Embodied Worship

When I was a child, I did not enjoy worship. That isn’t to say that I didn’t like church–I liked Sunday School, I liked being able to play with my friends, and I really like it when there was a reception after church (my church growing up didn’t have weekly coffee hour, just an occasional reception).

bored child

A re-enactment of Adam’s childhood in church

Worship, on the other hand, I dreaded. I detested the church clothes and the infernal clip-on ties that I had to wear. I could imagine nothing worse than sitting still in a pew while adults droned on for what seemed like forever. From time to time a song would break up the monotony, and I liked singing the hymns. For the rest of the time however, my mind would wander and I would distract myself with the Matchbox car that my mom would let me bring in hopes that my brother and I would behave ourselves.

Many years later, when I was in college and starting to claim my faith as my own, I found myself attracted to the local Episcopal church. I wasn’t able to articulate why I had this attraction at first. However, after a while I began to realize it was because the worship engaged me in a way that the worship of my childhood had never been able to engage me.

Like so many mainline Protestant tradition, the church in which I grew up put a heavy emphasis on the Word–both scripture and the sermon. To grossly over simplify things, it belonged to a set of liturgical traditions that put worship squarely in the domain of the intellect. The role of the worshiper was to read scripture, to reflect upon it, and to pray as well as to listen to the minister preach. The role of the minister was to explain the text and to extol the Christian life and virtue to the congregation through the (often lengthy) sermon.

Though there are many things in my life with which I enjoy and even prefer to engage intellectually, worship is not one of them. What I found that pulled me towards the Episcopal Church was a liturgical tradition that engaged all of my senses. We worship through sight in the way that we decorate, arrange, and move through our church space. We worship through sound in our use of music, chant, and even bells. We worship through touch with the waters of baptism, the movement of worship (pew aerobics as some call it), and the feel of bread in our hands. We worship through smell with the scent of incense and holy oil. We worship through taste as we consume the simple bread and sweet wine of the Eucharist every week. And of course, we worship through our mind and intellect with readings from scripture, sermons from the clergy, as well as the symbolism that pervades our sacred spaces.

You might be saying to yourself, “sure, that sounds great, but we’re not the only tradition that makes use of these things.” You would, of course, be correct. Most Christian traditions use most, if not all, of these same elements in their worship. However, what makes the Episcopal tradition stand out is the way that focuses and centers itself on these various elements of worship. In the Episcopal tradition, we treat worship as an embodied experience.

When God created us, we were not made as intellects that also happen to have bodies. We were made as flesh and blood creatures, people who think, feel, and communicate through all of our senses. Think about it–we know home in part by the taste of the food that we eat, we know our beloved by the way that they feel on our skin, we know our children by the sound of their voices, we know that spring is coming by the smell of the thawing dirt, and we know the thoughts and emotions of our closest friends by the looks on their faces.

If we can know all these things, if we can communicate all these things without using words, then why would we think that our worship of God should remain solely in the domain of the intellect? When we engage our whole selves in the act of worship, we create space for and awaken a deep rhythm within us–the rhythm of worship, the rhythm of the divine–that allows us to seek after and encounter God in a profound way. God created us as sensual beings, and God moves through us and within us in ways that are too deep for words, therefore our worship of God must be sensual.

In the course of our church year, there is no time that our worship is more embodied, more sensual, than during Holy Week. During the course of this journey that begins on Palm Sunday and ends of Easter Sunday, we engage our whole being as we descend into the betrayal and tragedy of the cross and ascend into the joy and promise of the resurrection.

This year at St. Stephen’s, we are making an effort to refocus our worship in Holy Week to engage our whole being. On Palm Sunday, we begin with the festival celebration of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem as we wave our palm branches about joyfully, carrying them held high into our sanctuary. On Maundy Thursday, we will take part in the Last Supper through an entirely new worship service that will take place around the dinner table as we taste and see the salvation that Jesus is working. On Good Friday, we will take part in the town-wide Cross Walk as we remember Jesus carrying his own cross on the way to the crucifixion. We will also have a special family service in the evening on Good Friday specifically designed to introduce children to the mysteries of Holy Week in a very gentle, hands-on, tactile way. Finally, we will celebrate the glorious resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday with an explosion of sight, scent, and sound.

I hope that you will come and take part in our worship in Holy Week this year. Come and allow yourself to take part in worship–body, mind, and soul–I promise that it will not be boring and that clip-on ties will not be necessary!

Learn more about this year’s Holy Week & Easter worship opportunities.