Hands at Mass

A recent comment quoted Episcopal bishop Charles Jenkins who said

Before the storm [Hurricane Katrina], “I thought Christianity and priesthood were primarily about the cult,” Jenkins said. “And doing the actions correctly — holding my fingers correctly at Mass, not wearing brown shoes when celebrating the Mass. That it was getting all those right.

“And I was missing the larger picture of the dignity of humanity and the world for whom Christ died.”

This particular, regular commenter here frequently accuses liturgy of focusing too much on “man made” rules at the expense of morality.

Let me put a bit of a frame around this. Many will know of seminary training with a tied circle of string that theologs used around their hands to train for presiding so that during the consecration they held their hands, as in the picture above, not extending beyond the edges of the corporal on which stood all and only that which was to be consecrated. Some continue to insist that before, during, and after the consecration thumb and forefinger are to be kept together (again as in the image above).

That is one end of the spectrum. Towards the other end, I regularly see clergy presiding, wearing a far-too-short alb, sitting cross-legged, alb splayed more than a slit dress at an Emmys award ceremony, hanging open either side of their crossed legs in a gesture of “I’m only wearing this alb because I have to, and don’t worry I’m a real Kiwi bloke and not taking this cross-dressing seriously”. Or in full vestments presiding with hands behind their back. And so on.

The Gospel reading for the Eucharist on Tuesday this week fits with this reflection. Jesus said:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

I, on this site, am committed to justice, ethics, morals and to best practice worship (individually and communally), worship that is both an end in itself, and that empowers for justice, ethics, morals as its fruit.

The reducing of everything to binary options of either/or is a mistake. Mostly it is both/and.

I am regularly at pains to point out the error of liturgy-as-cloning, as if the exact practice in one place should be mimicked in another place which has quite a different context. Rather, we need to seek principles that may work across most if not all contexts. We need training, study, and formation to come to a fluency in the “liturgical language” of symbol, gesture, architecture, and so on.

Listen to Jesus’ words again: “It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.” Jesus is both/and. Jesus is not saying: focus on justice but don’t wash the dishes!

Let’s return to the context of the Bishop Charles Jenkins’ quote:

Before Hurricane Katrina, in the days when Jenkins says he was focused more on the well-being of his predominantly white church than his predominantly black city, [white Charles Jenkins and black Jerome Smith] might never have crossed paths….Fundamentally, Jenkins has embarked on a personal re-education in which he seeks to see the city through the eyes of the poor.

The issue with Bishop Charles was not valuing quality liturgy, it was the lack of connection with the real context in which God had placed him.

In a game of football the primary purpose may be the scoring of goals, but one would be surprised if a captain and coach would encourage the team to arrive in motley disarray, their kit filthy, and loud-mouthing the opposition. Certainly, if all the focus is on those things, and the minutia of throwing in, for example, and no attention was paid whatsoever to attempting to score any goals, then we are in the Bishop Charles situation. But where both/and are valued we are probably in for a good game.

image source

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