Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Easter Vigilantes

[I apologize for being gone for so long; my internet was down for nearly three weeks. I can hardly explain the isolation and suffering this caused; it is best not to go down that road. I will try to make up for it in the days ahead.]

This year I had rather a new experience for me, at least since I’ve been Episcopalian: I experienced a Holy Week that was not preceded by a Lent. Of course, I grew up without Lent, but then, I didn’t have much Holy Week then either (there was Good Friday for sure, and Easter Saturday when we got our baskets – in a pastor’s house, the only opportunity – and then Easter Sunday when we got new dresses, ate breakfast at church, and sometimes the choir did a cantata so that meant we didn’t have to listen to a very long sermon). I understood, self-righteously, that the real reason for Easter was Jesus’ resurrection and most people got it wrong; but, as with Christmas, I still really liked the special food and gifts and traditions, and as a child I’m sure I looked forward to egg dyeing far more than being reminded of Jesus’ death for the umpteenth time (because you know the substitutionary death is where we were actually saved, and the resurrection was just to prove Jesus was God after all). I know that once Reese’s put out peanut butter eggs, that became the number one reason to celebrate Easter…but I digress.

As I said, I got a little blast from my liturgical past this year as I went through a season that was ostensibly but not praxisly (if I may invent a word) Lenten. Now let me say up front that I really do love my new church community at St. Gregory’s, and I’ve joined the church precisely because they’ve welcomed our family so warmly and I feel so at home there. I enjoy the worship: the music, definitely, and the silence, and the art, and the way everything is put together. Certainly the openness of communion has won me over, and as I’ve mentioned before, the preaching is the best we heard since moving here. It has been fascinating and educational for me as a liturgical theologian.

And that is how I’d like to respond to the experience of Holy Week at this church: as a liturgist, attempting a quasi-removed perspective and somewhat objective analysis. I will probably get into my emotional response as well, but luckily, for the postmodernist, that must be taken into account as a valid part of the experience. But mainly I just wanted to put in all this disclaimer so that those from the church who might read this would know I’m not trying to be disparaging or personally attack anyone’s beloved liturgy, I’m simply attempting to evaluate, with the professional tools I’ve been given and the experience I’ve had in this denomination and others, how well the self-professed experimental approach has worked in this instance.

So, let’s begin with a general explanation of St. Gregory’s principles, the first and foremost of which, in relation to time, is this: there are two seasons, Easter and Easter’s Coming. Now this is at first glance an exciting and hopeful message, particularly to those who grew up in denominations focused only on the death of Christ (my hand’s up) or who thought of Christians merely as dreary or boring. Easter is our most joyful and celebratory season, to be sure, and there is definitely historical precedent for making every Sunday a resurrection day, the eighth day, the commemoration of Christ’s return to life. That is why we may stand before the altar rather than kneel. It is why we sing, most of the year, “Alleluia” and why we partake of the Heavenly Banquet. Sundays are certainly the most central day for Christians, and if our most central feast is Easter, then it makes some sense to conflate the two.

But if one looks at the span of history of the Church, one finds that Sunday hasn’t been regarded as merely celebratory. There are many other ways to worship God besides pure, unadulterated joy. Indeed, the main complaint against the Evangelical praise-and-worship movement is that it disregards aspects of the human experience outside of happiness and contentment with God. We must have a place to express the full range of our experience with God, including our doubts, fears, and grief. And, yes, our rebellion. One of St. Gregory’s other primary principles is that the only thing that matters is being God’s friend. Well, as our rector reminds us often, really being someone’s friend is not just sweetness and light; it means calling each other out on wrongdoing and hurtfulness, it means sometimes being unsure of the other’s motives, it means working through tough times because you believe that your friendship is worth it and that it will get good again. Not much unlike marriage, in fact, or parenthood.

