The Altar Party
by Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | October 12, 2017Hi friends, we’re having a training for acolytes, lectors/intercessors, and Lay Eucharistic Ministers after church on Sunday, October 22nd. This training is for everyone who currently serves in those roles, but it’s also an opportunity for people to join those ministries who never have before. If that’s you, I’d like you to consider participating. So today, I want to write about some of those roles, particularly the folks who wear funny clothes on Sunday mornings: acolytes, Lay Eucharistic Ministers, and clergy. The work those ministers do has both theological and practical significance, and their dress, roles, and placement during the service reminds us that the Church always has dual citizenship: earth and heaven.
First, everything those folks do is both theologically and practically important. For example, why does a robe-wearing crucifer carry a cross down the aisle as we’re singing at the beginning of the service? The theological reason is that it signals the reign of Jesus in our community. Just as a military leader or emperor would lead his people with a big banner or standard of some kind, so too do we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord.
On a practical level, people need to know when the service is starting! In the earliest years of the Church, the service just started with a reading from the Old Testament. That worked fine for a while because the earliest Christian communities weren’t very big. They gathered in somebody’s living room. But as Christianity grew and more people came to church, it got harder to let everyone know when worship was starting. Thus, we got processions with music.
Second, by wearing white robes and by processing in, gathering around the altar, and processing out, the altar party performs the truth that the Church as we experience it is on earth, but it’s also always a heavenly kingdom. When we come to the altar rail at communion, it’s as though we’re touching the border of heaven: this is where we meet God and become part of the Body of His Son.
Thus, it fits that the folks who are serving on the altar-side of the rail should look a little odd. Neither the priest, nor the acolytes, nor anyone else up there has special powers or is more holy than anybody else or whatever. It’s just that on Sunday mornings, the very architecture of our worship space reminds us that the Eucharist is a border crossing. We’re not simply on earth anymore, and yet we’re also not simply in heaven. We’re in both places at once. It’s even more powerful when lectors in plain clothes come to read, or when the Gospel procession moves out into the midst of everyone: in each of those instances, the border is crossed. Theologically, heaven and earth all mixed together.
The white robes also remind us of our baptism. In the early Church, when somebody was baptized they were dressed in a white robe immediately after. This was a symbol of new life, of Christ’s resurrection, that they were now a part of something different. Clergy and chalice servers and acolytes don’t wear robes on Sunday morning because they’re different but because we’re all different. We’re Christian people.
Plus, serving at the altar is fun! You get to carry the torches, serve the chalice, even bang the big bell chime. You’re up close and personal as people come to the altar rail. That is one of the great gifts of the work I do: bearing witness as people receive the body and blood. Some people are very somber and reverent, some are quite casual, some remain silent, some say “Amen,” and some—especially kids—say “Thank you!” after I give them bread. (I usually respond, “You’re welcome!”) It’s all beautiful.
I’d like you to consider if God is calling you to serve in one of these worship roles: acolyte, lector/intercessor, or chalice bearer. We have acolyte rolls for kids as young as 3rd grade. To be a lector or intercessor, I ask that you be a confirmed communicant of St. Elizabeth who is at least 16 years old. To be a chalice server, I ask that you be a confirmed communicant of St. Elizabeth and at least 16 years of age. I also expect that you pledge financially.
I want to be clear about that last one: the amount one pledges is not important, be it $12 a year or $12,000. This is not some club we buy our way into. I ask that pledging be part of the practice of chalice servers because I take the distribution of the blood of Jesus seriously. If one is to help distribute the gifts from the altar, it fits that he or she should be intentional in offering material gifts on the altar. Furthermore, as ministers who distribute the body and blood of Christ, we make a promise ahead of time that we will offer the bread and wine regardless of who is at the rail, regardless of whether they cross themselves beforehand or are smiling or are serious or have wounded us that week. To pledge is to do the same: it’s making a promise ahead of time that we will offer our material resources to our community regardless of whether we want to six months from now, regardless of whether we’re upset about something, regardless of whether we won the lottery or are tightening our belts a bit.
Here are the details again: we’re having a training for acolytes, lectors/intercessors, and Lay Eucharistic Ministers after church on Sunday, October 22nd. If you’re already one of those ministers, this is for you! If you’re not one yet but are interested, this is for you! Acolyte families, please contact Kevin Hammond at Kevin.Hammond12@gmail.com Everyone else, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
God’s peace, and I hope to see you there!