Life's Big Events
Life presents us all with Big Events—some the cause for celebration, some for mourning, some for reflection and deepening of faith. The Anglican tradition of which the Episcopal Church is a part, draws on three thousand years of tradition to form liturgies that mark these major turning points—from cradle to grave. Each of these services, described more fully below, reminds us and those dear to us, that we are part of a greater river of life—what the Church calls the communion of saints, and that our lives are linked to those of the past and future and to the Kingdom of God.
In a lovely turn of phrase the Church defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” On the north side of the side aisle of St. James is a lovely series of stained glass windows illustrating the liturgies that mark these life events, starting with baptism and ending with burial. The brief text below describes the principal liturgies, sketching the “outward and visible sign” and seeking to describe the “inward and spiritual grace” embodied.
Baptism: Welcome to the Family!
A new life deserves celebration! Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the church and our adoption as children of God. Water, representing new birth and the cleansing of sin, is poured on the forehead of the person with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This action is followed by anointing on the forehead with special oil called Chrism, with the powerful words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Then the congregation welcomes the newly baptized with prayer. As the prayer book explains “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble;” as a result Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
In the Episcopal/Anglican tradition both adults and children are suitable candidates for baptism. In either case the candidate for baptism should be “sponsored” by one or more baptized persons (called godparents in the case of children)—a requirement reflecting the circumstance that our faith is a communal as well as an individual responsibility. At St. James we typically conduct baptisms on the major feast days of the church: at Feast of the Baptism of Jesus (in January), at Easter, at Pentecost (usually falling in May or June), and on All-Saints Day (the Sunday nearest November 1). Those wishing to have themselves or their children baptized should contact the Church office. We look forward to welcoming you into the greatest family in the world!
Confirmation: Coming of Age, Reaffirming Faith
Because for most of its history the Church baptized infants, it realized that as these persons came of age, it was appropriate for them to make a renewed commitment to their faith after learning more about its foundations. Hence Confirmation—a “confirming” of baptismal vows. In either case the confirmation liturgy calls for a bishop to lay hands on the head of the confirmand and to pray that s/he may be strengthened and confirmed in faith. (Church tradition teaches that there is a continuous line of such laying-on of hands stretching back to the original apostles.) In most cases this laying on of hands is preceded by a period of instruction and study of the elements of the faith, lending additional meaning to the event.
In the modern Church the presence of a bishop for Confirmation allows for Reaffirmation of Faith, through which baptized adults who have drifted away from their faith may reaffirm their commitment in a recognized way; and Reception in which persons baptized and confirmed in other Christian faiths may be “received” into the Episcopal Church.
Persons desiring confirmation, reception, or reaffirmation should contact the church office. We’re so glad to have you among us!
Marriage: Let Hearts and Bodies Be Joined Together
Since the beginning of humanity people have sought life partners, and the Church recognizes, celebrates, and blesses such partnerships. The marriage ceremony, so familiar from stage and screen, is, at its root a sacred event: Jesus’s first recorded miracle involved turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. It is also a covenant—an exchange of promises between consenting partners. The liturgy recognizes each of these aspects of marriage and folds them into the Church’s core sacrament—the Eucharist—incorporating the newly wed couple into God’s larger family.
St. James is delighted to celebrate such weddings—both of different- and same-sex couples. We are likewise delighted to celebrate and bless the unions of those who have previously been married civilly. One sign of the seriousness with which the Church treats marriage (“not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly,” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer) is that it requires pre-marital counseling with trained members of the clergy. Please contact the church office to arrange such counseling and for the ensuing marriage. May you be blessed and happy together!
Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child: Welcoming Another Family Member
Even before the time of a child’s baptism, many parents want to give thanks for this new life and the Church has created a short liturgy, which may be celebrated at home or in the hospital or similar facility or, in a more condensed form, incorporated into a Sunday Eucharist. The service recognizes that this moment is both a “joyous” and a “solemn occasion in the life of a family.” And in the case of an adoption of an older child it provides a way for both child and parents formally to create a new family. Parents wishing to avail themselves of this celebration should contact the church office. Welcome to new life!
Reconciliation of a Penitent: The Miracle of Repentance and Forgiveness
We all mess up, failing both God and our fellow humans—sometimes very badly. When we recognize that we have done so, the burden can be crushing. In the words of an ancient prayer, “the remembrance of [our acts] is grievous to us, the burden of them is intolerable.” Part of the ancient wisdom of the Church involves recognizing that humans need to have a way of owning up to these acts—sins in the words of traditional theology—and turning away from them, so that the rest of their lives are not destroyed by the recollections of past misdeeds. For this reason a general confession and absolution from sin is part of almost every celebration of the Eucharist.
But sometimes we feel that our burden, our misdeeds require more—some special accounting and turning away from our prior acts. At such times the Church offers a special liturgy “The Reconciliation of a Penitent.” It is private—only the priest and the penitent are present. It allows the penitent to recount in detail the acts of which s/he repents, and it allows the priest to offer counsel, reassurance, and forgiveness. Any person desiring such a reconciliation should contact a member of the clergy. “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost and are found.”
Ministration to the Sick: Comfort and Community
Illness is part of life, but it need not cut us off from God or from the parish community. The Church recognizes this need in various ways. We pray at regular services for those members who are ill. And we visit and share prayer and communion with those whose illness prevents their attending regular services. The nature of such services is short and informal. Both authorized Lay Eucharistic Visitors and clergy visit the ill at home or in medical care settings to convey the good wishes of the congregation, to share the Eucharist, and to offer the comfort that this part of life also shelters under God’s love. Please contact the church either to seek the prayers of the congregation or to ask for a visit of clergy or lay visitors. “God comforts us in affliction.”
Burial of the Dead: Comfort, Loss, and Hope
All lives come to an end and, in most cases, the end of a life is a cause for grieving by those left behind. It is also a time when the Church reminds us to celebrate the life gone by and the hope of a life beyond death. The burial service—in the church and at graveside or columbarium—has both elements. On one hand the liturgy reminds us that “in the midst of life we are in death;” on the other hand proclaiming that “he that believeth hath everlasting life.”
At the core of the Episcopal burial service is the recognition that we are all mortal and that both the least and the greatest among us come to the same end, but also that each of us is a child of God to whom the Gospels promise a life beyond this one. The hallmark of the service in the Book of Common Prayer balances grief with hope and human uniqueness with the common fate of all of us. The service is both dignified and hopeful—the clerical vestments and altar coverings at funerals are not dark but white, in recognition of hope. The liturgy thus puts our common end in the context of a stream of life moving back millennia. Relatives should contact the church as soon as possible after a death; clergy are available both to comfort the grieving and to help plan the funeral. “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”