Just a few nights ago I was sitting in a meeting of Calvary’s congregational leadership talking about preparing for sabbatical.
We’ve been trying hard here to prepare as carefully as we can, so that the twelve weeks ahead of us as a congregation will be spent as fruitfully and healthily as possible. At the meeting a guest facilitator told us that the word sabbatical comes from the word Sabbath, the weekly observance of Jews from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. At the end of Sabbath, she explained, there are special prayers said during Havdalah, a Saturday evening ritual to usher out the Sabbath. The word havdalah means distinction or separation, a separation, she explained, between what Abraham Heschel calls the holy and the not yet holy.
That thought wriggled its way into my mind and has been lingering since I heard the words. I think I’ve got the holy down; I can usually recognize some level of holy when it comes along. The not yet holy, though, is not a phrase I have ever used to think of all of the rest of life . . . especially those moments that feel distinctly unholy.
But what if I did?
The morning after that meeting, very early, I heard from a Calvary member who had been with us the night before in that very meeting. She was in labor and getting ready to deliver her first child.
I’d promised to try to support as much as possible, so I spent the day at the hospital with Caroline and Henry as they labored to bring precious baby Lucy into the world. The whole day, hours and hours, was filled with grueling work; it was gritty, hard, tedious . . . labor. A lot of pain and frustration and struggle, the whole normal experience of giving birth seemed to me one of those experiences on the other side of havdalah: utterly and desperately un-holy.
It just seemed to get harder as birth got closer and closer and the doctors buckled down to do their jobs. Caroline was a champ; Henry was right with her through the whole thing . . . it just seemed like one of those times you just have to grit your teeth and live through. Admittedly, I was counting contractions, not particularly on alert for the arrival of the holy.
But then . . . she was born . . . with such a loud cry for so little a person.
And all the work, sweat, tears, pain, struggle—all the parts of that day that seemed painful and tedious and mundane—it all suddenly and miraculously became . . . well, holy.
Oh yes, it was holy in the deepest sense of that word, like those precious moments in each human life when we manage to reach out as far and as hard as we can, and God does, too, and when we finally touch each other . . . and everything seems put aright. Sacred, connected, whole, awe-struck, even.
How did it happen, this sudden switch from unholy pain to holy awe?
I know I’m the professional here, but, truth be told, it beats me. While there were plenty of prayers swirling all around and throughout that delivery room, nobody that I saw came up with a special ritual to mark the passing from unholy to holy.
In fact, it was sort of like the two came together and overlapped in the most miraculous way . . . all the pain of the day suddenly colored by shades of holy, holy, holy.
The unholy becoming holy.
The not yet holy finally coming into its own.
And, all around . . . oh, yes . . . everywhere around . . . God.
Thanks be to God.
Amen . . . and . . . Amen.