Monday, January 4, 2016

Diary: A Church Service (2nd Sunday of Christmas)

Diary: A Church Service (2nd Sunday of Christmas)




The law was a drinking profession in 1979 when I joined the Bar. The silver-tongued lions of the Old School consumed alcohol in great abundance. Once, my senior partner told me that he always stayed home on New Year’s Eve: "I don’t like the large numbers of amateurs out and about," he explained.

I have roughly the same attitude toward church attendance. I avoid Easter and Christmas on account of the large numbers of amateurs cramming themselves into the church sanctuary. My preference is for the dim, anonymous Sundays on the liturgical calendar – the endless winter weeks before Lent when the church is cold and dark and empty or those Sunday mornings in mid-summer when everyone has departed to their cabins and lakeshore cottages leaving the sanctuary vacant except for the very elderly and the very pious. Normally, therefore, I am reasonably faithful in my church attendance in January with an exception – I try to avoid the first Sunday of every month since that morning is when Holy Communion is celebrated, a painful occasion for me since my old knees are no longer fit for kneeling.

On Saturday afternoon, January 2, 2016, I was pushing a grocery cart through the aisles of HyVee when I encountered a Church Lady, a woman who customarily occupies the pew behind me at Our Saviors. This church lady was leaning over her cart in an alarming manner, using it both to collect her groceries and as an aide to ambulation. I wondered if her back had not, perhaps, failed her. As we met in the aisle between brightly colored boxes of cereals, she admonished me to attend Church – "Hope to see you tomorrow in Church," she said cheerfully.

So it was that on January 3, 2016, on the grim 2nd Sunday of Christmas, I sat in my familiar pew at church, surveying the scene before me. Poinsettias still stood in red ranks behind the altar and stacked up against the sides of the church. The petals of the flowers were so red that I could sense the darkness lurking under their pigment, imparting to the scarlet blossoms a dismal profundity – the red was tinted with the deep, moist darkness of the insides of our bodies, the color of blood while it is still coursing through the vessel of the body. Next to the ranks of sinister poinsettias, a wooden lean-to was set against the side-wall of the apse, perhaps ten feet from the altar laden with golden trays and goblets, the place-settings for Communion. A bale of straw sat in front of the lean-to shack and a life-size lamb and donkey fashioned from cardboard loitered in the manger from which the Holy Family had now fled. Under the altar, plastic sacks labeled HyVee after the grocery store where I had met the Church Lady, were packed full of foodstuffs, mostly, by the look of things, boxes of cereal. People go to foreign countries and are delighted to observe peculiar religious customs, but here, at home, I was gazing at a church furnished with a great multitude of ruby-red poinsettias, a shack equipped with images of livestock, and a dozen bags of groceries of the most prosaic sort packed neatly under the altar. The serving trays on the altar had the vaguely smarmy appearances of the furnishings of a very wealthy man’s table.

The plump intern pastor came forth from vaulted arcade behind the altar. She spoke into her microphone and said that the service required a procession around the sanctuary. Unfortunately, she admitted, no preparations have been made for the procession. Anyone experienced in ceremonies knows that processions do not just happen – rather, a procession must be cunningly planned and carefully executed. "I am afraid," the plump intern said, "that I will have to march around the church in a procession of one, just me." At that moment, the assistant pastor appeared, coming to her rescue down the central aisle. She was carrying a wicker basket full of white, battery-powered votive candles, the sort of tiny appliance that you squeeze so that it will emit a wan light only vaguely simulating a flame. The assistant pastor rousted out children from where they were sitting with their parents in the pews – it was slim pickings, the church was, of course, almost completely empty. With a posse of about eight children, the plump intern marched around the church, making a circuit of the aisles at the sides of the sanctuary. Votive candles had been handed to each of the children and they held them aloft, squeezing faint light from the little white capsules.

In the area where I sit, the Church Lady and her disabled husband occupied the pew behind me. In the pew ahead of me was an old man. I have known the old man for many years and, indeed, once he was a client. Recently, the old man’s wife died and was buried and, now, he was alone. He sat in front of me inert and clean-shaven, his round bald head and circular face abraded by grief into a sort of rosy smoothness, an pinkish quartz tint to his cheeks and jaw. The old man, whom I will call "Dewey", had something of the demeanor of a turtle resting comfortably in the shadow of a boulder in a great and featureless wasteland – his face was not wrinkled; to the contrary, his skin was tight and functional as that of a desert tortoise.

