Long before I was born, my father’s family, who had come from northern Germany, settled in Buffalo and brought with them certain traditions that were reminiscent of German life. One of those traditions was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Each Christmas Eve was marked in the same way, with a large ham dinner (always ham) and eggnog. The dinner always started at 6:00 PM and always had the same wonderful treats each year. When my grandfather married my grandmother, who was from Ireland, there was a melding of German and Irish traditions. So along with opening some presents on Christmas Eve, most had to wait now until Christmas morning. The Christmas Eve dinner included Irish potato salad and other items mixed into the Ihde family’s traditional German ham and trimmings.
So when I was little, the family Christmas Eve tradition continued with this meld of German and Irish traditions, when in the 60’s, my mother found a great recipe and decided to add Swedish meatballs to the mix, and thus began a new offering each year of opening some presents on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas morning and always having ham, potato salad and Swedish meatballs every year.
So now 60 some years later, when my grandparents are all gone, and both my parents are gone, what do you suppose we had last Christmas Eve. We had German ham, my grandmother’s Irish potato salad, Swedish meatballs and egg nog. Why? Because this is now our tradition, an Ihde family liturgy for Christmas if you like, honoring our family’s past as well as looking to the future for generations to come.
Now I know our tradition might seem strange to a guest, especially if that guest comes from an entirely different traditional viewpoint. But those who have been invited to share with our family’s Christmas Eve tradition have remarked how at home they feel while this tradition is re-played each year. Everything seems to go, even though it really doesn’t. It goes together because we are confident that we are doing it the right way . . . and that is what makes all the difference in the world.
This week we celebrate the martyrdom of Thomas Camner who wrote the prose in our lectionary nearly 400 years ago. Thomas Cramner was a word smith genius who linked together texts directly from the Bible in such a way that the prayer book became for us not only a selected group of wonderfully written prayers but a liturgical tradition that has been unsurpassed since the beginnings of the Anglican Church. Cramner took all that was right with previous Christian thought and liturgy and wrapped it around the theme of the Good News . . . i.e. the Cross of Calvary being front and center to our salvation. For it is at the cross that our savior died, and it is at the cross, where our new life in Christ begins.
Today being Palm Sunday, I am often asked why we do the things we do. Suddenly, everything is changed! The cross which normally stands pre-eminent, is now subdued. We begin with songs of praise and acclamation and yet turn and yell out crucify him almost in the same breath.
It just doesn’t make sense.
It’s been said that Palm Sunday is the only schizophrenic day in the life of the church. It doesn’t go – and yet – for those who know the gospel . . . the story, it can go no other way.
This day, that shields our eyes from the cross, is actually all about the cross. This day is a re-enactment of that fateful week in the final days when Jesus marches triumphantly into Jerusalem only to be nailed to a cross and executed a week later. It is the cross that we focus on in Holy Week and it is the cross that I would like us to think about today.
There are three great lessons which we learn from the cross. First, that our collective sin is foul beyond words. If there were no other way for our sins to be forgiven but that the Son of God should have to die for them . . . then our sins must be very foul indeed.
Secondly, we learn that God’s love is great beyond all human understanding. God could have abandoned us to our just fate and left us to perish in our sins. But he didn’t. He loved us, and he pursued us even to the agony of execution on the cross.
Thirdly, we learn that salvation is a free gift. We do not deserve it. We cannot earn it. We do not need to attempt to procure it by our own merit or effort. Jesus Christ on the cross has done everything that is necessary for us to be forgiven by God the Father. He has borne our sin and our curse.
What, then, must we do? Nothing! Nothing but fall on our knees in penitence and faith, and stretch out an open, empty hand to receive salvation as a gift that is entirely free.
But as free a gift as God’s atonement for us is, there are those among us who would reject the cross utterly. These are the enemies of the cross. To be an enemy of the cross is to set oneself against its purposes. Self-righteousness (instead of looking to the cross for justification), self-indulgence (instead of taking up the cross to follow Christ), self-advertisement (instead of preaching Christ crucified) and self-glorification (instead of glorying in the cross) – these are the distortions which would make us ‘enemies’ of Christ’s cross and at the same time, enemies of Christ himself who sacrificed himself for our sake.
Yesterday Barbara and I were invited to a breakfast with one of our global mission outreach partners . . . Ebenezer Emergency Fund. We were both comparing notes about the worship structure that was part of the program. We noted how this “informal” worship service was free of the liturgical forms we are used to here at Saint Nicholas’. I thought about how some nowadays might think how difficult it is to compete with such spontaneity, given the Anglican formality of our church’s approach to worship.
I can’t speak for those who favor less liturgical approaches to worship. But those, like us, who use liturgical forms should never buy into the logic that our approach is too “formal,” as contrasted with “informal.” And I can tell you why . . .
We will never compare favorably with other approaches to worship, if those are the only criteria we use. After all, we live in a culture that is increasingly bereft of rites of passage and ceremony. Our culture has ceremonies, of a sort, of course, because we can’t live without them. But — with notable exceptions — we live in a world that prefers to invent them “on the fly.”
Properly understood and performed, the church liturgy has a power and drama all its own that is rooted in millennia of reflection on the saving work of God. Our Anglican liturgy, while “scripted”, has its own attraction and a powerful message if done right. How could a narrative stretching across the history of human existence and longing for a divine word be boring — unless we ourselves have succeeded in killing the drama inherent in the story?
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, ours is not a formality for formality’s sake. The liturgy is sacred space. It is a space that ushers the worshipper into the presence of God. And beginning with our baptisms the liturgy signals the Christian’s awareness that the world is not what we think it is.
My hope is that the next time someone complains to you that our approach to worship is too “formal,” or “too catholic” by all means, ask yourself, “Have we somehow smothered the drama of the saving work of Christ?” or did they, with their heavy metal rock music . . . and thank you Jesus?
I personally love the words of the liturgy because they speak to how and what Anglicans believe, from beginning to end we express our faith in our worship by the words we use to worship God. The words express our faith. The words said in our worship service connect us to God and express our common love for the Savior. We confess our sins, we recieve absolution and we join in the sacrifice of Holy Communion. If you listen to the prayers and take them literally you will know you have been to Church, you know through the Sacrament of Holy Communion you have become one with Christ and He has become one with you. You have made a few statements to God and he has answered your prayers. That is why I feel honored and at the same time humbled to be your Priest here at this time and in this place.
Much like my family’s tradition of ham, potato salad and Swedish meatballs on Christmas Eve, the traditional liturgy of the church is an integral part of the workings of the whole family of God. The ancient liturgy we do connects us to the millions of believers who for thousands of years have done this thing in exactly the same way . . . and at the same time it guarantees that the story continues as we have come to know it, far into the future in the lives of those who are yet unborn. Amen