Denton Mystery Worship Nine: Incense, Bells, Exclusion, and the Economy

Denton Mystery Worship Nine: Incense, Bells, Exclusion, and the Economy December 5, 2014

“Advent is not Christmas. We want the celebration of the day without the hard work of preparation.” With these words, the Rev. Kathryn Thompson, Rector, began her first Sunday in Advent message at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville Texas.

Car trouble delayed our arrival, so the service had already begun by the time we walked in. Our footsteps echoed on the ceramic tile floor of the simple brick and stucco sanctuary, which seats approximately 150. It was perhaps two-thirds full, and we found empty spaces on a back pew, settled on the red seat cushions, and sought to quiet ourselves and prepare for worship.

A quick glance at the bulletin indicated that we entered just as the Kyrie, “Lord Have Mercy,” was being sung, supported by an excellent organ and choir placed in the balcony behind the congregation. The lessons, easily heard because of a well-designed sound system, were carefully read by the liturgists serving that day.

The Old Testament reading came from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 64. People who are not accustomed to a time of repentance before Christmas might be shocked at such a Scripture choice. These are hard words for those who want to hear of nothing but joy, happiness, shopping and Santa at the moment. Instead they call us to recognize that we human beings are sinners, separated from God.

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” The prophet wrote this during a very treacherous time in the history of Israel. They had been carried from their homes by their enemies, the Babylonians, present day Iraq. People then needed to affirm, just as we do today, that we are indeed God’s people.

The Gospel reading from Mark 13, read with great dignity from the middle of the nave, reminds us that we cannot predict the future or know when God’s plans will come to fruition. From the words of Jesus, “Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”

Personally, I had no trouble keeping awake in the service as I found myself busily juggling the bulletin, the Book of Common Prayer, and the hymnal as the service wove back and forth between the three publications. I was also trying to sing mostly unfamiliar hymns, all in the Advent theme. The party has not begun but the time has come to get ready.

The altar and clergy vestments were draped in blue, the color of repentance. I was reminded again that church rhythms don’t necessarily match economic rhythms, and the worship of the day clearly reflected that.

As we moved into the Liturgy of the Sacrament, the blessing of the incense filled the sanctuary and the sounds of the bells calling us to pay attention gently entered our ears.  While it is likely that originally incense was used to cover up the smells of many unwashed bodies crowded into a small space, now it is used to symbolize the prayers of the people as they invisibly rise to God.

When it came time to go forward to receive the Sacrament, I mentioned to the woman sitting next to me to go ahead and go on, indicating that I did not feel as though I could come forward. I had carefully scanned the bulletin looking for indication of accommodation for those of us who must avoid gluten containing products because of serious health consequences but found no information. She sympathized, saying, “We keep talking about doing it but have not done so yet.”

When the service was over, the same woman touched me and introduced me to the Rector, mentioning to her about the situation of my being unable to receive the Sacrament.

The pastor said, “Oh yes we have it available. You just have to know about it.”

My response, “And how exactly would I be expected to know about it? There was nothing in the bulletin nor was anything announced from the front.”

I admit that I walked out a bit frustrated. I intentionally wanted worship at a church on this morning where it would be possible for me to receive the Sacrament. I too, need to enter Christmas through Advent.

In my many visits to Anglican churches in Great Britain, I never saw a place that did not make it easy for the gluten-free to participate. I find far fewer places of worship in the US that do so. However, had we not been late, I would have been able to inquire beforehand, which would have solved it for me. But, one cannot always predict flat tires, and I was grateful to be there at all. Other than that, I experienced a morning of welcome, worship and the comfort of familiar liturgy and powerful symbolism.

[Note: this article originally ran in the December 5, 2014 edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]

Additional Thoughts

During this time leading up to Christmas, I’m going to see how much differently liturgically-based churches handle this than non-liturgical churches. I appreciated the Rector sticking to the theme of Advent here. I also suspect that such a type of service communicates little to those who do not have the observance of Advent ingrained in their souls.

Everywhere else we go this time of year, we are bombarded with “Christmas.” Why? The very existence of the nation’s retailers depends upon robust sales leading to the gift giving orgy.  It’s one of the reasons I wrote the tongue-in-cheek, “Keeping Santa in the Season” post. If retailers can indeed make Santa the “reason for the season,” their problems will be solved.

But the church is a different story. I remember struggling with this on many levels when I was actively serving as pastor. I think the most successful (in terms of church attendance and just general enjoyment) Advent we had was the year that I asked the congregation and choir to sing a secular Christmas song along with an Advent hymn each week and then I used the music as the basis for the message. People both appreciated being able to sing some of their Christmas favorites during this time AND taking a careful look at the messages they offer and how those messages affected their actions and beliefs.

But having said that, I think it is important for Christians to lighten up on critique or even condemnation of the yearly shopping frenzy. This is part of living in a country made prosperous (or at least it used to be prosperous) by the free enterprise system and a consumer culture. If everyone suddenly stops buying, we are going to see a severe economic collapse. NOT a good solution.

Even so, I find myself wondering about how much serious debt people get themselves into yearly. The temptations to spend money never cease, and humans have a limited about of self-control and willpower.

Here’s a sobering look at the average credit-card debt for the US household. That kind of debt is a killer because of high interest rates. Check out this page for information about what happens when only the minimum payment is made on a $5000 balance–downright scary.

Soooo . . . be wise in your spending, folks. But remember: shopping is not inherently evil or wrong. Celebrations are part of joyous living.

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