The procession of children led by the plump intern approached our pews. As they passed, one of the kids became tangled in the metal canes that the disabled man married to the Church Lady had left propped against the side of the wooden bench. The child fell to the tiles, tripping several others in the procession who, in turn, dropped their votive candles. The candles, round as wheels, rolled in various directions setting off a scramble among the children and, almost, knocking the plump intern onto her backside. It would have taken too much energy for the desert tortoise to turn his head to view this slight contretemps – and, perhaps, in any event, the old man didn’t hear the momentary eruption of chaos a few feet behind his head. In any event, he looked forward to the altar with placid serenity. After a couple of seconds of disorder, the procession was restored and, albeit limping slightly, the parade continued while the congregation bawled out "Go tell it on the Mountain."

A little later, an earnest farmer ascended to the pulpit and read scripture from Ephesians. In Ephesians, Saint Paul proclaims: "God chose us in Christ before the foundations of the world – having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself." In the King James version of this epistle, the verb "foreordained" is translated "predestinated". The notion of God’s predestination has a certain gloomy logic, particularly when it applies to things like heaven and hell and the end of the world. The doctrine of predestination is reasonably persuasive so long as our meditation on that subject preserves the glamor, as it were, of the events predestinated – emblematic events in the life of the soul and revelation of God in history. But it gives one pause to consider God pausing in the hour before the Big Bang to predestinate not only the war in Syria and the drowning of the innocents off Lampedusa, but, also, the parishioners cane left athwart the church aisle as a trip-hazard to the meager procession of children led by the plump intern pastor. In fact, the concept seems to implode when one imagines God the Father with his mighty beard as vast and impressive as the whiskers of a Civil War general carefully configuring how the cane would trip the child and, thus, trigger the chain reaction, involving as well the escape of the faux votive candles and their various peregrinations across the church floor. Was the plump interns failure to properly arrange for her procession, in fact, predestinated from the beginning of time itself? And, if so, why?

These reflections led me to consider the sheer strangeness of the Lutheran confession to which I subscribe. Here is a church with cardboard livestock standing in a wooden shack next to the altar. Everyone is singing. If we are true to our theology, each of us believes that there is nothing whatsoever that we can do to earn salvation or grace. Salvation is predestinated from the inception of the universe and there is nothing that I can achieve that will change or alter God’s election. Indeed, the more avidly I seek salvation, the more actively I attempt to implement my redemption by acts of contrition or good works, the more obviously I am damned. Here is a religion of utter passivity, the complete suspension of any meaningful role for my works in the scheme of salvation. And, of course, all the more peculiar that a faith that believes with perfect serenity that no one can, by his own merit, achieve salvation would, also, insist, as if by recompense, in a sort of muscular activity in the world – building missions and caring for the poor and beating swords into plowshares, not because these actions will bribe the Almighty, but because these works might, at least, exemplify to ourselves the proper conduct of those irremediably doomed to Heaven.

Robert Burns in his poem "Holy Willie’s Prayer" captured some of the strangeness of this strict Protestant doctrine:

O Thou, wha in the Heavens dost dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best theysel’,

Sends ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’ for thy glory

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

Before Holy Communion, the pastor bade us to greet one another. The Church Lady behind me said: "So you did come." "Yes," I told her, "you made me come." It was a colloquy that didn’t exactly express what either of us meant.

I followed Dewey to the pillow for kneeling in front of the altar. Holy Communion was served. I took the piece of doughy bread proffered to me and tucked it into my cheek. My weight bore down on my knees, aching sharply in the places where the cartilage is ripped and deficient. Dewey was on my right, trembling a little. The tray with the tiny glass cups full of red wine hovered in front of his terrapin profile. Dewey put out his hand but couldn’t find a cup. He groped among the cups set in their little sockets for one to lift to his lips. I watched as his hand, beset with tremors, searched the tray and the cups. "I can’t see it," he said, gasping to me.

"Here," I said. "Let me help you with this."

I lifted a tiny cup half-full of wine and set it between his trembling fingers. His fingers closed like a vise and he spilled the Blood of Christ down his throat. I followed suit and, then, we stood wearily and staggered back to our pews in the rear of the Church. The crippled man behind me was unable to reach the altar and so the officiants were administering the host and wine to him in the pew behind me.

We sang a hymn written by an African and, then, went outside into the cold and wind.

It is odd to think of God, before the beginning of time, devising my trip to the grocery store, my encounter with the Church Lady, her admonition to me to attend church, my positioning in the pews and at the altar rail – all of these things to accomplish the administration of the Blood of Christ to Dewey, a sacrament that might otherwise have failed. But, I suppose, this is the meaning of those events, a bagatelle for God to compose between his orchestration of genocides and wars and the rumors of war.

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