Saturday evening, 8:45pm. Driving through the cityscape I’ve finally arrived at my destination, its white cement exterior striking in the approaching dusk. Parking on the street is free after 10pm, so I pay for an hour’s parking and make my way across the street. A prostitute catches my eye, short skirt, boots, surprisingly young. “No thanks, Ma’am,” I think to myself. “I’m going to church.”
The church stands like a lighthouse on the corner of the intersection, people moving about in the warming air and lengthening daylight, most unaware that a service is about to begin. I ascend the steps, noting as I enter the homeless form blanketed in the doorframe to my left. Fleetingly, I think about the proper use of church doorframes and am grateful that this person is dry. Entering I am handed a candle, a paper wax shield, and an order of service which might rival the phonebook for length. The thing is thick. I check it out and there are some thirty five pages of liturgy for this service. I guess I’m in for the long haul.
I find a seat in a hard wooden pew that creaks violently when I lean back, or lean forward, or move in any way. Attempting to find a position which creates a minimum of noise, I take stock of my surroundings. A grand vaulted ceiling draws my attention upward to the crucifix, and forward to the altar in this square, stone church. Unlit lanterns and shadowed images grace the walls, and two raised lecterns bookend the altar itself. The room is dark, and there is the faint odor of remembered incense, and in this space a feeling of general reverence comes over me. Apart from some subdued conversation, the room is largely quiet.
9:00pm. The celebrant and his company have gathered at the back of the church where they are setting up some kind of a fire pot. One acolyte busily trundles about, gathering candles and books and ordering things and looking for all the world like he missed the rehearsal and is trying to make up for it. The fire lit, the celebrant finally speaks, “Dear Friends in Christ.”
Oh, Dear Lord, the man has an accent. English is clearly not his first language, and while I have enormous respect for anyone who learns English, at the moment I find I am struggling to determine in just what language this liturgy will be recited. Somehow the consonants are being especially pronounced, so that it comes out something like “Deerrrrr Frrriennnnndssss innnnn Chhhraysssst.” For the rest of this night, I will struggle to hear the words of the liturgy. For the rest of my life, each time I hear the words “Dear Friends in Christ” I will hear it in this man’s voice. Tonight’s going to be a lonnnnnng night.
The Christ-candle lit, the procession moves from the back of the sanctuary to the front. An acolyte swings a silver censer from which clouds of fragrant incense bellow outward, its smoke a visible reminder that prayer is a physical thing transcending to an invisible God. From the front, a deacon begins the lighting of the candles representing the light of Christ, which we keep in vigil this night. From the Christ-candle to each believer we are connected by this single illumination. The room transitions from dimness to the warm illumination of flickering candlelight, faces now reflecting back the light of Christ to one another.
Apart from the obvious devotional benefits of fire in a church service, fire is also enormously entertaining during a lengthy service. First of all, there is the business of finding just the right way to hold the candle. Tilt it, and the wax will drip down the side, causing the candle to burn much more quickly. Hold it just right and no wax will drip at all (to achieve this is an accomplishment of special merit). The heat of your hand, additionally, will in time bend the wax of the candle. The unwary congregant may discover after some time clutching that he has warped his candle beyond recognition. Also, the combination of fire and congregants makes one think about the wisdom of entrusting flame to people like us. We’ve just been given large paper booklets, as well as lit instruments of conflagration—in just the right circumstances, the unwary Vicar could find himself in no small amount of trouble!
The celebrant begins to chant tonight’s liturgy, and the singing in part regulates some of the confusion in his pronunciation. But have you ever thought about why it is that chanted liturgies make use of just two notes? Why not three? What’s the benefit of just these two? Is it to make it so that relatively unmusical people will feel competent to sing services? If that’s the case, then how is it that you can become a celebrant if you can’t even manage those two notes? These are great mysteries, and I’ve got lots of time to think about them.
In friendly, bold letters my liturgy informs me that we are transitioning into “The Liturgy of the Word.” A lay member ascends the raised lectern to the right of altar and begins to read. “A reading from the book of Genesis,” he says, then essays into the text. I look more closely at the reference in the order of service, only to realize that he will be reading the whole of the first chapter and part of the second. I settle in to listen to the reading and realize, with some wonderment, that this is one of the most ponderous and slow readings of Scripture I have ever heard. This man is savouring each and every word of the text, and it is almost slow enough that my heart beats several times between words. It’s so slow that I’m struggling to keep track of the story because I’m so busy thinking about the slowness. After the reading we sing a response, then stand for a collect, then sit for the next reading. This time, it’s the story of the flood from Genesis 7, 8, and 9, also read quite ponderously. Another song, another prayer (standing, then sitting again). Another reading. This reader, also, is slow—nay, slow is not good enough a word—she is glacial. I look down at my order and realize that we’re only on page 10. Page 10! An ice age of time will pass before we’ve finished this service, and I will emerge fully bearded to find the city gone and a freshly cut valley opening on an icy river rich with glacial silt.
