Thursday, April 20, 2006
Olive oil and the “good earth” work
I am probably more of a Puritan than most of my people wish. That is, our services are perhaps more austere and old-fashioned. But being a small congregation, I have always thought simplicity is best. Brevity is also a virtue. I try to aim for that.
This is what I mean. On Ash Wednesday, for example, I do not smear ashes on the foreheads of my members. If we have a service, we think about repentance, and “dust to dust.” But we do not add the ceremony.
This is because whenever I am tempted to do such things, I always see my Aunt Mayrene, and hear her saying in the back of my mind, “But is this really necessary?” Aunt Mayrene distrusted anything that smacked of pomp and ceremony. She could almost have been a Quaker.
A certain preacher I admired was anathema to her: the man could display fervor at times. Solid, well-based fervor. But fervor nonetheless. And Aunt Mayrene despised any religion that was not just good, serene common sense. Get too excited and it is a will o’ the wisp!
But I do confess I cast a wistful eye every now and then toward those who are able to fill the room with pageantry and song. It is nice if you can have it, especially on the great occasions.
Thus you can see why I was devastated when I was chatting with one of my minister friends a few weeks ago. He said he had been burning the ashes for his Ash Wednesday service. “Did you use your palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday?” I asked eagerly (wishing my friend to know that I know the ancient traditions of the church).
“Heavens no!” came the reply. I just got some branches off the shrub by my barbeque pit and turned them into charcoal.” How disillusioning. I would think that the dried palm branches would be burned in a golden censer, perhaps with the music of a Gregorian chant, or at least the recitation of penitential prayers and incantations of some holy sort or other.
Then one of my Delta friends told me that he had forgotten all about ashes for Ash Wednesday, and to get ready for his service, he ran next door (the Presbyterian manse and Episcopal rectory are conveniently next door in his town) and borrowed some ashes from the Episcopal priest. She told him to mix in a drop of oil “to make them stick.”
But my friend, being a bit zealous, if not careless, found that with olive oil, a drop can easily become a dollop, and so he was looking at a mixture that looked more like peppercorn salad dressing than ashes for Ash Wednesday. As the organist was already playing, he ran to the church kitchen, looking for something to thicken the mixture. A bit of flour helped, but now it was too light. He added pepper to blacken things up. (I am telling you the truth!) And since the organist was already playing and the service was about to begin, my friend — in desperation — ran out back and scooped up some good Delta earth from the cotton field that backs up to his church.
That did the trick! And my friend said it gave him a certain pleasure to spread good earth on the foreheads of the high-falutin’ Delta planters who knelt before him!
Last year I forgot to arrange with the florist for palm leaves for Palm Sunday. Some churches, I am sure, get theirs right from the Holy Land, blessed by nuns, I’m sure. None of that for us. Brenda Taylor, our innovative Sunday school leader, suggested that the children make their own. Some of the palm leaves they designed did not “look” to me much like fronds from a Judean palm tree.
But the children of our church caught the spirit of those in the long ago who spread their coats and waved their palms before the Galilean who rode His humble donkey into Jerusalem.
This year I did not even order palm leaves. Simple and home-made is best.
My allergy to Easter lilies — if I do not remember to take a pill before the service, is well-known. But my favorite Easter story comes from my days as a seminarian in Richmond, Va., and does not involve lilies per se.
As it happened, we had a guest professor who (intentionally or not) insulted a great many of us young aspiring preachers.
The gentleman was famous for saying that people absorb most of their beliefs — not as a result of the powerful reasoning of eloquent preaching, but simply by virtue of their association with others in the common life of Christian churches.
Hearing something like that was very discouraging to those of us who pictured ourselves and our budding sermonic skills as God’s next gift to religion.
So a group of us went to hear the great villain on Easter. Would he have anything to say or would he just let “the spirit of the community” carry the day? As it turns out he did have something to say.
But on that rainy Sunday (it was pouring down torrents), we were distracted by a woman who shared the pew. She’d come in late and spent the entire hour fiddling with a great, oversized orchid corsage the safety pin of which kept coming undone.
Finally, as we were waiting for the wardens to arrive at our pew, signaling our turn to go down and receive communion, the woman’s big corsage fell off yet again and went skidding forward several pews due to the sloping floor. “Dammit” she muttered, loud enough for the world to hear, and when the usher stood by our pew, she turned the other way and marched out into the blowing rain, not to be heard from again.
We turned into each other and collapsed into silent laughter. Big name preachers and grandiloquent sermons can only go so far. After that it’s grace, and God bless that poor woman who came to church on Easter to show off her pretty flower.
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