Today is Palm Sunday. While I have not actively observed Lent in some while, I am acutely aware that today churches are empty because of the coronavirus, when they should be carrying out one of the most dramatic liturgies of the year. (The churches that were full today, in defiance of public health orders, are most likely those who don’t follow the liturgical year very closely, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.)
I have said for years, only slightly in jest, that everything I need to know about magic I learned in church. You want to achieve an altered state of consciousness? I highly recommend putting on special clothes and walking in a figure-eight, chanting repetitively, while someone proceeds you with a pot of hot coals that is streaming frankincense smoke. (Just keep a reasonable distance between yourself and overenthusiastic pot-swingers.) Before I read of witches re-enacting ritual combats or plunging the athame into the chalice, I was chanting crowd responses in dramatic singings of Jesus’ Passion from the Gospels and watching the priest plunge the lighted Paschal candle three times into the fresh waters of the baptismal font.
The church I wound up attending for between 20 and 25 years was a High Episcopal church, that is, one whose liturgy resembled the Roman Catholic church’s rather than the services of our Methodist cousins. We had weekly communion in a time when that was still rare and called it Mass. We observed Holy Week and Easter as well as Christmastime with elaborate special liturgies. We called our priest “Father” plus his last name and he wore silk damask chasubles at the altar. In Lent we had Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with the choir on Wednesday nights, and just Stations on Saturday mornings, attended by the altar guild ladies and a handful of kids, including me. When he retired and we got a new priest, around the time I was seventeen, new priest was even more Catholic and elaborated the liturgy still more, which was fine with me because I conceived a mad crush on him pretty much the first time I laid eyes on him.
When I walk into a holy space, I expect to see rich colors and lighted candles, to smell beeswax and incense, to hear chanting and heightened language, to walk in processions and make sacred gestures. I expect to kneel, stand, or sit at certain times. (Alas, when I go to church nowadays, I sit through most of it.) Palm Sunday at my childhood church got every person in the pews who could walk processing round the church singing, waving the long fronds of palm trees that would be treasured at home for a year afterward, then returned to the church and burnt to become the ashes of a new Ash Wednesday. A few years ago, I had the thrill of starting our Palm Sunday liturgy at another Episcopal church out in a city park and processing through the streets to the church, singing and waving our palms.
My childhood church was a small parish, a small physical plant, and not particularly rich. My Aunt Margaret gave me money for the collection plate, and we held parish dinners maybe six times a year, crab cakes, fried chicken, spaghetti, cooked and served by parishioners and attended by much of the neighborhood, to raise funds. Yet we put on a pretty good show for the church’s wheel of the year, with our silk vestments and beeswax candles, frankincense and myrrh and holy water. If you want to lure me into your religion, you have to do at least that well.