And God is more than just Jesus the risen Christ, although God is absolutely and totally that. But She is also the God who is questioned in Job, who is yelled at in the Psalms, who changes Her mind in the Prophets, who judges harshly in Exodus, who shakes the mountains, casts down the mighty, lifts up the lowly, and feeds the hungry. If we are to truly be in relationship with this God, and enact that relationship in truth through our liturgy, then we cannot only celebrate the resurrection. It is a central thing, yes, but it’s not the only thing (and many – including me – would argue that the central thing might just be the incarnation, and the resurrection – like the crucifixion – simply the logical result of what really began at Bethlehem).

OK, so that’s my preface. Let me now talk about what I experienced.

First, let’s look at Lent. There was an Ash Wednesday service, which I unfortunately missed (it’s just too hard to get into the city on a weeknight). So the first time I attended church during Lent was on a Sunday, and it turned out to be just like all the other Sundays in Lent…which was, almost entirely, just like every other Sunday of the year. The words of the service did not change. We opened, as we always do, singing an “Alleluia” (and continuing singing or saying this “forbidden” word throughout the service, as usual). There were some minor changes to the vestments, but the icons were not veiled nor were the crosses changed. The bread and wine were the same as always (I wish that, in a church so in tune with food, they would at least try changing up these elements!). Most tellingly, while the hymns changed, the dance did not. And while the words of the hymns were bespeaking a Lenten season, and the keys were minor, because we danced in the same way (and the dancing often takes much of one’s attention), the changes were not felt in our bodies as much as they could have been. To jump ahead: on Good Friday the dance slowed down…waaaaay down…and I wondered: why couldn’t this have been done the entire Lenten season? It was difficult to do it that one time; after four or five weeks, though, we’d have had it down and could have really focused on whatever we were singing for the Good Friday liturgy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The other thing that is never done at St. Gregory’s on Sunday because it is the belief of the founders that it is never appropriate on Sunday is that we do not confess sin publicly. Ever. And I have to say that as much as I don’t like dwelling on sin, I really dislike never having an opportunity to stand up with my Christian family and admit we all mess up sometimes. Even when I don’t have personal sin to confess, I am always complicit in some kind of corporate sin (in every sense of that word). Going too long without confession makes one just start to feel, well, either dirty, or – much worse – like there’s nothing to confess. And I get a sense that there’s some self-righteousness going on at my church. It’s disguised in a very attractive package: one that says God loves you exactly as you are, which is a message that many of those who visit us desperately need to hear. But those who have been in the faith for a while need to stop taking milk and start on the solids, and that means admitting that while God of course loves and accepts us as we are, that doesn’t mean She necessarily wants us to stay that way, because many times how we are now is inhibiting us from living our life most abundantly.[1]

So, we have Lent without too much liturgical change, and without confession of sin. This all bothered me in the first weeks, but after a while I just went with it. And I discovered that my other attempts at Lenten discipline went lax as well. It just didn’t seem like it was all that necessary, since my only church experiences were pretty much the same as ordinary time. There wasn’t that weekly reminder that the season was different, so I had no impetus to remember that I was dust, that I was in rebellion against God, and that I needed to be redeemed.

Palm Sunday began with “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” and some alleluias, just as every Sunday does at St. Gregory’s. We did a lovely procession around the neighborhood with palms and pretty umbrellas, stopping to sing and pray and hear scripture. This would have been really effective if we were in a neighborhood that wasn’t industrial and therefore mostly abandoned, but it was still a lot of fun, and Maggie sure had a great time waving her palm branch. I did feel a bit of a cognitive dissonance replying that Christ was risen on the week when the Passion is usually read, but I was really trying to go with it so as to experience Holy Week “their” way (which I was assured was “awesome”). We did not read the Passion story but basically just did Palm Sunday, which was really fine since that’s the day it is after all.

The next event was The Maundy, which they do on Tuesday, pretty much for logistical reasons (Thursday is for choir rehearsal, and besides, everyone gets too tired if there’s a three-day Triduum – which is kind of hilarious since they don’t even do anything on Easter Sunday…at my old church, we had services Wed. and Thurs. nights, Friday at noon through the afternoon and into the evening – with an all-night prayer vigil – then the Saturday evening vigil, then three services on Sunday. You wanna talk about tired clergy, talk to those troopers!). It was probably my favorite service of Holy Week. It actually wasn’t much of a service at all. We had a potluck meal (very appropo), then blessed some bread and wine and shared it. The priest gave a little sermonette (which was really unnecessary), and we washed one another’s feet. Then we all cleaned up together (again, very poignant action) while singing the dreaded Alleluias (yes, by this point I was actually getting a bit sick of the word). We were essentially stripping the church, and we finished with a prayer taking us into the deeper mystery of Holy Week. Then we broke for three days. Well, you know, logistics.

Really, I loved the service. Because it was entirely, precisely that: service. We cooked for one another, we fed one another, we washed one another’s feet, we told stories and listened to one another, we cleaned up after one another, and we held hands and prayed for one another. I think that’s why I didn’t care for the sermon: it broke the flow of it being all about everyone serving everyone else in the room – it was just one person talking to us and kind of framing everything. But it didn’t need framing. It spoke loud and clear on its own. And even as a liturgist – no, especially as one – I’m all for cutting unnecessary elements, particularly words.

So, next we have Good Friday. Well actually, next for our family was a dinner party we were invited to on the real Maundy, Thursday. Which was wonderful and exactly what church should be: small, intimate, full of laughter and tears (thanks to Maggie’s meltdown), lots of food and wine, and a little poop (again thanks to Maggie).

But on to Friday. The service was in the evening and I actually spent the majority of it taking my infant in and out. So I missed a lot of the flow, and I’ll rely on my husband’s reflections on the parts I missed. This was the ONE time we didn’t say Christ is Risen or Alleluia. Thank God for that. Though once really wasn’t enough to get it out of our systems (more on that later). It was a very looooong service with a very loooooong opening concert by the choir. The music was haunting and beautiful, though. Just not great when you have a squirmy baby in your arms.

There were two main elements to this service, which could probably be called the Services of Word and Sacrament. The Word part was what most Episcopal churches do: reading the Passion story. We read – actually, chanted, which was lovely – the John version. But with a twist (of course, there’s always a twist): the people, rather than reciting our usual part (“Crucify Him!” “We have no king but Caesar!”), sang the lines of Christ!

Well, this just brings up all sorts of liturgical ramifications! On the one hand, I can see the logic: we’re identifying with Christ – and with God – in suffering for the world. And we’re the Body of Christ, so it makes some sense for us to sing Christ’s part. But there are a LOT of dangerous other ways to interpret this, ways that seem a lot more immediate and even flow out of that logic. We’re suffering innocently and unjustly, as Christ did (no, we are not innocent, and while we sometimes suffer unjustly, we also bring consequences on ourselves – and Lent was supposed to remind us of that!). We’re suffering at the hands of sinners, the Sinful, Judgmental Other (besides being potentially anti-Semitic, this reflects what churches can be at their worst: clubs for like-minded people who sit around congratulating themselves that, in the words of the Pharisee, God “has not made me like them”). And then there’s the more obvious mistakes: we’re Divine, perfect, holy sacrifices (rather than imperfect clay being molded into something God can use). And I really do believe that one of the primary points of the cross is that God is showing us who God is (this was the point of the sermon, to give credit to our rector) by suffering, and this is the one day when we have to admit that we did – and do – this to God.

We’re not the victims. I mean, we are often victims, but on Good Friday, we’re not the victim. We’re just not. I’m going to be kind of fundamentalist about this. If we can’t see that God suffered for us, not just with us, then we’re going to keep ourselves on the throne, instead of prostrate before it.

Which, ironically, is what we did during the Sacrament portion of the service. And this part was really lovely. We all brought flowers up to the altar, which was bare save for an icon of the burial of Christ. Some of us kissed the icon. It was very similar to reverencing the cross, which I’ve also participated in and taken great meaning from. After everyone had laid down his or her flower, a chanter intoned a Middle-Eastern sounding melody and we prostrated ourselves several times before the altar (I keep calling it this, even though it’s really a Table in this church, but on that day, I think it was also an Altar – and this was the only service at which there was no food). Because of the sound of the chant and the way we knelt, it was reminiscent of Muslim prayers. We went up and down enough times that I really started to feel the devotion in my body, and I can see how that kind of bodily prayer would put religion deep into your bones. I didn’t want that part to end.

