In 1985, Krister Stendahl (1921-2008), a Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar, proposed what has become know as Stendahl’s three rules of religious understanding. These are:
- When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for “holy envy.”
On December 24, 2016, my wife, son, daughter, and I attended St. John’s Episcopal church for Christmas eve mass. It was a great experience to participate in a worship service of another Christian denomination.
Audience: Ah ha! I knew it. You are leaving the Mormon church.
No, I’m solidly Mormon. But, I did learn a lot and would like to share some of it. In Stendahl’s terms, I left room for holy envy and found that my room was filled.
Sacrament of the Eucharist
The term “sacrament” in other Christian traditions carries broader meaning than in the LDS church. It is defined as “Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace… . Baptism and Eucharist are the two great sacraments given by Christ to his church.” (The Sacraments)
Sacraments typically include:
- Communion (Eucharist)
- Holy Matrimony
- Confession (Reconciliation)
- Anointing the sick (Unction)
In our LDS vernacular, we would use the term “ordinances” to describe the above. (Of course or-din-ance is not to be confused with ordnance, which are things that go boom!) Each Christian tradition may differ somewhat in the sacraments or ordinances that they conduct for their adherents. Except for confession, which Mormons don’t practice in a formal fashion, the list is familiar.
Audience: You’re rambling again.
Okay. Back on track…
I very much enjoyed the Episcopal Holy Communion. I found it rich in symbolism (and admit that I may have missed much of if). I loved the interplay of sacrifice and receiving, of preparation and approaching.
As the communal hymn began, the priest started to prepare the emblems of the Eucharist.
While the priest continued his work, ushers paused at each pew, presenting the opportunity for congregants to make an offering.
The priest, having completed the preparation of the emblems, was presented the offerings of the congregation, which he received and presented to the Lord. The offering plates were placed next to the bread and wine.
Congregants were then invited, row by row, to approach the priest and receive Holy Communion.
To some, the passing of the collection plate may seem crass. And, out of context, it may be easy to think so. But, within the context of Holy Communion, it becomes part of the symbolic sacrifice, preparatory to offering one’s self to receive God’s grace.
A friend told me how her mother would give each of her children a coin or two prior to the service so that they would have something to offer. This mother also paid tithing, so this communion offering was a separate, unique, and symbolic offering.
This whole process left me with much to envy. I have since tried to look with different eyes at my tradition’s Holy Communion and find greater meaning.
The Blind Boy
LDS services are relatively austere by comparison to Episcopalian liturgy. Business suites substitute for holy vestments. Disheveled 12 year old boys function as deacons, shuttling the holy emblems to the congregation after brief recitations of proscribed prayers done by older boys.
Superficially, one might think that the “holy” of the Mormon “sacrament” had been democratized, thus losing the pomp and ceremony that it is due. To some extent, I would agree. Nevertheless, the egalitarian nature of the Mormon sacrament presents other opportunities for holiness and grace.
Normally, boys distribute the communion symbols to the congregation. But, there are times when there aren’t enough of them to do the job. Today was one of those times in my ward and I was asked to help.
So, here I am, a 6′ 1″, 49 year old man, stumbling around like an awkward adolescent. I tried not to disrupt the intended solemnity and practiced rhythm the boys had developed, but I was only marginally successful.
Once our task was complete, we lined up in semi-regimental fashion at the back to the congregation in preparation for returning the trays to the front of the chapel. Given the cue, we began our haphazard procession.
Leading the way was a 12 year old blind boy. I was next, struggling to walk far slower than I usually do. In the boy’s left hand he carried the tray holding what remained of the emblem for the blood of Christ. In his right hand was his long cane. This was not held out for feeling his way, he was quite familiar with the route and the number of steps required. Instead, he held it like a walking staff.
Slowly, our line of misfits, lead by a blind boy with rumpled clothes, approached the table of our King. There was nothing grand, noble, or pompous about our shuffling procession. The staff bobbing in front of me was not ornamented with authoritative symbols. Even the table we approached was unremarkable. Yet, in that moment, I felt that I was part of something special. We were plain souls doing what was asked of us. We had nothing to offer but trays nearly emptied of the symbols of our sacrificed Lord.
Now, I can’t claim that anyone else was affected or the even that I experienced a mighty change of heart. But, I can say that I caught a glimpse of something special, something that helped me see the world differently, maybe something that just might be enviable to an outsider.
Similar to Martin Luther’s idea of a “priesthood of all believers,” Christian Mormons intentionally empower young boys (and grumps) to be a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). While our priesthood may be as inelegant, ignorant, and unrefined as ourselves, I think it provides opportunities for service and personal growth. Hopefully, it helps us see something more in ourselves and others than we would not otherwise see.