These are reflections on my decision to pursue Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church. There will be reflections on this process from time to time as I take my steps toward ministry in this church.
I was at a restaurant one time that offered a "deconstructed" lemon meringue pie. Intrigued, I ordered it, and was soon delivered a plate with a pool of lemon custard, a disk of shortbread sitting off to one side, and a meringue at the edge of the custard. There were some blots and drips of berry coulis as well. It was OK, but what I really wanted was a nice flakey crust, filled with lemony custard and topped with a browned, yet creamy meringue. The deconstruction had all the parts, but placed together, they did not make a whole.
Holy Saturday, Arthur and I went to the Easter Vigil at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. It's a stunning building, combining some of the best lessons learned in the last half century by ecclesiastical architects, and some stunning icons of dancing saints (this is more than a totentanz) in the clerestory that surrounds the "dome" over the room where the altar is placed. The adjacent room, is devoted to the word, and is dominated by the bema that portrays Gregory looking over his parishioners, and a huge "throne" (for the lack of a better word) in which the president sits for preaching. During the sermon there is a feeling of learning and enablement. The sitting preaching priest idea works.
Upon coming in, however, we were handed a yellow booklet with the words "Easter Vigil", which when opening it, you discover is filled with 31 hymns. There is no printed liturgy. One is ushered around the proclamations and actions by two individuals acting as sort of a MC cum Deacon, "OK now, we're going to sing hymn 9". (You can't tell any one person's role by looking at their vestments well you could if you understood vestments and looked hard enough everyone is in some kind of tie-died thing). The ministers of the liturgy enter the room while the choir sings "There are angels here" and it is quite moving. They all entered with lights into the darkened room. There was no super decorated paschal candle, but rather many lights. A Kievian chant (Heaven's Angels, Christ our Savior, Hymn your Resurrection) was repeated several times (this is proto-Taizé), and then we were into the western Exsultet.
Somewhere in here we were all incensed by two thurifers with jingling thuribles straying out into the midst of the congregation that packed both rooms. And then the deacons, with candles and candelabra, guided the first reader, a young man of 13, to the ambo, and we were off with a reading from Ezekiel. Here is where the deconstruction really begins, although come to think of it, that started at the very beginning without lighting a new fire! The readings did not follow the traditional order, for we went next to the crossing of the Reed Sea, followed by "Through the red sea brought at last", sung to Straf mich nicht. And then I started loosing track. There was something from the New Testament accompanied by "I am the resurrection, and I am the life" sung to Walker Funeral Anthem. The series of readings, shortened, ended with the reading from Genesis read by a man and a woman who alternated speaking God's words. Each section would end with "Day 4" said by both, and then they would turn to face a new direction. It was well done. An earlier reading, the Red Sea experience, was told in story form as well. Another thing, after the readings are finished there is a ringing of tones on several Tibetan bowls that signals the beginning of silence. That in turn is ended with a high-toned bell.
And then we all sat down to hear the sermon. The rector is an attractive, inviting kind of guy, who used a hilarious quote from David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day, in which a bunch of students learning French in Paris have to explain Easter to a Moroccan woman. It's an utter riot, but a laugh that gets to the heart of the difficulty of talking about the Easter Experience, or the "Easter Event" as wary theologians like to call it. The sermon seemed to cover everyone's bases it certainly did mine.
What came next was the Our Father sung in plainchant, but into which was interjected the Deacon's Prayer from the Divine Liturgy. This was sung prior to the doxology that ends the Our Father in Protestant Churches. Three types of responses were made available to those who wished to add prayers to those sung by the deacons:
1. For - let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy.
2. For - let us give thanks to the Lord. Thanks be to God.
3. ...and all our lives through Christ to God. To you O Lord our God.
Now it was time for the Gospel. We all moved into the Altar Room, where a group read the Marcan account in a quasi story style with "medieval' chant responses. I liked it, but the best part came next, as the Gospel book with crosses and umbrellas sparkling with metal disks are carried about the room so that participants can either touch or kiss the Book!
(When I was at St. Francis, I adapted this for Northern Europeans. When the book was brought out at the Gospel Procession, the people would come out of the pews and crowd around it. Following the reading there was a minute of silence, ended with a gong. A visiting ELCA pastor sitting behind me one Sunday sat down after the procession was finished and said, "Wow!")
Now it was time for another procession, a Litany of the Saints, that certainly had its beginnings in the Berkeley Free Church's lists of Saints. Anyone of note who had died in the last year was mentioned as we wound out of the Church into the neighborhood, coming back in at the main doors. It was a long procession, and of course, one part could not keep up with the music of the other parts of the long procession. Charles Ives would have loved it.
At the doors of the church, two persons did a rather free interpretation of St. John Chrysostom's Easter Sermon. It was at this point that the "over the top" nature of things began to make me tired. Everything started to seem forced and overdone, the enthusiasm artificial and almost irreverent. But hey, de gustibus non disputandem...etc. Following St. John, the rector knocks loudly on the doors of the church a strange bit of ritual that didn't seem to make sense. We did, however, walk into a brightly lit room (real candles in real chandeliers, with flowers festooned from the ceiling). It was most inviting.
Now comes the hard part. The canon of the mass was interspersed with Easter troparia of many types; along with a wonderful "Let us love one another" that incorporates the Dialogue of the Preface. Nothing is centered on the presider. There are many elements, people, music, hymns, baskets mounded with bread, and many chalices of wine. I did get the notion of feast. And at the communion, the assistants plow into the people massed around the altar to commune them with the Body of Christ, and the chalices are passed among the people. This is not a Eucharist for introverts.
Now the singing. Hymn after hymn (with dance steps) sung around the altar, people circling around and around. And troparion after troparion:
"Christ is risen from the dead
trampling down death by death
and upon those in the tombs
It was two and a half hours long, but seemed like a minute. It is their only Easter service. Sunday is silent. Following the mass there is a feast with sparkling wine, food, sweet things, and of course connecting up with all the others who have left their own parishes to come play with St. Gregory.
Am I jealous? Perhaps about some things. Am I cynical
about the enthusiasm? Yes, enough to make me uncomfortable with myself.
Did I feel filled spiritually? Definitely. Was I disappointed in our own
shebang at Trinity the following morning? Not at all. I'd just had an appetizer.
Part of me still likes my mother's lemon meringue pie.
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