03 November 2008

The Great Procession

Revelation 7: 9-17

All Saints’ Sunday/ 2nd November 2008

In a few moments we will gather around this Table and celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. Before we celebrate the meal, we will pray the Great Eucharistic Prayer, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (also known as “the long prayer”). The prayer actually follows a strict outline; it has a structure to it with roots almost as old as the church. There are three key components of it (there are others, but want to focus on three): the opening responses are known as the sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts; we lift them up to the Lord.”); the sanctus is the portion when we say or sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and perhaps the most important portion of the prayer comes right at the end, it’s known as the epiclesis. The epiclesis is the petition for the coming of the Holy Spirit to be present in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, a prayer for the Holy Spirit to connect our spirits with the very spirit of God. It’s the Spirit who makes this ordinary meal into a communion, a divine fellowship.

John Calvin (1509-1564) and others in the Reformed tradition put a lot of weight on the opening lines, the sursum corda. These words transport us in time and space and remind us that this earthly banquet is also a participation in the heavenly banquet. We lift up our hearts – where? Into the presence of God, the presence of Christ. This is his table and when Christians eat and drink in his name, his presence is known among us.

The epiclesis is also significant because through it we remember that it’s the Spirit of Christ who draws us into the presence of God. In fact, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine this Table and this entire sanctuary transported, elevated up into the heavenly realm, mystically participating in the joyful feast of the Lamb of God, mystically present before the throne of God, which John attests in his revelation. In some ways, this table is a link between heaven and earth, a threshold from this world to another, where hunger and pain and darkness are no more and every tear is wiped from every eye (Rev. 7: 16-17). This meal is given to us to bear in mind this truth: that we are never far from the presence of God. When we share this meal we share it with all those who have gone before us into the light of God’s glory. That’s why it’s a joyful feast of the people of God for all those who live beyond death, whether in this world or the world to come. It’s why Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper celebrated on every Lord’s Day in Geneva and why it’s not “just” a memorial meal (as I was erroneously taught growing up in a Presbyterian).
[1] It’s so much more. There’s so much going on here.

It’s the joyful feast of the people of God, for all those who live beyond the power of death, both in this world or in the world to come. It points to this amazing claim of the church, that both heaven and earth are linked together through Christ. And as John saw in his revelation, followers of Christ are part of the great multitude; the countless followers of Christ across time are all part of one great procession, the procession of saints across time on the pilgrimage to the throne of the Living One. Who is in the procession? The saints. And who are the saints? All those redeemed by the grace of Christ. I am a saint and you are a saint, not because our heroic deeds, nor because any of us are virtuous (because we’re not), nor because we performed any miracles. We are saints not because of any good we might have done. We’re not saints because we have faith, but because God is faithful to us, because God has called us in Christ to Godself, to share in the very life of God, and enter on a lifelong pilgrimage to the Celestial City.

We’re part of that great, grand procession of the saints that began long before any of were born and will continue long after we’re all dead. Today, we remember all those who have gone on before us in the procession. Those who blessed us with life, those who suffered and made sacrifices that we might live. Those who loved us dearly and called out the best from within us. We remember those who have paved the way for us, offered a vision. We remember their witness and their love, their commitment to Christ and his church. All those who taught us how to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” and embodied that love with their lives, in the decisions and risks they made. We are surrounded by them, by a great crowd of witnesses who urge us on (Hebrews 12: 1), pray for us and hope that we will accomplish through our lives and our loves what they couldn’t do in theirs. They’re ahead of us, led by the shepherd who leads us forward, equipped by the Spirit who allows us to step into the future with confidence and a hope that never disappoints. We don’t walk this way alone.

You’re reminded of this when you walk in to the sanctuary of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, MD. When you enter the sanctuary the first thing you see is the baptismal font (at the entrance, like in the cathedrals of Europe) and if you look down at your feet you see names, hundreds of names carved in brass on the floor on both sides of the aisle. They’re the names of women and men across the centuries who served the church: Paul, Lydia, Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Calvin, Luther, Wesley. Hundreds. The poem on the bulletin cover comes from the dedication of the Pilgrim Pavement in the center aisle of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC in 1935.
[2] These are all reminders that we never walk alone.

I love center aisles in a church and love processions. Look at our center aisle. Can you see them? A faint outline, ghost-like shadows, remnants of memories, of people. Consider what this aisle has witnessed over the years, the processions of saints down this aisle: the countless coming to be baptized; fathers escorting their daughters on their wedding day; children running up to hear the children’s message; people coming forward to renew baptismal vows; processing down the aisle in the choir; coming to the Table to receive the elements of grace; think of the funeral processions, of caskets coming down this aisle and going out; of people walking into worship to experience God’s people and then sent out down this aisle to serve Christ in this world. Think of all the people who labored and gave so that we might worship in this space. The work we do and the sacrifices we are called to make, and the offerings and pledges we make, the generosity of our hearts out of gratitude for all that we have received are all critical for the ministry we do here today because we need to be ready for those who are coming behind us on the great procession. All those coming our way whose questions are not our questions, whose way of living out the faith is not our way, whose vision of what the church can be is not our vision, but we need to be read for when they come down this aisle.

The great procession of the saints cuts right through the center of this sanctuary. I want you consider yourself part of that procession, to believe it, feel it, claim it. Know that you’re numbered among the saints. In a few moments, we will offer the sursum corda – imagine yourself lifted up into the presence of the Lord; when we sing the sanctus, let us sing out with all our heart and strength as if we were standing before the very presence of God – because we are; and when we pray for the Spirit to come, open up your hearts. Then come. Consider yourself in the procession of the saints who know the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ, saints above with saints below united at the Table of the Lord.

Image: Procession of Saints, Church of St. George,Voronet Monastery, Voronet, Romania. http://www.flickr.com/.

[1] Viewing Holy Communion as a memorial meal was the predominant view of Ülrich Zwingli (1484-1531) of Zurich, whose approach to the Table came to have wide appeal within Reformed churches.
[2] "Can you hear adown the future,/ Echoes of a moving throng/ Treading down the Pilgrim Pavement/In procession, millions strong?/Can you see their rapt expression,/ Do you hear the choral beat/Of their pilgrim song and psalter,/ Can you mark their sandalled feet/ Slow advancing to the altar,/Toward the candles tall and white;/Toward the focal point of worship/ Where the Pavement leads to Light." Margaret Ridgeley Partridge, "The Pilgrim Pavement.” The complete poem was set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), entitled The Pilgrim Pavement.

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