Attending in-person Sunday worship in the Diocese of New Westminster during this time of COVID-19 always emphasizes the liminality of this extraordinary time in the history of the planet. I don’t use that term in its original anthropological definition, but more in its evolving meaning, “a state of transition between one stage and the next," of course we are not completely sure what that next stage is going to look like, only that it will be different than our current reality. In the past, driving on a Sunday morning in the fall around the Lower Mainland has been less hectic than on weekdays, but during the pandemic, when people are staying at home and there are fewer opportunities to gather recreationally, the streets are almost empty as if the protocols of physical distancing are now observed by almost everyone whether that is a conscious decision or not.
On just such a morning, October 18, 2020, the Feast of St. Luke, approximately 40 gathered to celebrate Sung Mass at St. James’ Parish. This liturgy would also be the last official scheduled visit by Archbishop Skelton to the City of Vancouver’s oldest parish as she will retire on February 28, 2021. It is no secret that the archbishop has an affinity for Anglo-Catholic worship and St. James’ is well-known for being a great example of that style of worship as well as being a place with a rich history of compassionate service to the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood for more than 140 years.
At the beginning of her sermon, Archbishop Skelton said,
“It is a pleasure to be back in this place, with people who so remind me of what truly nurtures us. Even in pandemic, the identity and spirituality of St. James’ flows around us… it is good to be with you this morning.”
Those attending the Sung Mass were required to reserve their space in advance and check-in upon arrival. Wardens were present as greeters to ensure that protocols were observed and to assist folks in navigating the still unfamiliar process of in-person worship during COVID-19.
Organist and Choirmaster, Gerald Harder assisted by a cantor led the music in worship which punctuated the liturgy perfectly, from the Prelude, 20th Century French composer, Jean Langlias’, Offertoire; Improvisation: Elevation, Chant de paix through to the canted Prayers of Penitence, Psalm 147: 1-7 and Alleluia’s of the Sequence to the Postlude, Robert Hebble’s, Toccata on “Old Hundredth”.
All the elements of the liturgy, although modified to meet COVID-19 protocols connected smoothly to one another. Except for, the wearing of face masks, the absence of congregational singing led by a choir and the physical distances observed by all those present, the worshipper’s experience was certainly comparable to a Mass at St. James’ in pre-pandemic times.
The rector, the Venerable Fr. Kevin Hunt was the Celebrant, the Deacon of the Word and Table was the Reverend Amanda Ruston who was ordained to the transitional diaconate in June of 2020, and is currently in her student placement at St. James’, the intercession was led by Paul Stanwood, ODNW and the preacher was the Most Reverend Melissa Skelton.
Taking the Gospel for her text, Luke 4: 14-21 and the Feast Day as context, Archbishop Skelton focused in on the concluding three sentences of the passage; “Then (Jesus) rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
She went on to examine the passage in light of the importance and imminence of the word “today.”
“The word ‘today’ appears twelve times in Luke, compared with only nine times in the other three gospels combined. It is in Luke that angels, telling the shepherds of Jesus’ birth say, ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour is born to you.’ It is in Luke that Jesus, encountering the tax-collector, Zacchaeus, tells him, ‘Come down immediately. I must stay in your house today,’ and later, ‘Today, salvation has come to this house.’ It is in Luke that at the crucifixion, Jesus tells the thief hanging next to him: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ And finally in this morning’s text, a text that occurs early on in the 4th chapter of Luke, Jesus gets up in the synagogue, reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and then pronounces: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Today is the most important time in Jewish history, the rabbis say. Today is the most important time for Luke’s Jesus, and, yes, today is the most important time for us not only in these times but in all times.”
After further examination of the text, Archbishop Skelton’s sermon concluded with these thoughts:
“And so the story of Jesus, the Holy One of God, who reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and pronounces that what he has read has been fulfilled today, is not a story of an immediate change in all the physical or societal conditions that produce poverty, captivity, imprisonment, and blindness. Rather, the story of Jesus is the story of God proclaiming the immediate presence of God’s powerful dignifying love for us and bestowing upon us the capacities that this dignifying love gives us—both for our own sakes and for what we can do in and for others in this world… We, you and I, can take that leap of action today. We can. For the gifts we yearn to give to the world—compassion, justice-making and peace—are the gifts we have already been given.”
The St. James’ Order of Service bulletin is a rich resource not only of information about the life, mission and ministry of the parish but provides background and context for the elements of the liturgy. On the Feast of St. Luke the following piece written by English poet, singer-songwriter, Anglican Priest and Academic, the Reverend Malcolm Guite was included,
A SONNET FOR ST. LUKE’S DAY
His gospel is itself a living creature
A ground and glory round the throne of God,
Where earth and heaven breathe through human nature
And One upon the throne sees it is good.
Luke is the living pillar of our healing,
A lowly ox, the servant of the four,*
We turn his page to find his face revealing
The wonder, and the welcome of the poor.
He breathes good news to all who bear a burden
Good news to all who turn and try again,
The meek rejoice and prodigals find pardon,
A lost thief reaches paradise through pain,
The voiceless find their voice in every word
And, with Our Lady, magnify Our Lord.
*The ox is an iconographic symbol of Luke the Evangelist; “the four” refers to the four Evangelists.