The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of the rite (C. S. Lewis).
One of the greatest of the abundant joys of celebrating the Eucharistic Liturgy is the sure knowledge that few, if any, parishioners will congratulate me afterwards on a job well done. Certainly, it does happen from time to time. When it does, it is a gift graciously offered and graciously received, a gift that simply proves the quote by C. S. Lewis; I have forgotten myself in the rite and thus have not spoiled for everyone else the proper pleasure of the ritual. For me as celebrant, that is a chief joy of the rite – the utter forgetfulness of self and the total immersion in the grace and mercy of God the Father in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. In celebrating the Eucharist I almost understand Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20, ESV).
I love to preach, though preparing a sermon is often a spiritual struggle of submission to the Word. It is in the struggle to understand the Word and to stand under it that the Spirit moves and inspires a terribly frail and fallible human to declare, “Thus says the Lord.” Often during sermon preparation, and often immediately before the sermon in the hearing of the people of God, I pray:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
And yet, acceptable though they by, Spirit-filled though they be, the words of the sermon remain my words and the meditation my meditation. Try as I might to decrease that he might increase, there is always part of me remaining in the sermon, inseparable from it – thus the comments from the parishioners, sometime complimenting, sometimes challenging the sermon. If I have listened well to the Spirit there is little of me in it; if I had no ears to hear, there is much of me. Little or much, I am nevertheless self-conscious – literally conscious of self – and aware that I am preaching and that my words are being weighed in the balance.
But, in the Eucharist, the words are not my words, the meditations are not my meditations. Even the manual acts – the gestures – are specified in the rubrics or learned from local practice. Innovation is of little value; conformity is blessing.
Just before approaching the table the celebrant and deacon share an intimate moment of preparation in which the deacon ritually cleanses the hands of the priest. It serves as the celebrant’s final moment of repentance, his final appeal for mercy before approaching the mysteries. It is a manual prayer for clean hands and a pure heart. And it is – or can be – a washing away of self.
The celebrant moves to the table and stands in the fire of God’s love and grace as the last remnants of self are burned away, stands unworthy to gather up the crumbs under the Table and yet stands invited to serve as host in Jesus’ name. He speaks not his words, but ancient words, received words: prayer and hymn, blessing and invocation, institution and distribution. He consecrates bread and wine that he did not bring to the table and he shares it with those he did not redeem: the gifts of God for the people of God. When the people of God receive the body of Christ – the bread of heaven – some whisper, “Thank you.” It is not really the celebrant to whom they speak.
It is another mystery of God that a man is never more truly himself than when self is forgotten – crucified with Christ – and God is all and in all. For a priest – for this priest at least, for I dare not speak for others – such forgetfulness of self is yet another of the abundant Eucharistic gifts of God for the people of God.
Photo: Mary Kathleen Roop. Used by permission.