On Liturgy – 56.2
Rev. Alexandra Jacob serves as associate pastor for families, youth, and children in downtown Minneapolis, where she enjoys learning and worshiping alongside a vibrant group of young people and their families.
How will we mark the experiences that are behind us, and how will those experiences usher us into a new era of ecclesial and liturgical life together?
One Friday during a recent low point in our community’s COVID-19 infection rates, my husband and I bought tickets to a dinner show at an iconic jazz club in our city. The evening’s featured performer was a local musician who also happened to be a congregation member—I had not yet had the chance to meet him, and I was eager to hear his music. It was the kind of evening we had yearned for during the early days of the pandemic: good food (not takeout!), live music, and good company. The cherry on top was that I would also get to see a beloved church member “in his element,” sharing his music with an audience after so many months of being unable to do so.
The music that evening was wonderful: vibrant, fun, and technically impeccable (which my organist husband appreciated!). As the evening neared its end and we sipped our after-dinner coffee, the performer welcomed a special guest onstage. It was his daughter, an accomplished jazz singer with whom he often performed. It hit me then: I had been the one to coordinate the baptism of her infant son, one of our first COVID-era baptisms and the first baptism I had led at my current congregation. My heart swelled as I remembered the tenderness of that baptism a mere nine months prior. What a gift to see this parent in her element, sharing music and joy, offering to us a cross-generational experience of beautiful artistry. I went home that night with gratitude for this surprise encounter, eager to share my gratitude with the evening’s performers.
This moment of recognition and memory in the midst of an ordinary week is a bit of a microcosm of what many of us have experienced as a result of so many months apart from one another in body. We finally have a face-to-face conversation with the neighbor who moved into the apartment next door in spring 2020, having only greeted them before with distanced waves. We finally get to visit the family member who welcomed a newborn baby during the Omicron COVID wave, having only smiled at them before through an iPhone screen. We finally share a meal and a hug with a friend who lost a spouse to COVID, having only shared condolences via front-porch flower deliveries and phone calls. We finally meet the parent of the child we baptized via the church livestream, and the new members who joined the church from their living rooms, and the session members whose laying on of hands occurred through hands outstretched to Zoom screen cameras. These past months and years have marked our faith communities in ways that we will continue to discover in the days ahead. How will our liturgical patterns and practices respond to such a reality? How will we mark the experiences that are behind us, and how will those experiences usher us into a new era of ecclesial and liturgical life together?
I return again to the memory of my first baptism in my current congregation. We were still worshiping entirely online via livestream, not yet welcoming worshipers into the church building. But we knew it was time to begin celebrating baptisms again. Following the Presbyterian model of mutual discernment, we took time as a staff and session to pray and wonder together. We had long since affirmed the Spirit’s movement in Holy Communion celebrated across time and space via the livestream; how would that affirmation lead us to a richer understanding of the Spirit’s movement in the baptismal waters? We settled on a practice that I believe has enriched our congregation’s sacramental life, even upon our return to in-person baptisms. In the week before the baptism via livestream, a pastoral colleague and I recorded ourselves praying over the baptismal waters, giving thanks for God’s liberating work in waters across time and space, and asking the Spirit’s blessing upon the common water of our baptismal font. The video from that blessing became the prayer over the water during the upcoming livestreamed worship service. After the blessing, we poured some of the water into a small jar, which we took to the home of the baptizand, along with a candle, worship bulletin, and children’s Bible. When the baptism day arrived, the baptizand’s mother was invited to pour the water from that same jar over her child’s head as we spoke aloud the words of baptism from the font at church. Worshipers were invited to share in the baptismal welcome liturgy from their own homes, and I imagined the words echoing across the city: “With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you to Westminster and to the followship of Christ’s church, for we are all one in Christ.”
This practice of baptism was powerful in ways that we did not anticipate. I’ve come to associate the practice with the image of a flowing river. The river’s source is the baptismal font, but it flows to the homes of the baptizands, and then in streams to congregation members and worshipers all across the city and country. The Spirit’s call on that young one’s life—and the grace imparted in those baptismal waters—touched each of us, even as we were apart in body. This was the image that again returned to me as I watched that same child’s mother and grandfather live into their own baptismal call through music making at the jazz club that evening. I imagined the waters of her baptism pooling at the foot of the stage and trickling out to the audience as we received the gift of this family’s music.
Even as our congregation celebrates baptisms in a more traditional manner now, we celebrate with the memory of God’s faithfulness in the midst of those difficult pandemic days. We celebrate with gratitude for the Spirit’s presence within and among us while we were apart, and with anticipation for how the Spirit will continue to transform us in the season ahead. To where will the river of God’s grace lead us next?