"That we may enter..."
Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given us life and immortality, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We step this morning into the heart of the Christian mystery. It may have felt like little more than climbing a few stairs in the ambulatory while trying to figure out what you were supposed to be doing with your palm. But whatever it felt like, what we were really doing was stepping into the heart of the Christian mystery.
In ancient days, that mystery used to focus all on one night. It must have been incredibly intense then, like light put through a magnifying glass until it burns. In the first few centuries after Jesus, the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday was the center of the whole year. It exercised a gravitational pull so strong that our entire calendar grew up around it. It drew to itself Baptism of new converts and reconciliation of the penitent. It drew to itself all our core stories, from the creation of the world to the passion of Christ; from the Red Sea to the Resurrection. And everyone who called themselves Christian kept vigil together on that holy night which seemed to have so much power.
It still does have that kind of power, and you will see it for yourself if you join us at the Great Vigil of Easter later this week. If you wait, with us, in a difficult darkness that communicates in a way no words can what Jesus has delivered us from, and then move with us, slowly, through the history of the human race to arrive, finally, at vows and bells and Easter hymns and shouts of resurrection.
That Vigil we keep together still has immense power. But as the Church matured and its calendar developed in the 4th and 5th centuries, the acts by which God has given us life and immortality came to spread out across more than just that one great night. That single light, that new fire which had been so focused and intense, was put through a prism and revealed a whole spectrum of colors. The Crucifixion and burial of Christ gravitated to Good Friday. The institution of the Eucharist and the ceremony of footwashing gravitated to Maundy Thursday. And today, Palm Sunday, came to be the day given first to Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and then later to the reading of the Passion Gospel.
So, whether it's focused on one night as it used to be, or spread as it is now over the holy week that begins today: when we stepped into the procession this morning, we were stepping into the heart of the Christian mystery. That's why we prayed for help before we did it. Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given us life and immortality.
"The contemplation of those mighty acts." That phrase gives us a hint as to what the Church is not doing in its worship this week. We are not reenacting anything. We are not putting on a show about how it was back in Bible days. That would be theatre, not liturgy; and though theatre is a wonderful thing, it is not what worship is for.
Something else the Church is not doing in its worship this week: we are not providing uplifting information or material to use for theorizing. We are not "explaining." That would be education, not liturgy; and though education is a wonderful thing, it is not what worship is for either.
Both of those things -- theatrical reenactments and personal education -- are good. But in his work, in his liturgy, here in the heart of his mystery, God promises us much more than that. He promises what our opening prayer this morning is talking about when it says "the contemplation of those mighty acts." Contemplation doesn't mean thinking about concepts. It comes from the same word as temple -- dwelling, tabernacle -- and in the tradition of Christian spirituality it means simply dwelling with or being totally present to. We spent an evening on this in our Lenten program here. When you hear people called contemplatives, it doesn't mean that they sit around mulling ideas over, it means that in their prayer they are simply, directly present to God. Christians call that experience contemplation.
So if we enter upon the contemplation of the mighty acts whereby God has given us life and immortality, what that means is that through the power of the liturgies we will share this week, we can become totally present to those acts of God. The door to them is open. Whether or not any of us are natural contemplatives, in Holy Week the liturgy does all the work for us, if we let it.
God’s acts that have saved us come to dwell with us this week. Not ideas about them, not reenactments of them, but the acts themselves. Everything that they are, everything that they accomplish, all their transformative energy, is available now. We are standing in the place of redemption.
Jesus is here. The road to Jerusalem is here. Golgotha is here. The empty tomb is here. It is not a legend. It is not an exaggeration. It is not a metaphor. At every Eucharist -- and perhaps especially at those that take place during Holy Week -- God opens the door to these mighty acts once more and pours their power out right before us. I can’t tell you everyplace else he opens that door. Lots of places, probably, not all of them in church; he longs for us so, that he probably opens it more ways than I can imagine. But I do know he opens it here, this Holy Week, this Eucharist. And I know it's open now.
Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given us life and immortality, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
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