Learning something by heart is an act of love.
I have memorized a whole bunch of texts. I recite them on my walks, and it takes me over an hour to get through them all. It's work, and it's discipline.
But I've learned something else by heart without trying. The Eucharist. You may notice that when we use Rite 2, Prayer A, for the Great Thanksgiving (starting on page 361), I don't use the book. I know it by heart. I didn't try to do it...It just happened over thirty years of celebrating the Eucharist.
Learning something by heart can be an act of love. And I love the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
I think ritual is very important. We get together week by week and do the same basic thing. The songs and readings change from week to week, but the basic shape is the same. That's what ritual is all about. We repeat actions of significance in a ceremonial way. It give us meaning. It keeps us mindful...we are, after all, very forgetful people.
And studies indicate that it actually increases our happiness. Partly it's because of the community...good relationships improve happiness. Partly it's because of the deep meanings we can derive. And partly it's because we are creatures who value continuity and repetition.
The basic shape of our liturgy, our worship service, our Eucharist, is very simple. It has just two parts: Scripture & Sacrament. Or you could call it Word & Meal. Or Story and Table.
The first half of the service is mostly made up of Bible readings and prayers. The second half of the service is blessing and sharing the bread and cup.
Now, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, is not something you do alone. Episcopal priests never celebrate what is called "Private Mass." The rules of our church say that it takes at least two for this tango. It's a community thing. Eating together can be a significant ritual, and that's been true for as long as there have been people.
I read a book about the Bible by an evolutionary biologist. He looked at the Scriptures from an evolutionary perspective. He reflected on prehistoric hunter-gatherers, which is the heritage all human beings share. And this is what he wrote about our religious ritual:
"It's no accident that the Eucharist would become one of Christianity's central institutions. Here, the community celebrates together, just like in the days of the hunter-gatherers. No one eats alone. Eating together is a social event that strengthens the bonds among the group's members. Christianity's success arose in part from this potential."
I like that. And I find it fascinating.
Now, in the Great Thanksgiving which I love enough to know by heart, my favorite line might be this: "You, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us..."
Here's the central message of the Christian faith: God became one of us. The Creator bent down to take on human life. God became human so that humans could be divine.
God's with us in all the mess and chaos of human life.
This underlines the importance of what I was taught by the Episcopal priest who took me under his wing in 1981. There's no such thing as a perfect liturgy, he taught me. My liturgy professors in seminary taught us to work toward perfect liturgy, but my wise priest friend said there's no such thing.
Stuff happens...acolytes fall asleep, the reader gets it wrong, the priest trips or drops something...but it's all part of the whole human thing! I guess I learned the message well enough, because I'm comfortable when things aren't perfect on Sunday morning.
I remember a Sunday when I first came to St. Mark's 23 years ago. The kids came upstairs. After they sat with me up here and we did some kind of children's thing, I sent them back to their pews. Back then, we had turquoise-colored carpeting up here around the altar. There was some glitter when they left. I guess they had used glitter that day in Sunday school.
Anyway, I learned later that one of the priests who came before me at St. Mark's would have become angry about the kids leaving a mess. My reaction was different. I said, "Look at the glitter! I feel like some little angels have been sitting up here with me!"
I didn't know getting mad was an option. My priest mentor taught me well.
There is no such thing as a perfect liturgy, because the liturgy is done by human beings. It's a human ritual.
We come together. We reflect on the stories and teachings that give us identity. We pray for help and offer thanksgivings. We get strength from being together. And we are fed a symbolic meal.
It all leads up to the blessing at the end of the service. The one we use here at St. Mark's that I found somewhere years ago seems to sum the whole thing up pretty well. It tells us why we are here, and what we are supposed to go out and do about it.
So I'll just finish with those words:
"Life is short, and we don't have too much time to gladden the hearts of those with whom we journey along the way. So let us be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.
And may God's blessing be upon you, and everyone you love, and this whole broken world, today and always."