Why Do We Do That?
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For 1500 years all Christians had the Eucharist every Sunday. On weekdays those who could assembled in church to hear the Scriptures read, basically what we call the Liturgy of the Word today. And for family prayer they recited the Psalms, mostly from memory because few could read or afford Bibles. In time the Psalms, with short readings and prayers, became the Daily Office, prayed by individuals and religious orders seven times a day. Meanwhile the people came to the Sunday Eucharist but would not receive the bread and wine out of fear. The Reformers wanted at least some people to take communion, so while they preferred the Eucharist for Sunday services, they said that it could not be celebrated unless there were some communicants, and if there were none, it should stop with the Prayers of the People. People had also become used to attending the Daily Office in cathedrals and some parishes with priests who were friars or monks, and the Prayer Book included a simplified Daily Office which was also popular. The standard Anglican service on Sunday morning for 300 years was Morning Prayer followed by the Great Litany followed immediately by the Holy Eucharist, shortened if there were no communicants. It took over three hours. In time some clergy shortened the service to only Morning Prayer except a few times in the year. The Methodists were originally mocked for their desire to receive communion more often, but the Oxford movement finally succeeded in drawing people to the Sacrament and now there is never a shortage of communicants, so the Eucharist is restored, as the Prayer Book (p. 13) says, to its place as the “principal act of Christian Worship on the Lord’s Day.”Why do we sometimes kneel and sometimes stand for prayer?
The early Church, and the Jews before that, knelt for private prayer but stood for corporate prayer. Kneeling was a posture of submission, the one you assumed on the battlefield to indicate you surrendered (our “hands up” posture) and was felt to be proper for the individual before God. But you cannot offer a sacrifice kneeling, and the early Church used the posture of sacrifice for the Eucharist in particular. Soon a pattern developed with private prayers, and some public prayers during Lent and Advent, being offered kneeling as a sign of penitence, and other prayers (such as the Great Thanksgiving) offered standing as a sign of joy and celebration. The Council of Nicaea decreed that it was a sin to kneel during Eastertide. In the Middle Ages, the people no longer understood the words of the Latin liturgy, so they offered private prayers during it and naturally knelt for these. Sitting was not an option because churches had no seats until the 16th century, but then it became the posture for attending to Scripture readings and sermons. The classical Anglican formula was “Sit for instruction, kneel for prayer, and stand for praise.” Study of the early Church customs changed that somewhat to “Sit for instruction, kneel for private or penitential prayer, and stand for corporate prayer and praise.” The Prayer Book leaves it open as to what we do for many prayers, saying merely “the people kneel or stand.” Sometimes there is a strong local custom that is followed, but either posture is really correct and shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment to anyone. The only thing that is definitely not correct is sitting!Why do we stand for the Gospel?
In churches from the earliest times, the reading of the Gospel has been marked by all kinds of ceremonies usually involving lighting candles, walking in processions, and always by the congregation standing up and facing the reader directly, wherever the reading is done. For Christians, the Gospels are not quite the same as other Scripture. Other Scriptures may be meditated on and thought about, but the Gospel demands that we act, and standing up and facing the reader attentively is a way to indicate that we realize that. Soldiers often would draw their swords as they did when their commanding officer gave them orders before battle. The image is that of receiving our marching orders. Turning and facing the reader is obviously what we do when we really want to hear every word; it indicates our willingness to accept and act on each part of the Gospel reading, not just the ones that appeal to us. As any teacher can tell you, it is the students that sit in the back of the room and look the other way that are least likely to succeed. In the same way, in recent times liturgies have added said or sung responses before and after the Gospel, the people’s acknowledgement that we are grateful for this gift, and from early times the one doing the reading has prayed silently beforehand for the grace to read the Gospel effectively. Many people make the Sign of the Cross, most often three small crosses, on forehead, lips, and heart, reminiscent of the words of Hymn 694: “God be in my head, and in my understanding… God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking…”Why do we bow to the altar?
Actually, many Episcopalians think they are bowing to the cross on the altar, but this was done before crosses were placed on altars. The Christian altar has its roots in the huge altar of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple, which is why for most of history it has been made of stone. It would make a good Bible study to trace the use of stones or rocks as images of the presence of God in the Old and New Testaments, from the stone that gave water to the Israelites in the desert to Peter, the Rock. Basically the permanence of rocks is one reason they are associated with the eternal God, and rocks (Jacob’s rock for a pillow and the huge rock of the Temple Mount) have been places of encounters with God. The altar is similarly a place of encounter with God for Christians, and such places, as God tells Moses from the burning bush, are “holy ground”. Just as Moses was instructed to recognize this by taking off his shoes, Christians have recognized their holy ground by bowing, or briefly kneeling, towards the altar when they enter and leave a church. It is an important way to recall that this is truly a place of encounter with God and no ordinary room.Why do we face the altar for the Creed?
Actually, we don’t. We face the wall the altar is nearest, which is only obvious when we are standing beside the altar. What we are really supposed to be doing is facing east, just as Muslims do for prayer. The difference is that Christian churches are supposed to have the altar at the east end, so the part of the church that contains the altar is “officially” east no matter what the compass says. But Christians aren’t facing a holy city, but rather facing the direction of the sunrise. In many cemeteries, Moravian and others, the dead are buried facing east, symbolically looking to the rising sun which is a symbol of the Second Coming of Christ. Christ is called the “bright Daystar”, a term for Venus when that planet rises in the dark eastern sky just before the sun comes up, and the image of the Second Coming as a dawn runs through much of Scripture and later poetry as well. But why is this image of the end of the old world and the beginning of the new tied up with the Creed? That is because the Creed isn’t really a recital of academic doctrines but a profession of faith, a sort of Pledge of Allegiance by Christians. It is all about our faith and hope, our trust in Christ “until his coming again.”Why do we carry a cross on a pole in processions?
For about a century the early church did not use the cross as a symbol at all; it was simply too painfully fresh in memory. After people no longer remembered what a crucifixion was really like, the cross became an important Christian symbol that was scratched into lintel posts, carved in standing stones, and even cast in metal and adorned with jewels for placing over doorways as a house blessing (like the Jewish mezzuzah on doorposts) and worn about the neck or carried in the hand of the clergy. But it was not placed on the altar because nothing except the bread and wine was ever to be placed on the altar. In some places, however, a cross was placed on a staff or stand behind the altar during services, and this was often carried in ceremonially at the start of the service in part because it could not be left in the open church. The image of “following the cross” appealed to people, and from the sixth century on there were many festive outdoor processions, usually involving the whole congregation, and headed by a cross flanked by torches or candles. These were normally ways to get from a gathering place to the church where the Eucharist was to be celebrated. Usually Psalms were sung in procession, or metrical hymns, many of which were specifically written for processions (like “All glory, laud and honor”, Hymn 154, for the Palm Sunday procession.) Sometimes prayers, like the Great Litany, were also sung in procession. During the 18th century processions mostly died out in the Episcopal church but they were revived by the Oxford movement in the next century, along with choirs in cassocks and cottas following the cross and candles. Though some extreme evangelicals were infuriated by these processions, most Anglicans have agreed that although the procession doesn’t have a very profound theological reason for being, it is simply too attractive to pass up.
Special thanks to Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA for their research.
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