O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.–Psalm 96:9
We gathered in the nave, the worship space of the church. Our task was to create a skit, highlighting a favorite moment of our recent multi-parish youth mission trip. The usual hilarity ensued. Giggles and stories. Groupings–pairs and triplets–formed, subgroups hard at work on the task. Except for one young man, whom I knew, but not well.
He walked behind the altar, at first to take a closer look at a statue of Jesus. And then, standing at the priest’s place at the table, with only a little bit of trepidation, he began to chant the Eucharistic prayer. Or at least pieces of it were somewhat recognizable as an attempt at the Eucharistic prayer. People stopped, laughed (not unkindly), helped him out a little (the chorus of “and also with you” was significant) and together they tried to remember what exactly those words were. A mix of prayers from Compline and random proper prefaces got thrown together as he stood in Orans position. I watched for awhile. While the others worked on their skit preparations, he continued, talking/praying/chanting ,half laughing, half praying behind the altar.
I watched for a minute longer and then went into the sacristy and pulled out the altar book, the book that has both the words and the musical settings for our prayers. Taking it and laying it on the altar, I stood just behind him, and then set myself in a matching Orans posture. “Like this” I said and then I began the song that is as familiar as my own skin. He followed, singing with me, not nervous until he suddenly remembered that I am actually a priest and this was my church. Confusion flooded his face for a moment, for surely he was breaking the rules standing here, reciting the priest’s words, standing in the priest’s place, and yet, the priest was standing with him.
One of the joys of Sunday morning, of presiding over the Eucharist, is watching the faces that are before me. My heart often thinks of P, a beautiful, long haired, lanky girl on the cusp of adulthood. One of my favorite memories of being part of P’s parish was watching her worship in the balcony where I could see her lips moving, in perfect cadence, to the words coming from my lips, together we would pray: “take, eat, this is my body.”
Some of my own earliest memories are just that–kneeling in the pew, watching the priest (his back was turned to us in those days), praying, barely above a whisper, those holy words etched so deeply on my heart “therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven” along with the priest. It’s funny how words become so much a part of us. We pass them on, holy words, holy prayers, one generation to the next.
Tonight I gathered in the school room of the prison. Together about 35 of us made a lopsided circle. We prayed the ancient prayers, sang holy songs. As I lifted the cup of grape juice and said the familiar words of blessing, I heard C, our sacristan who also happens to be an inmate, whisper the prayer with me: “do this for the remembrance of me.” The beauty of it caught my breath for just a moment. And then I carried on.
I wonder what it is that makes something holy. Would any of it *be* holy without all the other? Without the prayers, it’s just a cup of juice and a cardboard cracker. Without the breath, priest and people, silent and aloud, it’s just words. But mix it all together and it becomes something wholly new–an invitation, a trust, a hope that God is moving and abiding and birthing new life into us even (or perhaps especially) in our everyday and ordinary. Holiness, I am more and more convinced, sneaks in when we least expect it, mingled into our life like cream into coffee. Not to be stored away, locked in the tabernacle or kept in secret, but waiting to be poured out, like precious oil upon the beard, upon us all.