But it did, and we departed in silence, until the next night.

And so we came to the Easter Vigil, which until this year had always been the capper to Holy Week (this year the new rector tried out a dénouement on Sunday afternoon: an egg hunt and barbeque, which wasn’t widely attended but was a lot of fun for the kiddies – Maggie included, followed by Vespers, which we were too exhausted to stick around for). I was really pumped for this event: it has always been the absolute highlight of my year, and for the first time, I was participating as a reader! Exciting stuff.

So, this service was also prefaced with a choir concert. The choir opened by walking up to “Freedom Come”, the first of several gospel songs we would intone throughout the evening. Then they launched into a quite varied repertoire of pieces about the resurrection, most containing the words Christ is Risen and Alleluia.

Um. Oops.

So when the priests got up to start the service, rewinding us back to the Exultant, it was kind of too late because the Christ was out of the bag (or tomb, as it were). It felt really strange to suddenly pretend like Christ wasn’t yet risen when we’d just heard for half an hour that he was (and indeed had heard it every Sunday as well). So there’s my first issue. That was just a bit weird.

Then we moved into the readings, which were not the traditional ones, and were read out of order. We heard the story of the Creation last, for instance, after the burning bush, the Exodus and a reading from Isaiah (mine). Again, this interrupted the narrative flow of the service. But in a sense it worked, since we were saying, with our gospel music and stories of freedom, that we were being freed from slavery (one assumes by Easter). But this does beg the question of what exactly we were enslaved to, since we hadn’t confessed anything nor heard much preaching about what was wrong with us. In fact, it felt more like we were the innocent slaves – like the Hebrews under the Egyptians and the Africans in the South – who were taken by the evil forces that God ultimately defeated. But how could white, upper and middle class, mostly wealthy San Franciscans be oppressed? Or was there simply a martyr complex going on, fueled by the misplaced identification with Christ and the constant stories of rejection by the Evangelical establishment (we get at least one a week)? Had we been told so often that we are fine “just the way we are” that we’d lost any sense that we needed saving from ourselves??

[An aside: many of the parishioners are GLBTQI and so forth, and I realize that, in much of the country, this is an oppressed minority. But I think I could successfully argue that it’s not one in San Francisco. And while many of us were oppressed by the churches in which we were raised, that doesn’t mean we ourselves aren’t also sinners – if for no other reason than that we may not be loving our enemies!]

I missed the sermon this night, because of the baby again. But she finally went to sleep and so we joined the procession around the church, singing about the saints and martyrs who’d come before us (all the way from Perpetua to Ling Ling the panda). At the end of our procession we stopped before the doors of the church and had some singing and prayers, and then, without too much ado (I almost missed it, in fact), the priest called out, “Christ is Risen!” and everyone responded “He is risen indeed!” and we repeated that several times.

But here’s where it got weird(er): try as I might, I couldn’t muster up the same joy in response to that call as I have in previous years. And I pretty quickly figured out why: there wasn’t really anything special about calling out “Christ is risen!” on this night, because we’d been calling that out every single service (except Good Friday) all year. There was never a time that Christ wasn’t risen. Now, I realize that’s a true statement; and in the theology of this church, that’s exactly the point. But somehow I needed that space – that Lenten time when we mourn the loss of our Savior and acknowledge our complicity in that – before I could fully celebrate the resurrection.

As we began to dance around the altar and sing, “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today” I closed my eyes and imagined myself back at All Saints in Beverly Hills, where they’d be singing the same thing right around that time. I remembered the blaze of light after the darkness, the organ cranking up after a week’s silence, the blast of trumpets and timpani, and the glorious cacophony of sound – bells and shouts – rising from the congregation. The first time I really got Easter was at their Vigil. So of course I’m biased. But I know I’m not alone in believing it’s the best.

