Holy Communion: Chinese Use

The churches of China do not have an ancient rite of their own. Lacking such a native rite, and having in the early days been evangelized largely by Anglophone missionaries, China might find it most sensible to adopt the Anglican rite of the 1662 Prayer Book, but I think it would need to be sufficiently acculturated to work in the Chinese context. The Christian faith in China should be no less Chinese than, say, Chinese Buddhism. This means that the ceremonial and the ornaments of the liturgy should be intelligible to the Chinese mind. In the following paragraphs, then, I shall attempt to show a little bit of the way in which a Chinese ceremonial, and Chinese ornaments, might differ in the Order of Holy Communion from what the English church has used.

A quiet instrumental prelude might be played on the guqin (古琴) and an accompanying xiao (琴簫). At the entrance of the ministers, portable incense might be too foreign to Chinese use, but perhaps hill censers (博山爐) would be fitting, or perhaps censers shaped like qilin (麒麟), which might be reminiscent of angelic living creatures described in the Bible:

Wreathed in flame and walking on the clouds, the qilin does call to memory the winds and flames of fire that characterize the angels’s service of God. Likewise a pair of hill censers would easily remind the worshipper of Sinai, and even more so of another mountain:

But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.

At that time, the people could antiphonally chant an Introit psalm; Chinese lends itself quite readily to chanting, since even moves in Chinese chess, or xiangqi (象棋), are chanted out when people play without a board. Meanwhile, as the Introit was being chanted, the ministers would arrive at the Lord’s Table and say some devotions to prepare for their ministrations; they might be wearing xuanduan (玄端), the formal robes shown at right:

In the Holy Communion order of 1662, it is important to show that the service proper begins with the Lord’s Prayer, both for structural integrity and for avoiding any Pelagian notions about worship. To make this beginning clear, a gong could be struck just before the Lord’s Prayer, as the officiating priest made the sign of the Cross upon himself and set out to begin.

At the two New Testament readings, the Epistle and the Gospel, the people would prostrate themselves, thrice touching the floor with their foreheads; for this is what the Chinese have often done in reverence before the graves of their ancestors, and it is fitting that they should be no less concerned to reverence the announcement of God’s grace in the Epistle and Gospel readings, drawn as they are from the very word of God. These are as an imperial edict of favour, from the heavenly King of Kings, at which anyone should show humble acceptation.

Likewise, the people would prostrate at the Absolution, right after the priest had said, ‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him’; and again, individually, immediately before receiving the bread and the cup, which as effectual signs of inward grace, to which God’s promise has annexed the reality of Christ’s very body and blood, are visible words and gifts of the King above all gods. For if this is the reverence that is due to the grace of an earthly emperor, no less is due to the God who makes and unmakes emperors.

For the bread and wine, the chalice, paten, and cruets could resemble the sacrificial vessels of the ancient Shang and Zhou dynasties; for in those days the same deity was worshipped by the name of Shangdi (上帝) – and so the God of Abraham is called by Chinese Christians – and his sacrifices were not suspended till the end of the empire. Nor is sacrifice an unfit term for Holy Communion: for though Christ has but once offered himself up to God the Father as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, yet a commemorative sacrifice is regularly observed by all the holy churches, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving through which, by faith, the Christian also partakes of the highest sacrifice, by being united to Christ and thus being joined to the self-offering of that great High Priest. Therefore, to use the vessels anciently employed for sacrifice is only to recognize in Christ the fulfilment of the ancient religion, which accepted no equals to the sovereign God and used no images in his worship; and this is glorifying to God, who in his mercy has been pleased keep his worship in China free of the taint of golden calves and, in the fulness of time, has revealed to the Chinese his beloved Son, who alone can save. Therefore let no man think it is any idolatry to take up the ornaments of the rites of Zhou.

Thus adapted, the 1662 Order of Holy Communion might well be applied to China, recognizing both the Anglophone pedigree of Chinese Protestantism and the Chinese ways of doing things.

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