By Kathy Staudt
Sometimes it’s useful to move outside of my church-activities “bubble” and pay attention to ways that Christian faith — my tradition” is perceived, described, characterized “from the outside,” by people who are not Christians.
Because of an illness in the family , I was away from my usual treasured liturgical observance of Holy Week and Easter. Also through family connections, I found myself at worship on Thursday and on Sunday with the Unitarians — at First Parish in Concord, Massachussetts, a vibrant, welcoming and faithful community. There was a lot to like there — celebrations of community, a commitment to spiritual practice and a desire to “make a difference in the world.” I recognized in this worshipping community attitudes that are shared widely in our culture: that really, you don’t need religion, that it only leads to dissension and controversy. (Two blocks away from First Parish is “Tri-Con” — Trinity Congregational — two identical white clapboard buildings, testimony to theological splits in New England in the 19th century). In fact it almost seemed petty of me, sometimes, to be clinging to more traditional, even “orthodox” Christian belief. The awareness of this disconnect has stayed with me ever since Easter, and I’m still mulling it over.
Among the Humanist members of First Parish UU, the observance of Maundy Thursday and Easter were offered mainly in a spirit of education and respect –solidarity, even, with Christians. Some members there would call themselves Christians; most would not. There was a respectful agenda for worship: “Here’s what Christians do at this time of year. Let’s experience some of what that is like, through our own worship, and see how that helps us to deepen spiritually in our own way, even if we don’t share their [somewhat archaic] beliefs.”
So on Thursday evening there was a “Mermorial” communion service, reminiscent of the Presbyterian worship I grew up with. Communion is celebrated once a year in this congregation, and it’s an important yearly event there. As the story of the Last Supper was retold, the emphasis was on Jesus gathering his friends. Almost anyone can relate to this part of the story. The congregation was invited to reflect on themselves as a community and to view this act of eating and drinking as a celebration of their life and history together in that place. So the meal on Maundy Thursday was a celebration of community, and a remembering of who we are and where we have been. Jesus’ example was a human example: this is something that people do. Little to disagree with there. But something left me restless.
Meanwhile, the choir sang (beautifully) a sampling of classic liturgical music belonging to the day, music that deeply touched me: Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” and Bach’s “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.” The story I deeply wanted to connect with and retell that night was carried in the music. There was really nothing here to object to, from a human point of view: Here was an assembly of good people, celebrating their common life and honoring some of the religious ideas of their neighbors — including mine. It felt fussy and theologically petty for me to reflect too much on what was missing for me here. But there was a lot missing. It was the part about God sharing our humanity, and suffering with us, and calling us to a radical, mutual love for one another, grounded in divine love, expressed quite starkly in our liturgies of foot washing. That was missing. Not to member the entry into darkness, expressed in the stripping of the altar. I was seeing the stories and practices reinterpreted, through the lens of an enlightenment humanism. Something was definitely missing. A dimension of mystery — and even of darkness.
Between hospital visits, I did treat myself to an Easter Vigil service at Trinity Episcopal in Concord – and it was a wonderful, familiar service, with people of all ages on board with the movement through darkness, to the lighting of the new fire and the declaration “The Lord is Risen indeed.” (If anyone from that parish reads this – I thank you!) I needed a chance to say that out loud, in public, with fellow believers, at Easter. At the hospital and around town, I was really moving in circles where that was an irrelevant idea. So I was grateful that the church was there for me, a visitor from out of town. And it was a gift to realize how deeply I desired to be part of that celebration – how real it was to me. The church felt like an island of mercy and welcome in the midst of a world that was mostly oblivious to the good news of Easter. That image has remained with me and I’m still pondering what it means to me.
Meanwhile, back at First Parish, Easter Day dawned, a wonderfully sunny, springtime celebration on a gorgeous New England spring day. The church was packed. I was curious about what an Easter Sunday service of worship would be without the proclamation of Resurrection. But the service started promisingly, for me, with the Easter gospel from Mark as the call to worship, and the singing, with trumpets, of Wesley’s Jesus Christ is Risen Today–though not the version that mentions the Cross.
The theme of the service was Jesus, and the children’s sermon a re-enactment of a parable of Jesus. And the adult sermon did invite people to think about resurrection as a metaphor in their lives, using imagery from the Christian tradtion. At one point, the preacher said, almost as an aside, something like “there is this observance of Good Friday, though how anyone could call it Good Friday is beyond me.”
“Right there!” I thought. That is what I’ve been missing — and it may be a good way of naming what we as Christians are called to wrestle with, reflect on, embrace, and maybe explain better to the world– the paradox at the heart of our faith. “Talk to a Christian,” I wanted to say to the preacher. “Talk to a Christian about that — rather than describing us as if we were confused. See what that Christian might say to you about why we call that Friday Good. Because that is the heart of the matter — the way of life that leads through the reality of human life, suffering, evil and death, and triumphs ultimately and transformatively. It’s a supernatural claim we make. There’s no getting around it. We do call this Friday good. I’m working on my “elevator speech” about that question. What is yours? Why do you call this Friday good?
All this was 3 months ago — now we’re in a different liturgical season and a different place in church life, but I’ve been reflecting ever since about this weird sense of being a “topic” in a world that does not widely embrace or understand our Christian message and practices. Why do we call this Friday good? Why was it so important to me to be able to move through the darkness, in the company of fellow believers, to proclaim out loud “The Lord is Risen indeed.”? It is about all those good humanist goals. — trying to be good people, deepen spiritually, make a difference in the world, Yes. But there is more at the heart of Christian faith. How can I own and name that, from where I stand in faith, and in language the world can understand? That’s the challenge I’ve been pondering lately. With no clear answer — perhaps Café readers have pondered it, too. . . . .
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.