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Ancestors by the river

21 July 2017

Marie-Elsa Bragg reflects on rituals, sacraments, and sacramental

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

Airborne: St Mary Magdalene Surrounded by Angels, by the Maestro del Salomone, Wildenstein, end of the 15th century

Airborne: St Mary Magdalene Surrounded by Angels, by the Maestro del Salomone, Wildenstein, end of the 15th century

WITH the Masorti Rabbi Marc Soloway, I recently recorded a pod­cast. We first met 18 years ago at Leo Baeck Rabbinic college, where I was studying Jewish festivals and mysticism. Our recent interview was about ritual. I found myself talking about story: about how, in ritual, we allow our creative mind to remem­ber stories and history that are woven into the choreography, often just recalling a small image or fact that is important to our lives in that moment.

When Marc and I were study partners, we pulled apart traditional prayers, such as the Shabbas bles­­sings or the Amidah (a central prayer), to find how they had been constructed and used over gen­­era­tions. One ritual that we ex­­plored was about lifting your heels off the ground three times when quoting Isaiah in the Amidah: “The sera­phim cry continually to each other, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts: the earth is full of His glory’” (Isaiah 6.2-3).

We found old rabbinic and theo­logical discussions. They included a debate about angels’ having no heels because they are not able to stand on the earth like humans; therefore, it argued, people lift their heels in order to sing with the angels. Another text suggested that each heel-lift was a climb up Jacob’s lad­­der, warning people to surrender rather than to desire the climb, or they might find themselves wrestl­­ing with an angel.

Through this exploration, our experience of the ritual itself chang­­ed. We found that we were more engaged in the prayer, even when we weren’t thinking about the stories.


AFTER our recording, as I entered a church to sit quietly and pray, I dipped my fingers into the stoup of water and crossed myself. It could have reminded me of my baptism, or of Jesus in the river Jordan. I could have remembered the priest’s blessing, evoking Genesis: “Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” I might have felt cleansed, or accepted with the weight I carried, or refreshed by the fountain of life.

But these stories are also about our personal associations. At the same time as I was studying at Leo Baeck College, I did a module on Karl Barth at King’s College, Lon­don, with Professor Colin Gunton. So, what I remembered, as the water touched my brow, was Professor Gunton standing in front of the class, talking about Karl Barth, with his heart overflowing, as if he were immersed in the Jordan itself. He spoke as a minister, a teacher, and a humble man. When I came out of his lectures, I felt almost wet from the river.

After studying with him for a year, I went to Oxford and trained to be a priest. As I crossed the thres­hold of the church that day, I realised, with deep gratitude, that Professor Gunton had held a stoup to my journey.

After a while, an elderly woman came in to the church; she also crossed herself with water. She reminded me that the women in my family — further back than known names — had done the same, as children, mothers, and grand­mothers. Different lives, different historical problems and possibilities; but their stories echoed in the same ritual, and I felt pleased to do the same, alongside them.


DURING ordination training, I went on pilgrimage to the river Jordan. I was surprised how profuse and tall the reeds were, on the banks; and that the river curved and meandered. Each turn offered a private place to sit. I spent hours with my feet in the water, feeling a light wind through the reeds, then stillness, magnifying the flow. The area evoked stories of Jacob, Joshua, Elisha, and Elijah, crossing the river alongside the many unnamed men and women. Perhaps Mary, Martha, or Mary Magdalene had come there.

The water evoked John the Baptist, living alone in the wilder­­ness, then wading in with someone who was to be baptised: a brave life, open to spiritual vision. I realised that, although I was sitting quietly and alone, I was also alongside ancestors from my tradition, like members of my family. It was with them, and their unexpected relationships with God, that I read the Gospel text about the baptism of Jesus and waited.


AT MASS, I am continually grateful that the layers of story are more than my short life will absorb. I’m glad of the invitation to bring the story of my week into confession; to affirm the presence of Christ listening; to sit with the texts of the day — letters telling stories of early Christian communities; Gospels, spoken or sung, recounting Jesus’s life and words; the eucharist, evoked and encountered.

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, John Berger once said that he believed that the creative art of storytelling participated in crea­­tion. I often think of his words. Not only does story infuse our lives — a bounty of tales, ancestral line, and the divine presence — but we are invited to participate in the nar­­rat­ive: to be part of one creative body in Christ.

How different that is from put­­ting ourselves aside and standing with blank mind, subjecting our­­selves in front of a leader, ready to take his instructions. With story, we are kept in conversation, in recipro­cal relationship; and we discover how intimate the divine is. Because of that, our conversations with people of other traditions — such as Rabbi Soloway — can be truly generous.


The Revd Marie-Elsa Bragg is the Director of Westminster Leadership.

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