Amazing

Thursday evening I attended a prayer vigil for the father of a friend of ours. He was well known in his community (although I personally had never met him) so a very large crowd attended the vigil. Because I had not had an opportunity to see our grieving friend before the service began and because there were scores of people between us and the grieving family, and because those scores of people, for the most part were not grieving but enjoying the opportunity to see friends they evidently hadn’t seen in some time, I felt a disconnect from the proceedings at the front of the church. As a result I was an observer of place and events rather than a participant.

My initial reaction to both place an events was that this was oh, so typically American. It was a mongrel event: not purely Roman Catholic, but neither could it be called anything else.

It was at a Roman Catholic facility and the first thing I observed was how utterly un-Roman Catholic the worship space was. Architecturally it was an open auditorium in which the seating fanned out upward and concentrically from the stage area. If it weren’t for the stations of the cross, the statues of Mary and Joseph, and the crucifix hanging above the altar, I would have sworn that I was in a school auditorium or possibly a contemporary worship church building. It was difficult to even conceptualize the auditorium as a nave and the sunken stage as a sanctuary. And yet there on that stage was an altar and walking around the edge of that stage was a Roman Catholic priest.

The second thing I observed, which is typical of American funeral vigils, was the mixed crowd. Funeral directors loathe holding vigils in church buildings. Too many people who attend vigils do not understand how to act at a worship service in a church building. Crowd control for such an event is much easier for the funeral director when it is held at the funeral parlor. But this was a huge service and the crowd would not have fit into even the funeral home’s largest chapel. The majority of the crowd was Roman Catholic, but it was evident that a significant percentage had little to no clue what was going on.

The third thing which jumped out at me was the Knights of Columbus ritual, which immediately preceded the prayer vigil. In spite of the official history of the K of C, I’ve always considered them a bit of a mongrel organization – a proxy for the Masons – which Roman Catholic men wanted to join back in the late 19th century, but were (and still are) forbidden to do by church rules. I have always found Masonic funeral rituals (of which I have had to observe many), aside from their anti-Christian universalism, to be utterly silly, and Knights of Columbus funeral rituals, while at least Christian, doubly silly. Not only are they silly in their own right, they manage to be a caricature of their Masonic doppelgängers.

The granddaughter of the deceased was asked to sing a song, and she chose the Protestant staple, Amazing Grace. Granted, the distinction between Protestant and Roman Catholic music is no longer meaningful, but given the fact that the song was sung in this auditorium/Roman Catholic nave, to a congregation comprised of a mongrel mix of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and friends from the community who were clueless about RC rubrics and responses, with two medieval “knights,” swords at attention, guarding the casket, the disconnect between this Evangelical experience song and a Roman Catholic funeral vigil was palpable for an observer of the proceedings such as me.

The young woman had a beautiful voice. She sang a cappella in an oldtimey style (to which this hymn lends itself). And then in the middle of those beautiful slides and flourishes (beautiful at least for those who appreciate oldtimey music), as she moved toward the high notes on the second verse, stylistically she slid from oldtimey into something which sounded much more R&B, as if, like young girls of her age across America, she was trying to copy Whitney Houston, or more likely, Mariah Carey. She had a well trained voice with good range and excellent control, so it didn’t turn into the dreaded Whitney or Mariah screech that so many young women confuse with singing, but it was certainly not oldtimey, and it was certainly foreign to Amazing Grace. (Lori, you would have adored this performance!)

As I’ve already noted, I’m disconnected from this service. At this point I’m having a hard time being a worshipper because I’m not a participant, I’m an outsider, and thus an observer. So, as this young woman slides from “Carter Family” perilously close to “Mariah Screech,” all while singing a venerable evangelical hymn of the church in a Roman Catholic “auditorium,” my mind wanders and it occurs to me that this is yet another instance of how disordered American religion has become: architecture, congregation, rituals, and now music and its mashed up style of performance illustrate this strange mongrel mix of all sorts of influences. Furthermore, because the American experience is so immature, none of this has coalesced into a coherent whole.

She finished the hymn by repeating the first stanza. But as she sang, the emotion of the moment, the death of her grandfather, the gathering of all the cousins, aunts, and uncles, and grieving grandmother, got the better of her. There was a catch in her voice, and then a hiccup, and then a sob. The performance was quickly falling apart … and then from somewhere in the congregation, a voice picked up the hymn and the song continued, and then the priest added his rich baritone. By the third phrase the congregation was singing Amazing Grace, as the young woman stood silent, tears streaming down her face.

And in this moment it seemed to me the mongrel group of mourners and friends in this mash-up of a worship space became one, a “congregation,” if you will. We continued the service, not by whispering and merely observing like passers-by, but by worshiping together.

As great as the hymn, Amazing Grace, is, it’s only half the story. Grace is the story of God’s reaching out to us. But for divine intent to be completed, the grace must be acted upon. God does not saddle humans with grace, as if it is akin to a horse with bit and bridle. He doesn’t cinch the cross to our back (to continue the metaphor); grace is an offer, a solving of a problem, a way in which two parties can come together. We must, in turn, take up the cross of our own accord. God offers; humans respond. We respond by reaching back to God; we respond by reaching out to others. And in that response (for “up” to God and “out” to others is the same motion) the Body of Christ is constituted.

Paul famously said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). What he was describing was a mongrel club which, through the call of grace and response of love, became a unity, a body, the Body of Christ.

And at that mongrel prayer vigil in that mongrel auditorium/nave with that mongrel group of disparate folk, we acted out a parable of what Paul was talking about. The singer called out “grace,” and when she could no longer sing, the people responded with love, finishing the song for her, first tentatively, and then with the assurance of that rich baritone voice, more confidently, and finally with real bittersweet joy. Mongrels no more, we were (as is supposed to happen in the liturgy) in heaven singing the heavenly song, the quick and the dead gathered together with angels and elders before her crucified and risen Lord.

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