Sunday, April 5, 2009

In Holy Limbo

Two years ago I stood in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, photographing the Palm Sunday procession through the courtyard of that magnificent church. Yet today I went to the early service here at Grace, happy to miss the parades and excitement that traditionally accompany this solemn service.

What is it about the pomp and pageantry of Palm Sunday? And how on earth do we -- year after year -- reconcile that dreadful conflict between the parades and the palms and the cheers and the music on one hand and the reading of that most difficult passage in the Bible on the other?

The Passion was, of course, our Gospel lesson this morning, but, though we stood for the last section of the reading, we were not required -- as I have been in some churches over the years -- to shout "Crucify Him" with the ragged mob. And though we heard the sad story of Jesus' repeated efforts to get the disciples to wait up with him in the garden, and were invited to sign up to join the vigil in the Narthex, we did not have to join Peter in denying Him three times. We were given individual palm fronds, but were neither required nor instructed to turn them into crosses: it was, over all, relatively painless for a Palm Sunday.

And yet, the memories linger, not just of other similar Sundays over the years, but of other processions around the Easter Season: of the police in Hanover, NH closing down West Wheelock street so the parishioners of St. Thomas could process from Edgerton House, the student center, to the church to begin the Easter Vigil; of stately dancing with the students around the altar, to the tune of "Lord of the Dance"; of one particularly memorable Easter at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle, when the Dean set a match to a giant bowl of oil and the flames leapt almost to the ceiling; of a simpler time worshiping in a school cafeteria in Sammamish, when families arrived carrying cut flowers to place in specially drilled holes of a life-size cross.

All these memories are vivid, as vivid as the still magnificent mosaics at the Basilica di San Marco, despite the passage of years. And, because artists and writers have rendered them repeatedly for years in many different media, so are the sounds and sights of the Easter Passion: excruciatingly so. It is not, as our priest said this morning, a pretty story. And though it ends in Resurrection, that is not your typical happy ending. There will, despite Jesus' promised presence, always be a stronger sense of absence, a sense of something not quite right -- a task failed, a promise broken, a dear one lost...

And so it is that we enter this week so many call Holy with mixed emotions. There is the pageantry of today, the thoughtfulness of Maundy Thursday, the stark black loss of Good Friday, that liminal space of Holy Saturday, in which we feel with the disciples that uncertain space between what was and is to come, and then the burst of enthusiasm that is Easter. And always I wonder: will it come again? Will I reach that point at the same time as my colleagues? Or will, when all is said and done, the Easter finery put away, the cross stored back in the cupboard again; or will it just be yet another day?

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