After our procession and opening hymn, we began today’s service at the Holy Table, with all of the clergy assembled together. You may have noticed that the Table had only candles and books. Think of all this as a meal in two parts, the Liturgy of Word and then the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy of Word – the first part – we gather around the Table to hear the old stories of our ancestors, the story of salvation contained in Holy Scriptures. We are not ready to eat yet until we hear the ancient story of salvation and how we are part of that story. Symbolic of the centrality of the story of salvation is the placement on the Holy Table of the book containing the Holy Gospels. The chalices and patens for our meal were elsewhere (more on that in a minute).
The Gospel story of the day was read aloud by the Rev. David McIlhiney, who carried it into the congregation. Another way we symbolize of the centrality of the Gospel is to hear it read aloud in the middle of the congregation. We stand up for the Gospel to show our respect and reverence for the holy book as it is carried and read (this is an echo of the Jewish practice of reverencing the scrolls containing Torah). Also, as the Gospel is carried into the congregation, it is appropriate to turn and face the book from wherever you are standing.
You may have also noticed that the chalices and patens – the vessels we use to serve our Communion – were kept on the High Altar. Partly we did this because the High Altar is well situated to hold these objects. Another reason for keeping them there temporarily is out of respect for the original purpose of the High Altar as a communion table, and in remembrance of all those who have received Communion from the High Altar.
After the Liturgy of the Word (which includes the sermon and the Prayers of the People), we moved into the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The shift in the action was symbolized by our setting the Holy Table for our sacred meal. We moved the chalices and patens from the High Altar to the Holy Table, while at the same time the bread and wine for our Eucharist was brought up the aisle from the congregation. And the Gospel book was removed.
At the end of Communion, we moved all of the used chalices and patens to the sacristy. We cleared the Holy Table, symbolic that our meal was over and that our in the work in the world must begin anew.
I hope you noticed something else fun today! During the passing of the peace, our children marched up the aisle as we sang to them. They gathered around the Holy Table and we gave them a blessing before the children sat with their families. I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did – and we will do it every week!
Finally, a few words about the Baptismal Font. You may have noticed there were no flowers in it today. The reason: I believe it is important for us to preserve the integrity of the baptismal font as the central symbol of who we are and the ministry we share together. The historic baptismal font at St. Paul’s is placed centrally in the nave (where people sit), and the location of the font is another symbol of the centrality of baptism to our life of faith and ministry. It is through our baptism that we are all chartered as ministers in the Church (please see our baptismal covenant, Book of Common Prayer p. 299).
Soon, we will put a simple glass bowl in the font containing water blessed by one of our clergy, and we will keep it full of water seven days a week. Some people have asked me, “Isn’t that catholic?”
The answer is, yes, the baptismal font containing water is catholic. The word “catholic” means “universal,” and we affirm each week in our Creed that we believe in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Catholic means we are all bound together regardless of our church brand. Catholicity is not owned by any one denomination. Contrary to popular belief, the Roman Catholic Church does not claim to own the title “catholic” but joins with us and others in sharing the description of "catholic" through baptism. The central symbol of our catholicity is baptism. To put it another way, our connection with Christ and with all Christians in all places and at all times is through our baptism. The font at St. Paul’s is an enduring symbol of that reality.
If you would like to know more about how the Episcopalians, Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, Methodists, Roman Catholics and other branches of the universal catholic faith have a common understanding of baptism, I highly recommend reading Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, a lengthy statement hammered out among church leaders in Lima, Peru in 1982 under the auspices of the World Council of Churches (commonly called "the Lima statement"). The statement notes: “Through the gifts of faith, hope and love, baptism has a dynamic which embraces the whole of life…” It is through our baptism that we are one with Christ.And, finally, the photo on this blog entry is one I took of what is believed to be the oldest baptismal font in the English speaking world – at St. Martin’s Church, Canterbury. The church pre-dates the great Cathedral, and the font is more than 1,000 years old (long before the Reformation and Protestant divisions). The font is centrally located at the entrance to the church, symbolic that we are truly Christ’s own forever!