Thursday, December 29, 2016

Liturgical Christmas

A (belated) merry Christmas to you! I hope it was a happy time of celebrating for you.

I have not always loved the Christmas season. There have been years where the commercialization I see this time of year entirely overshadowed my joy of celebrating Christ's first coming. There have been years when I feel anything-but-joyful during the month of December. There have been years when I dreaded the busyness and stress that all-to-often permeate the American Christmas. But this year? Not so much. I have felt wonderfully joyful and peaceful, and my heart is full to the brim with hope and love, despite the challenges of the time since we last celebrated the Nativity. It's not that everything is perfect, but rather that I am able to see a bigger picture somehow, that I am able to rest in the security of being loved by an infinite God.

I had a tangible reminder of that on Christmas Eve night/early Christmas morning. My brother-in-law and I attended the Christmas vigil service at a nearby Episcopalian monastery. I am not Episcopalian by creed, so it was interesting to note the similarities and differences to other Christmas services I have attended in years past. I enjoyed gathering with seven monks and about a dozen other worshippers to celebrate Christ's coming.

There were certainly a few similarities: we sang "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and a reading from a Isaiah 9 ("Unto us a child is born...") felt familiar. But there were also a great many differences. The monks, dressed in their black cassocks, spent the first half hour or 45 minutes reading/chanting Psalms (and since the service started at 11:30 p.m., I confess that I struggled against nodding off during this part of the service.) At two different points interspersed among these readings, monks stepped to the lectern to offer brief sermons expounding the importance of Christ's coming. There were points where all the monks stood together, and bowed from the waist, and we all stood and bowed our heads as well as prayers were offered. The whole liturgy was more formal than that of my home church, and while it felt a bit alien and foreign, it was also helpful for reframing the Christmas message in a way that felt both very old and novel at the same time.

And then, the Lord's Supper! As we sang a carol, three of the monks stepped outside, and changed from their black cassocks into priestly robes, and--upon returning--burned incense in preparation for the Eucharist. And the Eucharist was very different than I was used to as well: we all gathered around the table, and the priest read the liturgy. There were responses at different points where the congregants were expected to respond, and while I often knew the words, I did not know the time no to which the words were sung/chanted. The priest broke the little loaf into pieces, on for each person present and came around with the platter, to offering us to take and eat. After this, he came around again, with a common cup, offering each of us to take and drink. At the conclusion, we passed the peace of Christ around the circle of gathered monks and parishioners: the priest embracing the one at his right hand, saying, "The peace of Christ be with you!" and the embraced responding, "And also with you!" And then the embraced became the embracer to the next person in the circle, all the way around.

After a concluding carol, we were invited to join the monks--at 2:00 a.m.--for refreshments in the refectory, which consisted of hard cider, roasted chestnuts, fresh vegetables, and some sweets as well. We stayed to visit with the monks for a while, and I confess my surprise to find that most of them are active on Facebook or Twitter, and were at least as up to date on current events as I am, if not more so. The monks I was chatting with were jovial, and laughed a lot, and not at all grim and serious, as I somehow have pictured them in my mental schema for monastic life.

So, this is actually me in a hoodie...not a monk's robe...
(But it's not far off the look they were sporting.)

It was wonderful to meet these men who had dedicated their lives to serving God, and I was so grateful for their hospitality. But at the same time, I wondered a bit about their choice to separate themselves from the day-to-day life in the world by choosing to enter the service of the monastery. My pre-conceived idea of monks shutting themselves off from the world was fractured as I walked past their library full of current periodicals--not to mention their use of social media! But they are choosing a separate (separated?) life. It has me wondering about my own intent to be actively engaging in the world, living out my faith in a more culturally-normal setting than the monastic life. It's not that I think one is necessarily better than the other, but I realize that while I often crave solitude, I don't think I'm cut out for the life of the monastery.

Regardless, being part of the Christmas vigil at St. Gregory's Abbey was a formative experience for me. It has me thinking about the Reformed notion of "all of life is worship," my own desires for solitude, and the role of liturgy in a worship service. I know I'll be reflecting on all this for some time to come.

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