Friday, October 27 2023
Dear Ones of St. John’s,
If you were in church this past Sunday when the bells rang (no shade if you weren’t!) you may have noticed that when the altar party processed in we bowed toward the altar and then turned and bowed toward the people, toward you. Many priests and congregations are familiar with the practice of reverencing the altar when entering and exiting a liturgy, “reverencing” being the word that describes the bowing of the upper body forward. Fewer places also reverence the people, although it is a common practice in plenty of communities. I want to tell you what it means, and why I like to do it.
First, the word reverence is important, because it describes why we bow. We are offering reverence – noticing the image or presence of Christ in a symbol, sacrament, or person. Many people reverence toward the altar because it is where our sacrament is blessed and made. Also, behind the altar is where our reserve sacrament is kept, in a special place. Reserve sacrament is bread and wine that has been blessed, which means it already holds in itself the mystery of Christ’s presence. So we offer reverence, recognition, of this presence that is in the reserve and will soon be present on the altar.
There is another place where God’s own image rests each time we gather, however. God’s image resides in the congregation as well, in each of you and in the presence of all of you together. I never feel right reverencing the altar and reserve without also turning to recognize the presence of God in the congregation. That is why you’ll see me turn and bow toward you.
You are welcome to return the reverence, if you feel so moved. But you do not have to! One of the great things about our Episcopal tradition is that our liturgy offers many ways to engage our bodies in prayer and liturgical action. But unless you are a priest, deacon, or altar server, all of them are optional. You can try out things like making the sign of the cross, reverencing the presider when she reverences you, kneeling at the confession, and walking forward to physically receive the sacraments, or you can simply be among us as you are without doing any of those things. You can try one or two and reflect on how it feels, then try out not doing them and see what that’s like, too. It’s a choose your own adventure, in this way, as you find the rhythms and practices that best refresh and renew you for your life in the world. This is, after all, what church is for: to offer moments of transformation, big and small, that give us the courage, hope, joy, and love to be Christian in the world.
After three weeks with you I can confidently say I am experiencing this transformation from being in your midst. It is good to be with you.
Can’t wait to see you Sunday,