In the very early days of the Church, becoming a member was a long and drawn out process. There was a lot of examination in public of one’s life (‘Are you giving to the poor?’ ‘Are you loving your neighbour?’, your sponsor was asked). Not all of the Eucharist was open to you. At the time of the sermo0n you would have been dismissed to go and study the word of God with your teachers in the faith, and your sponsors. You would have come to know them very well. But you would never have known the creed till the week before your baptism at Easter. You would never have known the lord’s prayer till then either. You would never have participated in the Kiss of Peace until at the Easter Eucharist, starting late at night, you were brought, reeking of beautiful perfume, dressed in your baptism gown, into the assembly of the faithful. You would have been introduced to them, and they would have clapped you and hugged you, and kissed you and welcomed you into the People of God, in Christ. You had experienced your first ‘plunging’ into Christ at your baptism, all 3 years of it!. You would now have experienced your second ‘plunging into Christ, for the first time, at your first Eucharist.
A while after Constantine became emperor and a Christian, all this dropped away. Bu the middle of the 20th Century, the peace had disappeared from the Eucharist, and people would walk straight out of Church (often Matins) and say ‘lovely sermon vicar’ and go home. People would go to church to be alone with God, and if anything, the other people were irrelevant, or a distraction.
But then came Vatican 2 and a revival in the Church, in terms of liturgy. We did two things. One was that we re-introduced ‘The Peace’ into the Eucharist, and we all started having coffee with each other afterward. Both of these activities put more demands upon us as Christians. The Church having coffee and sharing ‘The Peace’ is more like the early Church than the Church of Victorian times.
After Church on Sunday I watch who is speaking to whom. I notice who is not being spoken to and try to include them, in the conversation if they want it. In the ‘Daily Meditation’ that I receive from the Henri Nouwen society, he reminds us that as a Church we are called to keep going to the margins of our society. It is much easier to stay in groups of people that we are comfortable with, than to reach out. But the institution of the ‘coffee after Church’ was done so that those who need company can have it. Part of our job as members of a congregation is to be aware of who need support, and talking to after Church.
The other activity that makes demands on us during Church is ‘The Peace’. This is not a time to say ‘hello’, but to wish one another the Peace of God. A member commented to me the other day that they did not like it when, in the passing of ‘The Peace’ a person comes up to them, shakes them by the hand, says ‘Peace be with you’ but looks past them to the next person.
So I ask myself, what is it that makes looking another person in the eyes difficult. In the case of ‘The Peace’ I think it may have something to do with the embarrassment we feel at being that intimate, or close to people whom we may not know very well, or whose name we have forgotten etc. The eyes are the ‘window to the soul’ and it is true, that to look another person ‘in the eye’ is to be confronted with the reality of another person. This raises all kinds of questions. ‘Where am I up to with this person?’ ‘Do I really wish them ‘peace’?’
This is not the case with people whom I know well. There is no problem there. So how come I do not know the majority of people in a small congregation well? If I am looking away from another person because of the unconscious anxiety caused by such a close encounter with a brother or sister in Christ, what does that say about us as ‘the body of Christ?’
Next time you offer ‘The Peace’ to another, you might like to inquire of yourself ‘What is happening in me? Am I looking ‘away’ and if so, what is that?
Which brings me to this week. I experienced a great satisfaction this week. The first was at our regular Gospel Reflection Group. We have been meeting for a while now, and as is normally the case, we are getting to know one another, and trust one anther. This week, one member of the group shared something that was very important to them, that they had not shared before. It was a risk that they took. It paid off though, I think, because that person’s sharing was respected and honoured by the group. No one jumped in to say anything much, except there was a brief, appreciative silence which was all that was needed.
So I think that this group is starting to ‘come together’ as a group. This is what the body of Christ feels like to me: when people trust one another enough to take the risk to share something that is new for them and us. Now, ‘The Peace’ will be different for that person, and the members of the group and me. There will be no need to ‘look away’ because having shared something special in the group, it will be possible to share the same intimacy in the Eucharist. That is how it should be. That is what these groups are for.
It is at these times that I really feel like a priest, and that I am doing the thing that I was called to do. In a congregation like ours, it is easy enough to remain an individual, and not to engage with others much. But to the extent that this happens, or being really like ‘The Body of Christ’ is diminished. The witness to others of a group like the one that is developing on Tuesdays makes the words of the hymn, which quotes St. John, come true ‘Buy this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.’ This is what I think my job here is about, in part at least.