…a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

Of all the sentences in the entire lexicon of the liturgy, surely one of the most profound and powerfully packed is the one which is composed of these twenty-three words In Eucharistic Prayer A:

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

The Whole WorldAs shared in an earlier post, the first phrase of that sentence, about Jesus’ outstretched arms on a cross, just hit me to my core one Sunday morning in a fresh and paradoxical way, leaving me breathless.

A similar stunning epiphany was granted to me somehow not long ago, at a time when I was struggliing especially hard with the wicked whispers in my brain, leaving me riddled with all manner of aimless doubt. Desperately seeking some goals I really desired, and even more desperately seeking God’s guidance for them, I was finding only that God seemed nowhere to be found. To say I was feeling broken on that morning would not have explained the half of it.

In this state of brokenness, a message of wholeness somehow broke through.

For the umpteen-thousand previous times I had heard the words “…for the whole world” I had understood that Jesus’ sacrifice was for the entire planet. Christ was crucified, once for ALL. The feast at this Eucharistic table is for EVERYONE.

But on this particular morning, what came to me when I heard that phrase “for the whole world” was something wholly different; a new message in a wholly deeper context.

Jesus’ “perfect sacrifice” is not just about the numbers, the entirety of humanity before and since and ever to be. This ultimate offering “for the whole world” is about the world’s WHOLENESS, so that humankind might obtain completeness and a sense of one-ness — both with our Creator and each other. And this “whole world” is not just for a “macro” vision, that all nations and races and religions be united as one creation of God’s family, but also, and maybe more important, from a “micro” standpoint, Jesus took the cross upon himself so that EACH person, as a child of Our Creator, might obtain an intimate wholeness, a sense of unity and completeness within.

And the gift went further. The words “…a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” meant to me on that particular morning that Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s boy and the carpenter’s son, made the conscious choice to take upon himself the nails and crown of thorns in order to be a perfect offering, not just for the salvation of humanity and all beings to ever roam this celestial speck of dust, but that Jesus did this for ME. It was so that MY foibles and frustrations and other fragments of brokenness might be made whole, that Jesus gave this absolute ransom.

It was an astounding thought.

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Upon another shore and in a greater light…

One small voice, belonging to a 12-year old boy, begins to sing…

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

Other young boys join in, followed by the full choir, followed by the congregation, as the throng of Choristers and Acolytes and Priests make their way forward…

One small, young voice... ushers in the best worship service on the planet.

One small, young voice… ushers in the best worship service on the planet.  (Click HERE.)

The place is Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, England. The time is a minute or two after 3 p.m. London time on Christmas Eve. The occasion is “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.” And for my money, it’s the best worship service on the planet!

Listening on Christmas Eve mornings to the local airing of BBC’s live worldwide broadcasts never fails to just leave me breathless…shedding more than a tear or two, trying to grasp the knowledge of being blessed to savor something I suspect is akin to Heaven.

As the last strands of Processional fade and all are in place, the Dean offers “The Bidding Prayer,” a distinctly Anglican tradition of calling to God’s assembled people to petition the Divine for a particular purpose on a particular occasion. While certain parts change each year, most of the words to this opening “bidding” for lively worship is set in timeless stone, an annual reminder of the poignant and profound beauty that can be found in the words of the Liturgy.

“BELOVED IN CHRIST,” proclaims the Dean in perfect English accent and cadence, “…be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels…”  He urges worshipers to “make this Chapel…glad with our Carols of praise,” and then calls for a series of lovely intercessions “…because this of all things would rejoice His heart, to remember in His name the poor and the helpless…the lonely and unloved…them that mourn…(and) all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love…”

Especially compelling for me each year is the penultimate paragraph, a call to “Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light…

Thinking of that image of the precious departed — close friends and beloved family, REJOICING together on some distant shore, bathed and basking in God’s perfect light of Love, is just overwhelming. And not just that, but to ponder them rejoicing with us, as we on this side of Heaven gather for Christmas reunion and worship, is often a vision too wonderful for me to bear. Such a grand thing can often be beyond my ability or willingness (or both) to even contemplate. Such blessings are too good, too fulfilling, too delightful, too perfect…too much. As the old hymn says, “I scarce can take it in…” much less build a life around it.

There are times when the Christmas story, quite frankly,  seems utterly absurd. It is as if the celestial Master of Ceremonies is saying to us, “Ladies and gentlemen! Now appearing for the consideration of Humankind, the Omnipotent Creator — played on this silent night by a helpless infant of an impoverished, unwed peasant girl under bitter political oppression.”  Strange, indeed.

BUT — there are also these unsettling moments of crystalline clarity that compel me to ask whether a Divine Creator, seeking to be made manifest to our world, could possibly have it any other way? How could a Perfectly Loving God better show us Infinite Love, how could a Benevolent Creator more perfectly demonstrate Intimate Presence than by and through Emmanuel — “God With Us” — in the midst of muddled human messiness? Indeed, isn’t it with our raunchy, imperfect, faithless foibles of human “stuff” that our Loving God somehow does His (or Her) very best work?

That’s why the tears tend to flow on Christmas Eve mornings, as I listen again to the broadcast from across the beyond. I am reminded of that which is all too easy and convenient to forget, that “too wonderful” Truth (with a capital “T”) that God, in God’s perfect and relentless Love, beckons me home for Christmas, and every other day of the year.

EPILOGUE
The Lessons & Carols service continues of course beyond The Bidding Prayer, with subsequent readings of Scripture (to “mark…the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child”) and with exquisite music that comes in between each lesson.

All just serve to overflow my cup even more.

The service ends each year with the boisterous singing by all the congregation of the traditional “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” sending them off into the lengthening Christmas Eve shadows of Cambridge.

It is the perfect send-off for me as well, to deal with the lengthening shadows of my life, again blessed beyond measure with yet another glimpse of God With Us, a reminder of the marvelous Mystery that our God, beyond all reason, somehow still seems to be…
“Pleased with Man, as Man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.”

God. With. Us.
I scarce can take it in.