Weekly Reflection - 11/7/2023
St. Mary's Reflection: Lilly Riveron-Lewis, Altar Guild Member
A Performer’s Reflection on Altar Guild
When I first joined Altar Guild in September, 2021, I was struck by how much the set of tasks before and after each service reminded me of my time in the performing arts world (specifically in ballet). There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes to make the curtain go up, so to speak, for church. Serving on Altar Guild made me feel like I was getting props ready backstage, helping to build the set, and then “striking” afterward. I immediately loved it — loved facilitating the work of the “performers:” Father David, Mother Kira, Deacon Tim, and others, and supporting the “audience’s” experience of the sacred act of worship.
I see that this framing could seem to diminish the rituals that define Episcopalian worship to a mere show, causing them to feel shallow, a set of performative actions that merely provide entertainment on what might otherwise be a lazy Sunday morning for parishioners. Or worse, drawing the analogy between church and ballet performances — blasphemous? At least for me, however, recognizing the resemblance between church and an artistic performance has had the very opposite effect; it has served to deepen my appreciation for the choreography, set design, and script that shape our church services. It has spurred me to ask “Why?” about many aspects of Episcopalian traditions for the first time. It has prodded me to search for the meaning and history that underpins each custom.
Why are there so many different linens involved in the Eucharist? What are they for? What is the purpose of separating the blessed and unblessed wafers, the purpose of the tabernacle? (I thought a tabernacle was relegated to the Old Testament era!) Why must one candle always remain lit? Asking these questions has imbued my Sunday experience with a richness that I would have missed out on had I not joined Altar Guild. I encourage everyone in our parish to start researching church customs too; the rabbit holes it leads you down are not only intriguing, but they are also inspiring! In an article titled “The Rationale for What We Do” on the National Altar Guild Association’s website, the Reverend Terry Gleeson from the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin, Texas, puts it perfectly:
Asking ‘Why?’ then, can take us back through the centuries, and transform what seemed to be just choreography or laundry into profound connections with the primitive Christian community, and indeed with Christ himself.
Today, I am two years into my time serving on Altar Guild, and I am delighted to find that I continue learning more and more about the purpose of the props and rehearsed movements we are so accustomed to seeing on Sunday mornings. It tells me that I have the beautiful opportunity to spend a lifetime learning about the act of worship, and in so doing, gain a deeper understanding of God and how he speaks to and relates to His people.
A piece of wisdom once shared with me about marriage comes to mind: “A marriage dies as soon as you look at your spouse and think, ‘I know all there is to know about this person. There’s nothing more for me to learn.’” The complacency and arrogance that this sentiment reveals serves as a nail on the coffin to a union that is inherently dynamic and revelatory. Since the Bible describes the relationship between Christ and the Church as analogous to a bridegroom and his bride, the transitive nature of this piece of wisdom seems obvious. Anytime I complacently and arrogantly think I have church and God figured out, my relationship with God is dead. Conversely, anytime I approach worship, the Word, and God with curiosity and wonder, my relationship with God becomes alive.
With the advent of my baby girl, Helena, born October 8th, my time on Altar Guild has been put on pause. But already, I look forward to the day I can rejoin, for so many reasons. The opportunity to continue learning and growing as described is paramount, of course. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the reason I’ve learned anything at all on Altar Guild. It’s the members of Altar Guild who have patiently taught me the steps to their dance, forgiving me when I forget various details again and again and making it fun along the way. Getting to know these members has been one of the biggest gifts of the last couple of years and has played a large role in helping me feel so utterly at home at St. Mary’s. When my daughter was born, my husband Chris and I were showered with love and support from the members of Altar Guild. To think I would have missed out on this wonderful community had I not joined their ranks!
I can’t wait for little Helena to grow enough to get to know and love the family we’ve gained through St. Mary’s. What’s more, I can’t wait for her to grow enough that I can share with her what I’ve learned from Altar Guild about the church’s traditions and rituals and for us to start exploring together the “Why?”s that suffuse every action with beautifully rich meaning. Maybe she too will be prompted to join Altar Guild to participate in the millenia-old drama of worship that glorifies God in ways both ancient and new.