Tuesday, March 25, 2008

assorted thoughts during the octave of Easter

Traditionally, as far as the church calendar goes, this week is actually a day. To denote the profound change that Christ's resurrection has wrought in our lives, the first week after Easter Sunday comprises one metaphorical day. Time itself is altered by this news. In the early Church, those baptized on Easter wore their baptismal robes in public this whole week to signify this. They didn't take off this sign of their new life until the second Sunday of Easter--Quasimodo Sunday, or White Sunday--when the "day" had come to an end. The setting for the gospel text for the second Sunday of Easter (John 20) underscores this passage of time. All of this, of course, is not law. One must not follow it to celebrate the resurrection (and I know of blessed few congregations who still do); it shows that over the years, however, church tradition has thought of creative ways of showing how significant this change from death to life is. It shows how the Church has invented thoughtful methods for indicating that the life of faith is altogether different from the life without it.

And I can't help but think of these rich traditions that have gone by the wayside in light of our own congregation's struggles, for example, to keep lightbulbs changed in the sanctuary and a full roster of committed Sunday school teachers. For a long time I've thought that, in order to function fairly well, a congregation needed a substantial number of its members to make it a priority in their life, ranked above sports and making money, to name a couple of competitors. Church needed to be the Primary Community. Rather than being another organization to "belong to," the congregation needed to be the main gathering place, the chief social group.

Now I'm amending that approach just a little. In order for a congregation take up God's mission and embody his incarnate love robustly and most faithfully, I believe its members really need to think of the Church as their way of life. If that sounds drastic, it's because it is. In a sense, it is cultic (in that it is something that must be cultivated). I'm not suggesting that we re-institute, for example, celebrating the octave of Easter with baptizands' wearing of their white robes in public, but perhaps we should challenge our people to think of church as a way of life, rather than a hobby or a membership. The church constantly needs to remind itself that it is a Way, it is a way of living that permeates all other aspects of one's life. Church is not merely a way we should spend our every Sunday morning (although, at the very least, it should be this), but it is where an individual's life is rooted. The Church is new clothing, in a sense: we receive Christ's robe of grace and love and thanksgiving and we are bid to wear it all the time.

I know I'm not saying anything new here, but as a pastor, I constantly feel guilty for asking members to contribute their time and resources to church, whether or not I do it directly (by asking them outright) or just by providing them myriad opportunities to "get involved." This sense of guilt comes from my own deep-seated belief that Church is still an "extra" for so many people. I fear they will be turned off by this strange modern-day affliction known as "burnout." How can church leaders effectively convey to the congregations they serve that church shouldn't just be a priority, but a complete way of life---and do it in a loving, graceful manner? To be sure, holding onto the traditions is one way, because I think they evoke emotions and communicate the nature of faith in ways that mere words often can't. But in what ways can we reclaim this sense of church as way of life?

(image: Russian icon of the resurrection of Christ, 16th cent.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

all creation groans for its redemption...and I mean all of it

Yesterday during worship as people were taking communion and returning to their seats, some of them encountered the acolyte coming back into church through the side door, in his robe and everything. The acolyte is supposed to stand "at attention" at the head of the aisle in the nave in order to make sure that everyone gets a communion glass for communion. Why was he coming in from the outside in the middle of worship?

Once we had concluded the service and he could be questioned about this peculiar activity, it was discovered that he was outside because he had found a large spider in the rack of communion glasses and wanted to get rid of it by releasing it in the yard. So as not to disturb anyone by his discovery, he stuck it in his pocket--without squishing it, I assume--and snuck outside. Upon arriving there, he determined that it was too cold and snowy to release a spider into a natural environment, so he placed the spider back in his pocket and brought it back inside. Unwilling to deposit the friendly intruder where other people might see it, he then released the spider up at the altar after communion was over. It was there, I suppose he figured, that the spider could live in reconciliation with its surroundings.

I'm fairly certain that the acolyte did not choose the altar on purpose (rather, it just happened to be a convenient, less-traveled area), but the symbolism of his gesture of freedom and release is still potent. We speak of the resurrected Jesus as the consummations of God's new creation. We speak of the foretaste of his feast as the time toward which we look when all of creation will be gathered, reconciled, and released in the freedom of the Spirit so that we may be that which we were fashioned to be. Sometimes, I fear, Holy Communion becomes "just another part of worship," so it's nice to have concrete reminders of what we are proclaiming at the meal every Sunday at this meal, even if they comes from an unlikely arachnid.