Sunday was consequential for the church community I serve. Our congregation’s Session, in response to updated CDC guidance, had just approved several changes that allowed us to step toward a more robust worshipping life.
Those who’d received a COVID-19 vaccine could attend worship without a mask, sing and pray aloud — and, actually hear each other sing and pray. We celebrated Holy Communion via intinction for the first time in more than a year — well, intinction-ish anyway. Those communing were offered their own cup, rather than dipping bread in a common chalice — but it was a vast improvement over the individual wafer-and-juice packets we had been resigned to using for much of the pandemic (one of our middle school students refers to them as “the Jesus-lunchables”).
The difference was palpable, and I had conversations with people all morning between our services who noticed the same:
“It’s just so different to be in this space, singing and praying and hearing others’ voices, than it is to be watching videos of our church on Youtube in my living room.”
“I can’t quite put into words how meaningful it was to come forward, receive the Communion elements from another person, and have them look me in the eyes and tell me, ‘Linda, this is the Body of Christ for you.’”
“I teared up when we sang the Great Thanksgiving today; it’s been so, so long since we’ve done that.”
Sunday got me thinking about the physicality of faith — the embodied nature of Gospel Christianity and the earthy reality of our formative practices. (And, I’m not the only one who’s had this on my mind — Katie Alley and my friend Daniel Meeter have both offered rich reflections on this reality here on the Reformed Journal of late.)
The Gospel is material: it’s about incarnation, flesh and blood, water and bread and wine, birth and death and bodily resurrection. So it only makes sense that we learn Christian faith not only (or even mainly) with our minds, but with our bodies. James K.A. Smith makes a convincing case for this dynamic in his Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works; we human beings are “homo liturgicus”, liturgical animals, and it is our bodily practices, inhabited communally, that shape in us the story of the world we live by and the vision of the good life we chase.
A bit ago, I stumbled on a short story by Andre Dubus that’s a vivid picture of the power of embodied Christian practice. The narrator in Dubus’ story, entitled, “A Father’s Story,” is a horse farmer in northeastern Massachusetts named Luke Ripley. Ripley, in the course of a poignant meditation on his life as a father, ruminates on his experience of riding into town to attend Mass with Father Paul, his parish priest:
“Do not think of me as a spiritual man whose every thought during those twenty-five minutes is at one with the words of the Mass. Each morning I try, each morning I fail, and know that always I will be a creature who, looking at Father Paul and the altar, and uttering prayers, will be distracted by scrambled eggs, horses, the weather, and memories and daydreams that have nothing to do with the sacrament I am about to receive. I can receive, though; the Eucharist, and also, at Mass and at other times, moments and even minutes of contemplation. But I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.”
This is what I, and so many of the folks in my community, had been starved of for so long, and experienced on Sunday: the embodied dance that performs the Gospel, the ceremony of God’s love.