctrine and history – it is, for all intents and purposes, objective. He says that “Higher liturgy emphasizes objectivity in worship and thus a more objective connection with God. Subjective experiences of spiritual union with God are wonderful gifts, but for most of us not the stuff of everyday life. In the context of a liturgical service, Christians offer praise and worship regardless of their current psychological state. Liturgy both takes the pressure off the moment and supplies concrete means to pursue that perfect union with God over time.”

The real question here isn’t the sociological “why are millennials returning to liturgy?” but the far more important, “why is liturgy worth returning to, now and always?” Olmstead and Nolan are both helpful in answering this, and I’d like to reconcile their points.

Another anecdote: I came to faith in a context that tended to devalue the material and emphasize the individual’s religious experience. Looking back, I recall many times where I was pretty uncomfortable with this. Why do the things of this world, and my work in it, ultimately not matter? Why am I, and the people who care about me, so concerned about what’s going on in my heart? This approach to the Christian story has compelled a lot of people whom I deeply respect; I find it lacking. Thus, my return to the liturgical tradition.

The greatness of liturgy is that, through tradition and grace, it instills meaning into things while remaining largely objective. Put differently, liturgy makes things meaningful, regardless of how I feel about it – in the liturgical service, my personal feelings are inconsequential. The liturgical service is still beautiful and honoring to God even when I’m bored, stressed, tired, or just apathetic. That said, because of the meaning that it gives to all things – the bread, the wine, the words, the hands that I shake after I’ve been pardoned of my sins – I have a lot of trouble remaining bored, stressed, tired, and apathetic for very long. The pressure to feel anything in particular is gone, but in my experience, I usually do feel something.

Parts of my entitled, individualistic generation are being compelled by that which makes it less about us (or, not at all about us), and more about God and the things He calls good. Likewise, in a culture that has deprived many things of their ultimate meaning and value, some of us are seeking to restore this meaning and value to our material world. And regardless of the reason, this is a very, very good thing.

[Image: George Cooke. “Interior of St. Peter’s in Rome.” United States, 1847.]