On Sunday I will celebrate the Eucharist in Spanish for the first time with our San Albano congregation. On one level, this isn’t so scary. While I’m not fluent by any means, I’ve been studying Spanish on my own for the last couple of years. I practice a little every day; I took classes in Guatemala last summer.
At least I know the gestures and rhythms of our liturgy by heart – what’s supposed to happen when and by whom. And the community itself couldn’t be more gracious and inviting. There are more than a few bilingual folks there to rescue me when I get stuck. So why does it still feel like I’m flying without a net?
Perhaps it’s because I’m supposed to be the expert in the room – at least on the language of worship. I’m usually the one doing the translating, helping folks understand the meanings of words that are increasingly only used in church. Words like praise, redemption, resurrection, even blessing are specialized language at this point. They don’t show up in beginner or even intermediate Spanish texts; I don’t hear them on the radio or Telemundo. Where else would I hear them but in church?
If that’s the case for me as I’m learning Spanish, imagine how it is for many of the people just entering our doors – those who may or may not have grown up in any church, much less our jargon-heavy branch of the Christian family tree.
It may be that religious language is learned just as any new language is learned. We learn it by practicing it, by being in conversation with folks who are more fluent than we are – who can stretch our vocabulary beyond what phone apps and computer programs are likely to teach us. We learn by reading body language and tone of voice. We learn by hearing the words in context and repeating them over and over again. We may be more comfortable listening and reading at first – receiving information rather than expressing it. It may take a while before we have the courage to speak in our own words.
Fortunately, religious language is far more than words. It’s revealed in our colors and objects and architecture. It’s known through gesture – when we sit and stand and kneel, how we move to and from the altar, what we do with our hands. It’s communicated in the rhythms and movements of our songs. It’s found even in our silences – all those places where we stop and go off script because words will only take us so far when it comes to knowing God.
Perhaps above all, it’s embodied in those who use it. We learn what praise means by experiencing it; we learn what blessing means by those who extend it to us. And if that’s the case, then I’m in very good hands with our San Albano community. I’ll reach out to them with my whole self, including my broken Spanish. They’ll reach back with patience and grace, and somehow, God will be made known to all of us once again in the words and gestures and songs, in the prayers and the silence, and in the breaking of the bread.
Guess I’m not flying without a net after all.