Lent embodies the best and worst of ministry for mainline Protestant clergy. On one hand, our church services are suddenly full of the props that our tradition usually lacks; candles and vivid colors and rocks and water and gongs. We connect with traditions of the ancient church; walking labyrinths and chanting and reading aloud. It is a great time to re-ground our practice in the lived experience of the church.
But those same ancient traditions are awkward, too. Modern church members have a hard time with silence, with slow movements, with contemplation. The ping of cellphones doesn’t add much to a reverent progress between prayer stations. I cringe when a helpful deacon lights the altar candles with a flick of their Bic. How can you refuse the floral arrangement offered for Good Friday “because there’s nothing on the altar”? And of course, we seldom worry about the capacity of the Sanctuary for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.
We are not a community that is steeped in ritual; and yet during Lent, we do it anyway, no matter how awkward or unfamiliar it feels. But there are moments when suddenly, it all makes sense.
Last night, we had quite an ordinary Tenebrae service. The deacons read those painful passages detailing Jesus’ humiliation and suffering. The candles were extinguished, one by one. We sang “Were You There” in the dark. And then, an amazing thing happened. I offered the closing words, and walked to the back of the sanctuary. I motioned to the sound tech to play some background music on a CD. Usually, people take that as the cue to get up and depart. But no one moved. No one spoke.
In some congregations, that would be unremarkable. But our congregation is a chatty bunch, always ready with a hug or a laugh, but uncomfortable if things get too serious or too quiet. Normally, we worship with an undertone of conversation, hearing aid squeals, cellphone update chimes, service dog rustlings, and a baby coo.
The silence was powerful. As the congregation sat in the dark, facing a cross lit in red, we were, for a few pregnant moments, absolutely still. God connected with us in a moment beyond words, beyond movement, beyond explanation. Like the first Christians sitting in the dark after the Crucifixion, we waited for what will be. Lent happened. Now for Easter.