On Wednesday of Holy Week, the first night of Passover, I went to a Seder hosted by the Israeli mother of a friend of Asaph's whose family moved to Queens in the 1960s. He gave us a brief tour of the neighborhood, pointing out the new ostentatious mansions built by recent Russian immigrants and a house that looked like it had been relocated directly from Israel, with rounded beige stone walls (the Mediterranean Bauhaus style that is somewhat unique to Israel) and semi-tropical plantings that are managing to survive the New York winter.
The Seder was the most chaotic I have ever attended. The event was periodically interrupted by cries of !שקט ("silence!") by our friend's elderly mother. Ceremonial items of food like small matza-maror sandwiches and leaves of lettuce filled with horseradish were occasionally passed down a line of 20 or so bare hands. I put my trust in the LORD.
Our friend is in his forties, and looking at his slightly older brothers and sisters starkly illustrated the way that non-heterosexuals age so much better than their non-homosexual peers. I remember always being annoyed in college and in my early twenties when girls and women would claim that all of the good-looking men were not interested in their sex, since it was clearly not true (usually the most attractive man in any given room would be thoroughly heterosexual). But somewhere around age 32 this stops being the case.
No one had read the Gourmet magazine article about how the entire Exodus story is untrue and how it isn't even the "Red Sea" in the original Hebrew but rather the "Sea of Reeds", so we didn't discuss that. There was a lot of complaining about the length of the ritual and predictions that it wouldn't survive many more years, even though it has been going on for a couple thousand now. Eventually I went to the living room to read the entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica on the anti-Jewish Ecclesia et Synagoga motif in European medieval art and architecture, in which a blindfolded and dejected woman holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments is positioned next to an upright and triumphant woman bearing a cross. I wondered what Faruq would think of this motif.
The next day was Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Triduum. It's one of my favorite holidays, although I never engage in the foot washing, owing to having disgusting feet. The former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church presided at the service, which is always nice, although he doesn't use Mozarabic chant for Eucharistic Prayer D, which is sad, since I always look forward to that and our rector does it beautifully.
My friend Christopher came along, as did my former roommate who is of Swedish Lutheran and Moroccan Jewish descent, but who likes the service for anthropological reasons. Towards the end, consecrated Communion hosts are carried into a procession to the so-called altar of repose, where a vigil is kept all night. I remember a priest once referring to this practice as "pious", and he meant this in a somewhat negative way. I think the ritual is forbidden in the founding documents of the Episcopal Church of the United States, but they have bigger things to worry about now.
I loitered in the church for a while after the dramatic stripping of the altar, when the baptismal font is dumped angrily onto the altar, which is then scrubbed with a homemade bundle of palm fronds. Our church doesn't really have too many other decorations to strip.
I was afraid to take a photo of the altar of repose, as it would have disturbed the other people sitting around meditating and praying, but luckily an acquaintance took one at four in the morning.
The next day was appropriately gloomy.
The Good Friday service is my least favorite of the year. I hate it. I hate hearing the Passion story, especially the new politically correct translation in which "praetorium" is changed to "headquarters" and "Caesar" to "the Emperor". I hate the dramatic venerations of the cross, which seem quite fake and forced to me. I was pleased to see that a prominent Episcopalian did not take part in these venerations, although I myself went up and gave a quick curtsy, which makes me a hypocrite, and it's a pity.
The only thing I like about the service is this beautiful anthem.
Crux fidelis, inter omnes
Arbor una nobilis,
Nulla silva talem profert,
Fronde, flore, germine.
Dulce pondus sustinet.
Faithful cross, above all other,
One and only noble tree.
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be,
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
It's quite lovely.
The former Presiding Bishop did read the testament of Dom Christian de Chergé, OCSO, a Trappist monk who was killed in Algeria by Islamic fundamentalists in 1996. Although I had heard it before, the manner in which he addresses his future assassin always brings tears to my eyes:
And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!
I imagine that at my college people would have argued that the killing of the seven monks at Our Lady of Atlas Monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria was acceptable in light of the anti-colonialist struggle, and that Dom Christian de Chergé's last testament was condescending and imperialist.
On Saturday I had to attend a rehearsal for the Easter Vigil service. Because I had a relatively easy job that night, I was given the additional role of Quasimodo -- I would be ringing the church bell at the Easter Acclamation. I was scared and excited and thought that I could use a hump.
I couldn't practice ringing the bell, as that would have evidently thrown the entire West Village into a state of confusion, but I went up to the belfry to take a look. I had never been up there.
Sadly, there wasn't really a belfry. There was just a rope hanging from the ceiling in the room in front of the choir loft.
I showed up later that night for the vigil. The acolyte master tried to finagle me a tunicle, knowing how much I love wearing them, but it was decided that cassock and surplice were good enough.
As I have mentioned before, the cassock is of barbarian origin.
The vigil service was lovely, as always. There was some problem with the new fire, but it lasted long enough to light the Paschal Candle, and soon the entire church was illuminated by candlelight.
The Exultet always chokes me up.
Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels,
and let your trumpets shout Salvation
for the victory of our mighty King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendour,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church,
and let your holy courts, in radiant light,
resound with the praises of your people.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.
How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.
How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.
How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.
Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning--he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Only children were baptized, which takes a bit out of the symbolism of the Vigil, but adults who get baptized nowadays are usually weirdos, so there are advantages.
Someone came up to help me ring the bell. It was like something out of a physical comedy routine, since the rope carried us up into the air after each pull. As the choir was singing and the organ was blasting and the members of the congregation were ringing their own bells, I couldn't hear if we were actually pealing anything. I hope we were.
I carried the banner out.
Then I ate some sausage pie and drank three glasses of white wine.
After my first Easter Vigil in 1998, I remember staying up all night afterwards. I didn't know what was wrong -- I felt sad and happy and overwhelmed. Maybe it was just the poetry of the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which was read by Bishop William Swing in place of his own sermon. It echoed in my head all night:
Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary with fasting? Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward; If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first. To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said, "You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!
In his Easter sermon this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote:
Do you know that God exists? the interviewers ask; or, How do you know Christian faith is true? There are two tempting ways of responding, both wrong. There is the apologetic shuffle of saying, 'Of course, I don't really know; this is just the truth as it appears to me and I may be wrong'. And there is the confident offer to prove it all to the hearer's satisfaction; here are the philosophical arguments, here is the historical evidence, now what's the problem?
Two kinds of mistake: the first because it reduces faith to opinion and shrinks the scale of what you're trying to talk about to the dimensions of your own mind and preferences; the second because it keeps you at arms' length from the whole business by making it impersonal: here are the proofs and it doesn't much matter what I or anyone may be doing about it. It's just true in much the same way as it's true that Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles. You may say, 'Well, there you go' but are unlikely to fall to your knees.
As you know, I have many, many doubts. But that night, at least, I fell to my knees.
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.