December 23, 2016

Honor worshipers as the pilgrims they are this Christmas Eve

Episcopalians love processions. There’s something about the grandeur, of course, especially if such a procession includes all kinds of liturgical accoutrements, but even in a more humble parish church, such as the one in which I serve, a liturgical procession is a profound opportunity to create a more intentional setting of space and place. (There’s also the joke in which the Baptist preacher, the Catholic priest, and the Anglican vicar are talking about how much time they spend writing sermons. Baptist: all week; Catholic: reading Encyclicals from the Holy Father; Episcopalian: “What?! You all don’t have an opening procession?)

Also, a procession is itself a form of pilgrimage. Even though not every Christmas Eve worshipper will join your liturgical pomp and procession, every single one of them will have made a pilgrimage of sorts to be in that parish church that night. You may not know their names or their stories, you may not know what brought them there, and you may only have time following worship to say a quick, “Merry Christmas” as they head on their way, but they are pilgrims following, seeking, being sought by God. One suggestion I can make as part of our Christmas preparations is that all church leaders, lay and ordained, ushers and preachers, lectors and celebrants, Eucharistic ministers and choristers, greet everyone on Christmas Eve as a pilgrim who’s in search of our Lord.

Pilgrimages are powerful things. The profound attraction of walking the Camino de Santiago, for instance, is obvious, but the most interesting thing for me is not only that more and more of my church friends are going but, in fact, I hear from people who are not necessarily practicing Christians who also want to know how they, too, can join the Camino. The Appalachian Trail, in our American context, has something of a pilgrimage quality about it, and even the most amateur hiker can describe the power of walking, searching, and being on a journey.
I realized this my first Christmas Eve after being ordained. Though I was curate, my rector surprised me and asked me to serve as the celebrant for the four o’clock mass. I joined the crucifer, thurifer, torchbearers, LEMs, choir and other assisting ministers in a great long procession through the congregation. That was not unlike other Sundays, of course, but at the very moment the choir exited the procession to go to the loft and the altar party made our final turn toward the chancel, I recall that unmistakable feeling that I was and we were suddenly transported to the center of time and space, indeed that we had travelled (liturgically) to the very place where God was being born – and I don’t mean remote Bethlehem, but right there, that very place on Chicago’s northside.

The text and tune Adeste Fidelis, “O Come, all ye faithful” has become such a Christmas classic, and No.83 in The Hymnal 1982 will surely be sung from every corner of the worldwide Church a few nights from now. It’s one of my favorites if only because it is, literally, a moving song, a pilgrimage hymn. The first verse applies the instruction of the angel to the shepherds to the rest of us, all of us faithful: “O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.” And as we take up our journey, we find that our meager singing is actually a part of the song of all creation, for by the third verse we’re singing in exultation along with choirs of angels and all the citizens of heaven. Even if we haven’t left the relative comfort of our pew, singing this song moves us to heart of the story and lets us reimagine, for a moment, the stages of the pilgrimage that brought us here. (And this isn’t even going into the potentially secret Jacobite codes scattered throughout John Francis Wade’s verses, a song of comfort and restoration for those who fled England in the mid-18[1] century because of their support of the Roman Catholic Stuart line.)

Those who come to worship in our parish churches over the next several days are themselves pilgrims on a journey. Excellent signage announcing our service times and Facebook invitations are necessary and good, and a truly heartfelt greeting which honors everyone’s presence on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is another nice gesture.

But what will these pilgrims hear and receive? What bread for their journey will they take? Will they get some insight into a distant culture and language, one with which they’re impressed and perhaps intrigued but not one they’re ready, straightaway, to inhabit? Will they have their questions expounded, and their seeking honored? Will they hear of the movement of the God of all creation, the same God who created everything and is still moving in the particular direction of that seeker’s individual heart and mind? Will they be able to apply to the story being told the gleanings they’ve picked up from other stops on their life’s pilgrimage? Will that night’s ‘bread’ help them put together the pieces of their questions and wonderings and insights into a more comprehensive narrative? Will they be left with a desire to return, as if this is yet another place, among many others on their journey, where they will reliably be fed, once again, and receive insight? Will they receive more than a nice “Welcome!” and “Please join us for our formation/sermon/program/committee, etc.”?

These pilgrims, and I’m including myself among their number, have traveled far and wide throughout this year, and the procession that is our life, I’d say, is just as intriguing and holy as is the beauty of our pomp and pageantry.

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