Sunday, August 30, 2015

Substance Over Form

          [Make the sign of the cross]  In the name of the Father – oh Lord, did I turn the coffee on –  and the Son – speaking of whom, he hasn't called lately - and the Holy Spirit – that is a really pretty dress.  Amen.  Amen.

          The Trinity is at the very foundation of our faith.  The question is, what goes through your mind when you hear it or say it?  Do you quickly catch up to the movement of crossing yourself?  Do you think, okay, now it's time for the next thing to begin? 

          When was the last time that you thought about the actual meaning of the words and gesture? 

          Bert Ghezzi, author of "Sign of the Cross:  Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer" says The sign of the cross is: a confession of faith … a mini-version of the Creed in which you are professing your belief in the Trinity.

          It's a renewal of baptism … that which linked you to the body of Christ, and when you make the sign of the cross, you remember joining to the body with Christ as the head.

          It's a mark of discipleship … Jesus says in Luke 9:23, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me."  It declares that "I belong to Christ."

          In making the sign of the cross, you're saying to the Lord, 'I want to obey you; I belong to you.  I choose to be obedient to God's law and Christ's teachings.

          One of the main teachings of the early Church Fathers is that the sign of the cross is a declaration of defense against the devil. When you sign yourself, you declare to the devil, "Hands off. I belong to Christ; He is my protection." It's both an offensive and defensive tool.

          The sign of the cross can help you avoid self-indulgence –  the problems we have, the stubborn things we can't get rid of. If you are angry, full of lust, fearful, emotional or grappling with problems, make the sign when tempted and it will help dispel the problem.  You're no longer alone in your struggle.  Well, you weren't to begin with, but you needed the reminder.

          So looking at the actual gesture made:  the use of three fingers together became popular in the 9th century. The thumb and first two fingers are held together to symbolize the Trinity, while the remaining two fingers are folded to signify Christ's two natures.

          The Sign of the Cross is primarily a blessing. We use it to call God's blessing upon us. Laypersons as well as clergy can use it to bless others. Parents, for example, may use the Sign of the Cross to bless their children.

          The routine before the reading of the Gospel where we made the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips, and chest also has meaning. In doing this, we acknowledge, at our forehead, our belief in the Word of God, at our mouth, our commitment to spread God's Word in our daily lives, and at our chest, our awareness of God's presence in our hearts.

          So let's look at another routine phrase we say, not quite as often in a Eucharist service, but generally at least 2 or 3 times in Morning Prayer.  We've all got it memorized.  And we likely occasionally have the thought wander through our heads, "why are we saying this again?"

          The Gloria Patri, also known as the Lesser Doxology.  You all know what it is, but what I'd like you to do is close your eyes, and focus on the words as I say them:

          Glory to the Father,
          And to the Son,
          And to the Holy Spirit;
          As it was in the beginning,
          Is now,
          And will be forever.  Amen.

          This is not only a statement of doctrine, faith and belief in the covenant between God and man, these are fighting words as the full defense of Christianity.  And the word that makes it so – Amen, so be it.  In that statement, you are stating that you believe that God, in the form of the Trinity, not only existed from the beginning of time, but continues to exist now, and will exist long after you're gone.  This is the foundation upon which not only our faith is based, but our understanding of the universe.

          So, knowing that just those two pieces of the liturgy are so full of meaning, prayer, devotion and statement of what we believe – do you think the rest of our liturgy is any less meaningful?  The question is – when was the last time you thought about the meaning, instead of just reciting the words?

          In our Old Testament reading, Moses tells the Israelites, "You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you." 

          And our Gospel reading today talks about form over substance.  If we say the words, but don't mean them – don't even think about meaning them – we insult God.  It's not what's outside of us – in this case, the liturgy – that insults God; just as it wasn't the traditions the Pharisees practiced.  So it is the way we practice the traditions that matter.  If they contradict God's teachings; if the form becomes more important than the substance; if they harm the very people Christ came to save – then we are as guilty as the Pharisees of hypocrisy.  If our actions don't reflect our words, if we haven't taken the words to heart and mind – then we are hypocrites and as James says in the New Testament reading, our religion is worthless.

          When I was little, it was a goal to be able to say the service by heart.  Notice that I didn't say by memory or by rote.  My father made it very clear that if you catch yourself saying the liturgy by rote – get out.  You have just insulted God, and you need to make yourself right with Him before you try again.  Harsh words, but a good lesson – because it was never my intention to insult God. 

          When I finish here, we'll be saying the Nicene Creed.  Your challenge is to think about the words you say:

          Do you believe them?  What is it you're saying?  What does it mean? 

          And you're probably going to want to explore various phrases and sentences a bit more later.  I'd be surprised if you don't find things in there that make you curious.  At least, I hope it does.  Amen.

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