“From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.”
I’m pretty sure James Joyce wasn’t thinking of the minister’s experience of Holy Week when he wrote that sentence filled with deep and resounding truth, but any minister who has made it, breathing, to the other side of Holy Week will tell you: these words could have been penned for us.
This year, for example, it was my full intention that anyone in attendance at our Holy Saturday Easter Vigil would experience a moving ritual of sharing the light of Christ, witnessing a whole crowd of eager and grateful baptismal candidates declaring their faith in public, and sharing the bread and cup as we declared together in the darkness that Christ had risen and the light of a new dawn would surely come.
It was my full intention that anyone in attendance at our Holy Saturday Easter Vigil would experience everything I just described.
I hope they did.
I didn’t. Not exactly, anyway.
Perhaps my own experience this first Holy Week in a new church made the distinction sharper, but I have to believe this annual, real-time illustration of James Joyce’s thoughts about the close proximity of the sublime and the ridiculous is not unique to me. Surely ministers everywhere experience something similar during Holy Week.
While I certainly hope that most in my congregation experienced the (mostly) sublime, I’d say my own experience this year leaned largely toward the ridiculous. Here’s how it looked from my perch:
To begin the Easter Vigil, we’d planned a moving service of sharing the light of Christ — which is a great idea if you can remember where you stored all those little candles we used on Christmas Eve. Remember those? It further helps, I’m guessing, if the brass fixture holding said light of Christ weighs less than 50 pounds and/or the minister is not still recovering from shoulder surgery. This particular convergence of events might lead the minister to run around panicked, sure those candles are around here somewhere, and spend the entire ritual praying desperate prayers that she will be able to successfully spread the light of Christ by means that do not involve dropping an open flame, starting an uncontrollable fire, and burning the church down.
After successfully navigating that first ritual (“The light of Christ … Thanks be to God … The light of Christ with no fire emergency … Thanks be to God.”), the congregation moved to the chapel for baptism. One of my favorite parts of being a pastor is entering the waters of baptism with those declaring publicly their intention to walk in the way of Jesus.
I especially like this experience when I walk into the robing room immediately before worship and find my waders hanging in their customary place.
On Holy Saturday, however, those waders were inexplicably missing. I may have sounded slightly panicked when I engaged my Presbyterian colleague in a last minute problem solving conversation. As it turned out, he’s generally baffled by the whole mysterious immersion ritual we Baptists like so much, and he became even more distressed than I. “What are you going to do? You’ll get all WET!” he exclaimed in a panic.
I know the sequence of events the elude some of my colleagues who baptize on dry ground, of course, so I knew that a quick run to my next-door apartment to grab a bathing suit would solve that little problem. And, it did, in the knick of time. Everyone got sufficiently dunked, and I emerged from the robing room just in time to dedicate a baby. Dry.
And what a gift to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Easter Saturday. We’d planned a choreographed service of intinction, but as I stood behind the table surveying the crowd it quickly became clear that, in addition to a likely violation of fire code (another quick word of gratitude for successfully navigating the whole Christ candle situation), the packed crowd could barely fit in the space, much less move toward stations for intinction. Ever grateful for sharp and responsive colleagues, I eyed them meaningfully as I called out: “Please remain where you are AS YOUR PASTORS COME TO SERVE YOU.”
After it was all over, sand buckets filled with candle stubs, plastic grocery bag stuffed with a wet bathing suit clutched tightly to my chest, and a communion table in crumb-filled disarray, I thought: “This was so chaotic. And it was so wonderful.”
Perhaps my way of thinking is just a desperate attempt to redeem a series of unfortunate events, but in retrospect I wonder: isn’t this perhaps where our best work is always done? It’s always in that space between where God tends to show up, in the one step that separates the sublime and the ridiculous.
Originally published April 21, 2015 over at Baptist News Global.