There is just something about Carol yelling at the top of her lungs “Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!” (pointedly, St. G’s leaves out the Alleluias, for once; and again, they are more meaningful at the church where they’ve been unsaid for 40 days) and all of us responding with voice and bell and music after this long desert of Lent. We’ve self-examined and self-disciplined. We’ve walked together through the dark places. We’ve seen only empty branches in the place where now flowers are bursting forth. We have lived Lent, not just paid it lip service.

And without Lent, I’m sorry, but there isn’t much of a Holy Week, and there’s really no cause for celebration on Easter. I know this from growing up without Lent, and I experienced it again this year.

And then I realized the other thing that was under my skin: there had been no baptisms. How unfortunate! (that’s sincere, btw) I realize that it’s hard to come up with candidates, and I’m sure it’s harder for a church that doesn’t really attach much theological import to baptism (it’s not required for membership or Eucharistic participation). But wow, Easter was so much less without it. There was nobody dying and rising with Christ, and heartbreakingly, I did not get to confirm my own baptismal covenant with my church family around me. I love doing that, and being sprinkled; and I really looked forward to holding Maggie as she confirmed her own for the first time (at least she won’t remember this year). Just like with no Lent, not having baptisms really lessens the impact of Easter, and particularly the Easter Vigil.

One other quick comparison and then I must close this tome (it could go on for ages, but I haven’t the time for such things anymore). At the end of the ASBH service, there is a tradition of people lifting their hands during the last song. The chorus goes like this:

And I will raise them up

And I will raise them up

And I will raise them up on the last day

I went through a journey with this gesture: at first I loved it, then I found it cheesy and rote, then I learned to love it again while having a sense of humor about it (because, i.e., there’s this moment when everybody knows to raise their hands, and it hits at the same note every time – it’s kind of funny). It turned out that, along with the singing and dancing and “Christ is risen!” in several languages (which I liked – neat touch), the people at St. Gregory’s seemed to have a “hand-raising” song as well, one that is particularly set aside as the time when it’s “accepted” for the Episcopalians to do this rather charismatic gesture. And that song is “Mary Don’t You Weep,” the lyrics of which are as follows:
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn

Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn

Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded

Oh, Mary, don’t you weep

Now, I won’t continue to pick on the white folks co-opting the gospel music (although I find the grammar error offensive, as if to hold the “black folk” in perpetual stupidity), and I won’t comment on the confusing nature of conflating Mary’s (Magdalene or Mother) weeping over Jesus with the story of the Exodus. I will simply say that the hand-raising song is, from my experience, the song most emotionally “felt” by the congregation; the song that, for them, seems to hit them in the gut with the meaning of Easter. If one goes with that definition and looks purely at the lyrics of the songs, the result is disturbing.

Church A: Easter is about raising “them” (everyone?) up on the last day; the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus is the resurrection of all!

Church B: Easter is about joy in the violent defeat of our enemies.

Of course I realize that nobody at St. Gregory’s actually believes this is what Easter is about, nor would many of them ever condone violence (nor do I believe gospel music to be intentionally violent, but rather it uses the violent metaphors of Scripture to bring hope to the oppressed; when sung by the powerful, it takes on very different meaning). This is a church that prays openly for our enemies weekly, and for that I am appreciative. I’m not saying they are doing something that is bad, I’m simply pointing out the dissonance between their liturgical actions (song and gesture) and their professed theology and politics. I believe there are far superior songs and acts that could more accurately reflect what this community truly believes about Easter; just as I believe that they could have a far richer experience of Holy Week if they would find ways to alter their Lenten Sundays.

There is always more we can do to bring our liturgy in line with our theology. We have to remember that everything is saying something – there is no silent action, word, song, gesture, artwork, movement, furniture, banner, vestment, cloth, food, or drink in a liturgy. Ritual goes deep into our bones with meanings we cannot always articulate, but which may surprise us when pointed out by the outsider.

That’s all I’ve attempted to do here: present an outsider’s (or really, newcomer’s) perspective of what I saw enacted over Holy Week and Easter. I sincerely hope I haven’t offended anyone, and it was not my purpose at all to rip apart a beloved tradition. But if there were interest in changing anything at any point, I hope this essay would be of help.

[1] Thanks to my friend Sylvia for putting it this way.

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