Episcopalians are often accused of being too brainy, too intellectual. We think too much. We get caught up in the space between our ears and forget about that throbbing muscle in our chests. These accusers are correct up to a point: we do not check our brains at the door. Jesus asks us to love the Lord with all our mind, as well as our heart and strength. But our intellectual engagement with faith is only half the story.
You see, worship in the Episcopal Church is quite sensuous. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about the Harlequin romance definition of the word. Our worship is sensuous in that we employ all our senses to encounter the presence of God. We hear the Word of God read and proclaimed. We see the stained glass and changing seasonal color palates. We smell the incense puffing from the thurible.* We taste the bread and wine. We touch one another in the handshake or embrace of the peace of the Lord.
To engage all of our senses, we use things in our worship. We use candles, books, and bowls. We use bread, wine, and water. These things are all incredibly – laughably – ordinary. Nothing about a loaf of bread is inherently special. Hand me a loaf of bread, and I might feed the birds or save it and make French toast tomorrow morning. (Actually, if you know me, the most likely scenario is that I’ll eat the loaf right then and there.)
So, how does the loaf of bread, which was one of a hundred bar coded loaves at the grocery store, transform from a laughably ordinary carbohydrate delivery system to a holy vessel of Christ’s presence? The bread moves from its ordinary location on the shelf in the store to its new, strange location on a linen-draped table in a church. The bread behaves quite normally, sitting there waiting to be eaten.
But the table and the action done to the bread and the people watching the action are not normal. The table is abnormal because it has several tablecloths covering it, some ornate, some plain. The action is abnormal – whoever talks about a loaf of bread before they start slicing it? And the watching is abnormal – unless you’re in the studio audience for Iron Chef, who joins dozens of others in watching someone prepare a meal?
So the bread is laughably ordinary. But the situation is not. The juxtaposition between the normal loaf of bread and the strange way it is being treated invest the ordinary with new meaning. This new meaning turns the bread into a symbol. Now, before we go any further, I want to dispel from your mind any notion of the phrases “it’s only a symbol” or “it’s merely symbolic.” Symbols are woefully misunderstood things in American culture – like soccer and irony. A symbol is an object that points beyond itself to a deeper truth. Too often, “sign” and “symbol” are used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. A stop sign lets you know you are supposed to brake at an intersection, but that’s all it tells you. The red octagon doesn’t compel you to ruminate on why you should stop. But a symbol – the cross, for instance – stirs within us all of the historical and theological and emotional resonances of the truth to which it points.
Okay, so the bread is a symbol. It connotes the bounty of harvest, the fruits of the earth, the goodness of creation, the nourishment of our bodies. And when we put it on that table, and a priest (in the presence of God’s people) asks God to indwell that bread with the Spirit of Christ, the bread becomes a special sort of symbol called sacrament.
God moves within us, spurring us to love, praise, act, pray, serve. Outward connections with our inward spiritual lives are called sacraments. These special symbols take the ordinary things we’ve been discussing – bread, water, even our own actions and personhoods – and set them ablaze with physical and emotive evidence of the presence of God.
When we participate in the sacraments, we ourselves become sacramental symbols of God’s movement. Our service to God points to the deeper truth of God’s creation of and love for the world. Worship nourishes us for our role as bearers of God’s image, as vessels of the light of Christ. We enter church as normal, ordinary people, like the loaves of bread on the grocery store shelves. We leave church transformed by our sharing in the presence of Christ with one another. Over time – months, years, lifetimes – the transformation helps us to realize that what we mistook as “normal” was really quite miraculous and extraordinary.
All of the normal, everyday things we use in church gather new meaning when we employ them to worship God. The candle becomes the light of Christ. The bowl becomes the vessel for the waters of baptism. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood. Likewise, we – as sacramental beings – discover new meaning for our lives when we come together to worship the Lord.
*The metal censer on the chain that you swing to disperse the perfumed smoke; sort of like a liturgical yo-yo.