As we settle into the rhythm of these readings, songs, and collects, I begin to wriggle in my seat. The wood is hard, and each involuntary wriggle causes the pew to creak with increased noise. While readers read I study my candle, observing the perfection with which it burns, the upright flame of a draftless environment, calculating the remaining time in the candle’s life, and otherwise attempting to keep my mind focused on the Scriptures at hand—Abraham and Isaac, the Exodus, Isaiah’s promises, Ezekiel’s vision of bones, and the song of Zephaniah. As I sit, my relative impatience gives way to a fresh thought. Surely there is something important in simply listening to the story of the Scriptures, to soaking in long passages and allowing them to wash over us like the waters of the flood. We spend so little time attending to God, so little time in stillness, so little… time. I realize that what I am offering right now, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that I proffer in this service, is a sacrifice of my time.
Time, of all our commodities, is the most valuable, and yet it is the one we seem least ready to sacrifice to God. How many people, after all, flock to the idea of a three-hour church service on a Saturday night? Three hours on a movie? Three hours with friends? No problem—but three hours listening to Scripture? Singing? Chanting? Clouds of incense? No thank you. And yet, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has written, “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment which lends significance to things.” Time is the meaning-making unit of human experience. Things have value and significance based on our experience of them in time. And so, in this service I am sacrificing my time. Time I might otherwise have spent watching television, or reading, or playing a game; time I might have spent eating, or socializing, or wasting; time I am now sanctifying by offering it to God in vigil.
And a vigil is what this is. As Christ asked his disciples to keep vigil with him on the night he was betrayed, now we keep vigil at his tomb, a redeemed vigil of prayer and attention to atone for those times when I have failed to remain with Christ in prayer. The disciples slept, how I have slept! Lord, have mercy on me for my boredom. Boredom born from the excesses of distraction, from the tyranny of modern busyness, from my need for regeneration. This vigil is a thing of importance precisely because it helps to reset my calculation of time.
From Scripture the liturgy moves into the baptism service. We stand and travel to the baptistery, which is near the entrance. We recite the creed, and restate our baptismal vows, and a child screams as it is startled to discover that it is—Wet! Returning to our seats we pray, repeating the phrase “Have mercy on us,” and “Pray for us.” I look at the list we’re about to go through. Holy Mary, Holy Michael, Holy Gabriel—Holy Moly There Are a Lot of Names on This List! Apparently, we are praying through the heavenly phone book. While we pray, the priest who has performed the baptism moves up the aisle from behind, a wad of hyssop in his hand which he dips into a bucket of holy water and sprinkles the congregation. The only problem is that when he gets to me I am startled to find that it isn’t a sprinkle but a splash. Nearly a cup of water hits me from behind on the neck and hair and in astonishment I almost scream to discover that I’m—Wet!
This year, due to some miscalculation on the part of the planning committee, there are far too many prayers between readings, and the result is that the congregants are in a losing battle with their candles. Some, who have failed at candle-holding school, have lost theirs some readings ago. I, who have proved my excellence at candle-ology, have merely a thumbswidth of candle left. I press the paper shield down to the bottom of the candle and finally rest the candle itself on the paper of my order of service. The wick burns down to the very bottom, and for the first time in my life I have burnt an entire candle from end to end. I am forced to blow it out at the last possible minute, saving the vestry from an uncomfortable conversation about why there was a fire during the vigil. Maybe the excess of water earlier was simply fire prevention in action. There’s no way to tell for certain.
Fortunately for us, the time of darkness is nearly ended, and at the conclusion of the baptismal service we celebrate the resurrection. Lights come on, bells are rung, the organ rings out with joy, and the choir sings the Gloria in Excelsis. (I had not mentioned them yet, but the choir this evening has been supernal—I’m particularly fond of the Palestrina pieces.) We turn now to the first Mass of the Easter season, declaring the truth of Christ’s death, resurrection, and lordship in words, signs, symbols, songs, bread, and wine. Simple substances transformed—like our time—into emblems and signs heavy with meaning; a time to sanctify all times, a meal to sanctify all meals.
When it is my turn I travel to the front and kneel before the altar on the kneeling bar, between two others kneeling at either side of me. I reflect on the meaning of communion, reflect on the fact that what this meal means for me may not be what it means for the persons on either side of me, or even for the priest about to serve it to me. But I also remember in humility that the meal is not about me, is greater than me, and is a meal that asks for my obedience, not my understanding. The priest comes by first with the wafer, placing it either in cupped hands or directly on the tongue. He places it in my hands and I eat it, its curious tastelessness grinding between my teeth. The cup of wine comes next. No dipping here, and no individual cups—if you take, you drink from the cup itself. Momentarily I fight the revulsion of a cup shared with strangers. But I remember that this is a common cup, expression the communion of God’s people, and I also think briefly of Francis kissing the leper, and I shelve my pride and drink, a needy sinner in relationship with Christ. The wine is bright in contrast with the pale wafer, sharp and strong, and as I stand and return to my creaky pew I am left with the memory of its shock. Shock perhaps reminiscent of the wine vinegar offered to our Lord.
We continue to sing—not one verse but all seven of some obscure English hymn. I weary as the song goes on, but I am no longer bored. This time is time offered to the Lord. It is not mine to spend any longer. I sing with gusto.
Midnight. At last we come to the close. Let us go forth in the name of Christ, Alleluia, Alleluia! Indeed, let us go forth. Let me go forth, time readjusted, my spirit reconsecrated, in vigil having kept remembrance of the Lord’s death and resurrection, to return next year and offer again this moment, that I might lend significance to all my other things. Thanks be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia!