RCL Year A, Last Epiphany
We’ve been trying out an experiment in our worship space this season of Epiphany, and now that season is drawing to a close. Some of you have had a chance to share your thoughts about removing the altar rails; we’ll continue to take feedback today if you’ve not yet done so. It’s been interesting reading your responses, which have ranged all over the map. And as I’d suspected, they’ve been pretty evenly balanced between those who welcomed the change and those who did not. Some of you wrote simply that you want your kneelers back and you want them now! Some of you are ecstatic that they’re gone and what the church looks like without them. Some of you are fine either way, or maybe concerned about other people who miss the kneelers even though you yourself don’t care; others of you have enjoyed the opportunity to try it differently, and would like to see the experiment continue. And many of you have spent some time really thinking about what it means to you to take communion and be together as the Body of Christ – which is the best feedback of all, in my opinion. Knowing why we do what we do in worship is so important – particularly when the answer isn’t simply, because we’ve always done it this way. There should be more to what we do and why we do it.
The early church, as I mentioned when we began this in January, did not kneel for communion. Instead, from what we can tell anyway, they stood together around the table, arms upheld throughout the Eucharistic prayer, and then received together there. Or maybe they sat and shared the bread and wine in the midst of a meal. The Eastern Orthodox churches never kneeled, and still don’t – and rarely sit during the service either. The Catholic Church in the West began kneeling and receiving the host directly on the tongue once the doctrine of transubstantiation became the norm – but around the time of Vatican II, most Catholic churches took out their altar rails and began standing for communion, receiving the bread in the hand as we do. Pope Benedict began bringing back the rails and the kneeling and receiving on the tongue, and now there’s general confusion in the Catholic Church about which way is right. So you see that the question of posture is not one unique to us alone – there’s a range of beliefs and feelings out there. Is standing to receive communion a cattle call, or is it a dance? Is kneeling to receive reverent and pious, or is it an unwelcome insistence on our unworthiness? To use words I read in your feedback, is standing for communion just like being in a bread line for the homeless, bedraggled and shameful? Or, is standing for communion like being in a bread line for the homeless, together in our need and hungry for what alone can feed us? One thing that is clear is that receiving communion is both a communal act and a private one – it’s something we do together with the community around us, and it is a moment of intimacy for each of us with God. And there will always be a tension between those two poles of the experience. Just as, as our little congregation shows, there will always be a tension between the way I prefer to receive and the way another person prefers it.
It is my sense that there are times when one or the other posture is more appropriate. There are times when what we need to remember is our worthiness before God, and our unity together as a community – standing helps us do that. And there are other times when a greater emphasis on our own need for forgiveness and grace is important – kneeling can help us remember that. We are blessed to have the option here in our space, with the moveable kneelers. So in Lent we will continue the experiment, using the kneelers again while still trying to keep the space more open. (And remember, you are always welcome to kneel in the prayers, during the Eucharistic prayer, after communion, and so on if you find that meaningful for your piety. No one is attempting to prohibit you from kneeling if that is important to you.)
With all of this in mind, it is not surprising that what struck me about the gospel reading today was the question of posture. The powerful experience of holiness that Peter and James and John have upon the mountain with Jesus makes them fall to the ground, overwhelmed with fear. But Jesus comes to them and touches them, saying, don’t be afraid – get up! Or as the Greek could be translated, ‘be raised.’ They take one posture – flat on the ground in fear – but Jesus calls them into another, standing up and unafraid. And this is one of many times in the gospel when the disciples or others are told not to be afraid. It is what the angels say to Mary and to the shepherds about the new baby, the incarnate Word; it is what the angels again say to Mary Magdalene and the other women about the empty tomb, the resurrected Jesus. Do not be afraid. The angels have to say it over and over again, and Jesus has to say it over too, because fear is an automatic human response. Particularly when God is standing there before us, we are afraid. When something is so big and about to change our whole lives, it is only natural that we respond with fear and trembling – and fall to the ground.
Compare this story to the first one we heard today, the story of Moses and the people at Mt Sinai. Only Moses could go up onto the mountain; if the people were to touch the mountain, they would die. All they could see was a cloud, God like a devouring fire on top of the mountain. This is not an experience of the holy that invites people to come closer. So it is no wonder that in an encounter that repeated those same elements – the mountain, the blazing light, the cloud, the voice from heaven – John and Peter and James fell to the ground in mortal fear. But Jesus says, Do not be afraid. You don’t have to respond to God that way. Be raised! Stand up!
Sometimes we might think we have to respond with fear and trembling – as if, if we don’t show proper respect, God will be angry. Or we want to insist that others show respect in the same way we do, fearing the change or the difference in attitude. But Jesus and the angels and all the message of the gospels seem to say and show over and over again that we should approach without fear. Be raised to new life. Come to me. Let yourself be changed. Don’t stay in your fear of the unknown – risk stepping out, and know that I am with you. Be unbound, and let yourself go.
It may be for our own selves and our own sense of what is ok, we need to kneel or fall to the ground. Sometimes falling flat on our faces is the only way to get into our heads the enormity of God’s gift of love to us, to prostrate ourselves completely and trust in God to raise us up. But it is not where we are meant to stay. And it is not a posture God demands of us or of others, it is clear. God calls us into life, letting go of what is dead, what we cling to for safety and security. It’s what we’re facing into as a congregation as we look to grow and reach out to the world around us; it’s what each of us is doing as we live out more intentionally who God has created us to be. Being raised, being not afraid, is the only way forward – the only way to come down from the mountain and be God’s people in the world. Amen.