On Sunday, Sept. 30, Bethel celebrated a service with all three of our worshiping groups. The 8:30 am, 11:00 am, and 1:00pm service attenders all came at 10:00 am. The sanctuary was bursting at the seams. It was good to see so many people there at the same time! Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that when we participate in a Divine service where holy communion is served, we are dipping into a stream of worship that goes on in heaven all the time. In those moments, we get to taste the ongoing feast along with all the angels and saints who have preceded us in the faith. Being there as our ordinary selves in the presence of a huge spiritual host can be an overwhelming idea! We are doing everyday human things: gathering, touching, singing, praying, listening, and eating. But we are in the “thin places” during this time; the places where heaven and earth meet.
There is a word for these places. The Latin word for threshold was “limens”. A place of transition, new beginnings, or unclear boundaries can be called a liminal space. What we are celebrating in our Divine Service is a meeting of life and death in a liminal space! Jesus meets us there; a great mystery of death and life put into our hands and mouths. It takes our whole person to participate in that: ears to hear, minds to understand, hearts to believe, and bodies to eat and drink.
The theologian and author Richard Rohr says liminality is: “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.”
One side effect of the Orthodox belief in an eternal, ongoing stream of heavenly worship is that many Orthodox christians treat worship service time as flexible. I attended an Orthodox service last summer at St. Basil’s Greek Orthodox Church http://www.stbasilchicago.org/ . Although their website told me the service began at 9:45 am, when I arrived at 10 am there were only about 12 people in the sanctuary. I, the ignorant white Protestant Lutheran, wondered sadly if this was a dying congregation. Over the course of the next three hours (!), in which we stood for the whole time (!), listening to a centuries-old liturgy completely in Greek (!), and inhaling copious amounts of incense, over 100 people trickled in. And stayed for varying amounts of time! Many of them left before the service was over. It was baffling, freeing experience for me, seeing a vibrant congregation treat worship as an elaborate, sacred, heavily-scripted and messy family dinner.
Some of the aspects of our joint service were similar to me. I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t know everyone at Bethel. I was clinging desperately to the dual-language bulletin to figure out where we were and what would happen next. But, in the midst of those uncertainties, I also felt the importance of that liminal space. I am grateful to have been there with you.