Entering the Courts of Heaven, Part Three

This is part three of a series that explores the way in which we covenant with God through worship.

Goodman discerns a basic pattern in all cultures that create ritual doors into the alternate reality. As I describe the pattern below, I will point out how the Service of Holy Communion of the Episcopal Church, the Christian rite that I know intimately, fits within her framework. 

Teachings that help us make meaning of the alternate reality and of our contact with it. In the Eucharistic service, this is called the “Liturgy of the Word.” We make sense of our worship of God, and indicate the way it shapes and changes us, by reading and commenting on scripture, fearlessly examining our consciousnesses, and praying for each other and the world that surrounds us.

The start. In a drumming ritual, this might be a change in rhythm. In the Service of Holy Communion, we open the door into paradise by singing an ancient hymn called the Sanctus. This is very explicit. The priest introduces the Sanctus by saying that we are raising our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. The words of the Sanctus come from a vision of the prophet Isaiah, in which he heard heavenly beings singing this hymn during their own worship. So there is little doubt in my mind that the Sanctus is the start of the Christian journey into the alternate reality that we might name the heavenly courts, the city of God, or, simply, heaven.

Sojourn. We become immersed in, journey into, channel the alternate reality. In many cultures this leads to a physiological change. People tremble, twitch, swoon. In some Christian rituals this happens. Pentecostalists shake and speak in tongues. Evangelicals raise their arms and sway back and forth. Staid Episcopalians tend to kneel, to engage an intense bodily focus. We are currently more comfortable with a meditative pose than we are with dancing, although I hope that this will change. Some people enter so deeply into the trance state that they enter into the unio mystica, the mystical union with God, also known as contemplatio, or contemplation.

The shape of the Eucharistic Prayer directs this trance state by offering:

  • Praise of God for our salvation through Jesus Christ;
  • The Institution Narrative, that tells the story of the first communion that took place between Jesus and his disciples on the night before he died;
  • The Memorial Acclamation, in which the congregation encapsulates the meaning of the story;
  • The Epiclesis, in which we ask for the Holy Spirit’s presence;
  • The Fraction, when the priest breaks the bread;
  • The Distribution of Holy Communion. Goodman points out that the leaders of these sojourns into the alternate reality always bring something back with them. Sometimes it’s the ability to heal or cast out harmful spirits. In the case of the Christian Eucharist, it’s the communion itself, the linkage that Christ’s body and blood creates between Christians. For us, the Distribution of Holy Communion is the boon that we return with.

Dissolution. We must at some point awaken from the trance and return from the alternate reality. All cultures acknowledge the importance of doing so. Those who can’t return, who get lost in the alternate reality, are often thought of as having demons or mental illnesses.  A ritual that functions as a good and safe door into the alternate reality includes a path back to ordinary consciousness. In the Episcopal rite, this is accomplished through the Post-Communion prayer, the Blessing, and the Dismissal.

This is the door the Jesus made for us, and opened with his own body. He was born in Bethlehem, the “city of bread,” and laid in a manger, the feeding trough of animals. From the first, his body was meant to be food and drink for the world. The Holy Eucharist is the food and drink that we bring back with us from our weekly sojourn into paradise. It creates the Church by uniting us to one another as an alternative community that can enter the alternate reality, a community of travelers into paradise.

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