The Liturgy and the Tomb: in praise of Anglicanism and Jerusalem


One of the reasons I became an Anglican was the subtle mysticism of the liturgy. In my former days as a Baptist I knew when to expect the Holy Spirit to show up: the climax of the sermon or the third stanza of a good hymn. As the pastor worked his way towards the conclusion of a sermon the urgency would grow. The invitation to accept Jesus was on the horizon. If one was going to make a decision to convert, rededicate, or request prayer this was the moment for the Spirit to stir your conscience. Steeling your will against it would be of no avail if the Spirit decided to do its work. The same was true of the songs and spirituals that would sweep through the church. You could tell midway through a song whether or not its structure was going to hold. If the Spirit shook the soloist, the congregation could get swept up right along with her. At that point the song ended only when the Spirit was finished.

You might think that this is a long way from the supposedly stale liturgy that now forms my days and weeks. You would be wrong. I often find myself more stirred, not less, in the midst of worship. I love that our liturgy offers so many points of entry for the Spirit. Words, prayers, smells, and gestures that I may have used hundreds of times impinge upon my heart with no warning. The confession of sin always threatens to become a confession of sin. Kneeling at the altar can become a genuine bow in the presence of the king. The bread and wine remain a constant danger. Lately I have been moved by a single candle. It leads the clergy carrying the sacrament to the elderly who can no longer make it to the altar. We do what our Lord commanded. Feed my sheep was the commission given and we Anglicans are known for being literalists. In other words, the liturgy without warning brings me face to face with the words, teachings, commands and saving help of Jesus. I have found that Jerusalem does the same.

Today I visited the garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, and the sight of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. I was prepared for those places. But those sites did not affect me most. Somewhere, on the way down the Mount of Olives, we stopped at an unadorned tomb from the time of Jesus. As we causally discussed burial practices of the day, the finality of what it must have felt like for his first disciples finally made sense. Death with all its hopeless unfurled before them. Only a resurrection could have ended their weeping.  They lived what we try to reenact. We cannot climb to the other side of history and know their sorrow. The resurrection has changed too much for us too. For a moment I could imagine. Jerusalem had done its work on me. These moments with the Spirit come repeatedly as you walk this land. It is not just at the holy sites. It is in the air, on the ground, in the stones.

 (This is the third reflection on my time in Jerusalem.  The other two can be found here and here.)

Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.

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