Silent Sundays

Since walks in the outdoors are a good thing, according to government guidelines, my family has been taking them.  Actually, we tend to take walks anyway since sitting before a screen all day is anything but natural.  One fact we’ve noticed on our perambulations through town is that many churches, as a standard of caution, aren’t holding their usual meetings.  The governor here in Pennsylvania hasn’t ordered churches closed—the fine line between church and state is easily violated—but many of the civic-minded religious are able to draw their own conclusions.  The church I attend has gone to virtual services.  In any case, I’m seeing news stories of clergy, particularly on the far-right end of the spectrum, insisting that the show must go on.  Ignoring government guidelines, they try to cram in as many people as they can until the police come along to limit the size of gatherings.

Throughout history religion has generally been in league with local governments.  We don’t know all the religions that have ever existed, but it is clear that some of the first counter-cultural believers were early Christians.  They defied government orders and sometimes died for it.  Today it’s more likely to end up in a stern rebuke or simply being sent home where the rest of us are sheltering in place.  I read this week about a church that’s encouraging cardboard cutouts of congregants so they can see themselves sitting in the pews during virtual Sunday morning services.  At times like this I think back over the history of religions and reflect on how the COVID-19 situation is one entirely new; we’ve never had a pandemic with the internet before.  And pastors can announce online that defying the government is on the docket for Sunday morning.

We weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting Columcille yesterday.  An outdoor megalith park, Columcille is a place for spiritual reflection.  Since the vernal equinox passed virtually unnoticed this year, it was rejuvenating to take a springtime walk in the park.  Yes, others were there, widely spaced, but we walked the trails and visited the standing stones as a family group, keeping away from other gatherings.  We spent some time watching the new life emerging from the forest floor.  It’s only March but spring has sent its signals to the plant world and green shoots are reaching for the sun before trees leaf out and block the light.  It’s a wonder and a source of awe.  And in its own way, it’s a kind of gathering we might call church.

Discriminating Tests

That explains it.  That glow coming through the window as I got out of bed this morning is the full moon.  Since this is the first full moon after the vernal equinox, that means Sunday’s Easter.  If Sunday’s Easter this is Good Friday.  That brought to mind an article my wife sent me from The Atlantic, “Most American Christians Believe They’re Victims of Discrimination.”  In this piece Emma Green explains that Christians of a certain stripe believe they’re under threat.  Most people express surprise at this outlook, but having grown up in a Fundamentalist tradition I can say that this is hardly new.  The narrative of persecution among conservative Christians has been around for a long time.  They have a mandate, you see.  A mandate to make the entire world like themselves.

Hearing the many cries of legitimate oppression doesn’t help, of course.  In this linked world of instant communication and news 24/7, we’ve become perhaps too aware of just how widespread oppression is.  Christians have felt persecuted from the very beginning, and they don’t like now being cast in the role of oppressor.  Forcing other people to conform is no longer considered right or desirable, but Christians have a mandate.  What strikes me as odd here is that we have a means of learning about this—of arming ourselves with knowledge—but we’d rather be surprised at the polls and pay for it with years of actual oppression.  What is this mysterious means of knowing?  The Bible.  If read, this viewpoint can be understood.  And if handled carefully, disarmed.

The Roman Empire, after which, tellingly, American politics is modeled, oppressed Christians.  At least for a while.  Then the faith became establishment.  And it began oppressing.  An ocean away, Christians fled here because they wanted freedom of religion.  They didn’t always want to share that freedom with other groups experiencing discrimination.  Especially, of course, if they could be compelled to do heavy labor without pay.  Now these groups feel they’re being judged for saying “Merry Christmas,” or for declaring loudly that Sunday’s Easter.  They can’t point to behaviors that in their understanding of the Bible are bad and tell people not to do them.  They don’t understand that Allah is the same deity they worship, only in monotheistic form.  And they get all this news while the moon is still in the sky.  I look at the puddle of light on my bedroom floor and head for my writing nook.  It may be Good Friday, but I’ve got to work today, getting Bibles ready to sell.

A Saint Lent

Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikicommons

Lent, among the denominations that observe it, is intended as a time of intense reflection.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday the fact of one’s own mortality becomes a foremost consideration as the faithful are reminded that they will die.  It has always struck me as paradoxical that St. Patrick’s Day always falls in Lent.  Those who abide by the liturgical calendar readily acknowledge that Lent is a punctuated season; saints’ days and feasts can still occur, temporarily disrupting the heavy contemplation.  While at Nashotah House we never celebrated St. Patrick beyond a brief mention during a collect of the seventeenth.  His day, rich in Celtic mythology, it seems, was inappropriate to the mandated gloom so highly valued by the soul-sick.  Having some Irish ancestry, I always felt a little slighted by this aloofness regarding a saint most people can actually name.

College campuses, I later learned, tend to schedule their spring breaks to include Saint Patty’s Day because of the damage drunken students may exact.  The stereotypical besotted Irish have become an excuse for excess during Lent, although, I suspect the forty days have little to do with it.  A saint becomes a justification for sin, it seems.  And Lent continues the morning after.  There’ll always be Lent.  The tray holding the ashes of last year’s palm branches is never empty.  Two once religious observations clash in mid-March of each year.  During a brief spell the historically oppressed Irish are celebrities for a day.  Such are the vicissitudes of liturgical calendar clearing.

Today many people celebrate a saint they wouldn’t otherwise recognize.  One that mythically drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, and who perhaps hid a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  A holy man who has made it possible for anyone to be Irish for a day.  Leprechauns and clovers are in fashion as the ironic luck of the Irish closes down major thoroughfares for parades in the midst of ashes and dust.  Outside there may be snow or budding trees.  Perhaps both at once.  There’s a richness to these conflicting symbols that belies the commemoration of a missionary with alcohol.  The day is part of the complex of equinox holidays, whether intentional or not.  The green man of yore begins to awaken as light starts to outstrip darkness for half a year.  We’ve had enough of dusk.  Anticipate the light.  The rules state that Lent will still be here tomorrow.  But the light is beginning to grow. 

Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.

Spring Forward

I have to admit that spring snuck up on me this year. Weather is, of course, no reliable predictor of the Vernal Equinox, and since I depend on the lightness of the sky while waiting for the bus as an indicator of seasons, turning our clocks ahead last weekend blindsided me to the nearness of the light. Holy Week in Christianity is just one of a cluster of holy days long associated with the point of equilibrium: the day when light and darkness balance perfectly, only to tip from then on in the favor of light. The crocuses have been up for weeks and the robins are ubiquitous, so I really have no excuse. Spending too much of one’s days indoors, I suspect, will inure any soul to the wonder of changing seasons. Climate control, no windows, and constant business separate a person from what nature has evolved us to be.

Easter, understandably, can’t be a national holiday in a land of religious freedom. Not everyone recognizes Easter and even those who do don’t agree on the date. Having a moveable feast is a great inconvenience to employers who want to know everyone’s going to be at their desks. Besides, even though the date changes, it’s always on a Sunday. Many people already have that sop and so, we glide past the vernal equinox with nary a thought. Business as usual. Looking at the great monuments of the past, when ancients put great effort into marking the seasonal change days, I can’t help but think that we’ve lost touch with a basic element of our humanity when we let the equinoxes pass without notice. I hadn’t even realized it was spring until it had begun.

Stopping to recognize the significant days in the passing of the year may be inherently religious. We can be as secular as we like about the equality of light and darkness, but somewhere deep inside we’ll still be thankful that the days will be growing longer until there is more light than dark. We just don’t have to say so at the office. Holidays, it seems to me, offer us hope. We don’t have to buy stuff or give presents. Just having a day to stop and reflect makes us more human. The vernal equinox came silently on a Sunday this year. I awoke early to try to catch sunrise on a cloudy morning. I look to the east, and I dare to hope.

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Palms and Psalms

At Nashotah House, where I spent many years of my career, it was often felt that the weather during Holy Week was, in the best of circumstances, appropriate. With spring just around the corner, however—the date of Easter is based on the Vernal Equinox, after all—a number of surprises came. Particularly in Wisconsin. The ideal scenario would look something like this: sunny then partly cloudy on Palm Sunday; it was a a joyful day for a parade, but clouds make for nice foreshadowing. Nobody really commented on the weather for Monday through Wednesday, and Thursday—Maundy Thursday—was largely spent inside the chapel. Good Friday, however, should be rainy. Saturday gloomy. And, of course, Easter Sunday should be a perfect, sunny spring day. It seldom, if ever, worked out that way. The weather is not beholden to liturgical celebrations. The same holds true for New Jersey. At least the snow has been removed from the forecast today, only to come in the night.

It was at Nashotah House that I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Being a lexically driven book, it was never intended to be a commentary on global warming. It should have been, in retrospect. Already by then we were nearing the point at which, even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped, runaway melting of the polar ice would continue apace and the weather would grow more and more unpredictable because of human action. Human action of everyone except the industrialists, of course, since they don’t believe in global warming. We cling to our palms and shout “Hallelujah” while the sea level’s rising and our weather grows increasingly erratic. We have a theology with which the weather disagrees.

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The liturgical year is, like its Jewish predecessor, cyclical. Some have suggested that holidays were invented to remind the laity of when it was safe to plant again. Of course, the climate in the “Middle East” is quite different than that of northern Europe and the United States where the Bible seems to have its proper setting. As I was walking yesterday, I enjoyed the daffodils that I always associate with Easter. When I returned home I saw snow in the forecast. Leap year, Daylight Saving Time, and my general level of sleepiness conspired to cause me to overlook that today is the Vernal Equinox. I look for the snow, grasp my palm, and think of spring.

St. Pat Tricks

What does it say about a saint when the celebration of his day is excessive drinking? Virtue and vice, while not nearly as Manichean as sometimes made out to be, nevertheless conflict in such a setting. Like many American mutts, I have some Irish heritage. I wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, as it’s the done thing. I avoid any celebrations, however. When my job calls for travel to college campuses, I know to avoid the time around St. Patrick’s. Indeed, I’ve taught on campuses where Spring Break was always scheduled around St. Pat’s so as to minimize property damage on campus. Send them off to Florida, where they can be some other electorate’s problem.

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This is an interesting dichotomy. We live in a fairly permissive culture, at least when it comes to things like sex and violence. We nevertheless have built a Prohibition-Era-like mystique around alcohol consumption that makes our college-aged kids a little too curious. Binge drinking and its predictable aftermath have become far too common. Put them together with an Irish saint and all bets are off.

Historically, the Irish have been maligned in what is an acceptable way. Few complain when a nationality is non-ethnic on the surface but non-welcome nevertheless. The Irish have been historically oppressed, but today we forget all that. We hold parades with bagpipes to bolster solidarity, but only if the taps are freely flowing. Drinking with holidays is nothing new. Even Judaism has its Purim and other religions may, from time to time, relax strict rules on the evils of alcohol. But what does it say about a saint that there is apparently no other way to celebrate his day? Wearing green, yes, but that may be entirely accidental. It is, after all, a Dionysian rite of spring, our apparel matching the verdure we soon anticipate as winter wends its weary way out. Even so, I’m glad not to have to be on the streets of a major city when the parade marches by. Even with my Irish ancestry, I prefer to celebrate in my own quiet way, just by wearing green.