Monday, April 14, 2014

Ashes to Go, Palms on the Way ... What Next?

An Atonement parishioner with "Radar"
Photo courtesy of Atonement.

"The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?"  The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee." Matthew 21:6-11

Yesterday, we did it again, as we do every year at the Church of the Atonement; we reenact Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem by processing around the block led by our friend, Radar, the donkey.  Arrayed in red vestments, holding palms, with bells pealing, we offered a witness of the Christian faith and story to the urban neighborhood in which we live.  I always look forward to it.  Once around the block, and then back inside for the Passion, the homily, the Eucharist, coffee hour, and the rest.   But that procession was just the first steps of the entire Holy Week journey to the cross, the tomb, and new life.  We walk with Jesus this week, marking out the places and events that define the essence of Christian identity.  And hopefully, we will be changed by the experience. 

Clergy in procession on Sheridan Avenue.
Photo courtesy of  Atonement.
Yet we often walk this journey, as so many congregations do, in an insular sort of way.  Not intentionally, to be sure, but I'm always left thinking about how brief our foray into the community is on those rare days when the church's life is on display--I mean REALLY on display. The procession can be seen as an invitation, encouraging people to be curious about who we are, what we do, what we believe, and what we stand for.  Unfortunately, it offers little opportunity in the moment to engage the neighborhood in conversation about religion, spirituality, and faith--about why we're marching down the street holding palms and wearing red, about who Jesus is for us, and why we identify as Christians.  I wish we could have those conversations a bit more often, and more organically.  Many parishes contribute to the community, as Atonement does, in some deeply meaningful ways by hosting cultural events, donating to the local shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens, and volunteering in community-based programs.  These are all wonderful things. 

Through formal community engagement, we meet many spiritually hungry people, but there are many we don't meet.  The procession may be an invitation to these other folks, but it can also be a spiritual "hit-and-run" experience, that cleanly tosses the ball in the other person's court, and relies on his or her initiative to inquire further.  What an intimidating thought.  The Church meets me where I am, but before I can ask a question or have a conversation, it's passed by me.  You mean I have to venture inside that imposing building down the block to find out more, to learn what that spectacular parade was all about?  The procession is a great beginning, but it may not be enough.  The Palm Gospel above provides some insights on what might be required of us.  The faithful go out in procession, SHOUTING to invite the whole city to learn about Jesus.  The curious ask what all the turmoil is about, and Jesus' disciples in the crowd convey some pretty startling news.  The procession is a means to an end, a disruption to tell the whole city about Jesus.  That conversation changed everything, and here we are millennia later acting it all for the benefit of another generation.  So, how might we do a better job of inviting people to explore the Christian faith?

Mthr. Kate Guistolese passes out palm crosses.
The popularity (and effectiveness) of "Ashes to Go," in which churches go out into the streets to administer ashes to people in the community, has given rise to a reevaluation of how the Church lives, more generally.  Atonement conducted a similar outreach event for Palm Sunday, called "Palms on the Way," in which clergy and parishioners offered palm crosses to passersby with a card inviting them to join us for worship during Holy Week.  I hope that many new people will show up for the Triduum and Easter Sunday, but even if they don't, there is value in having even a brief conversation on a street corner, answering questions (and people did have questions!), and just being visible.  Perhaps it will plant a seed that germinates over time and leads to something spiritually fruitful and life-giving.  Perhaps it will dispel misconceptions about what the Church is or isn't.  Perhaps it will suggest that there really isn't much difference between sacred space and secular space, between the Church and the world outside its walls.  Perhaps it can push the procession a little farther down the block and invite more people into the community and mystery of the Christian life. 

But it will take more than good signage or an advertisement in the local paper.  It will take ashes, and palms, and other hands-on invitations that build relationships.  It will likely ask us to try different and uncomfortable things.  Imagine, for a moment, a Church that would offer to wash strangers' feet in public as a sign of servanthood--on a street corner, in a prison, in a park.  And then feed them.  What kind of message would that send to the world; what kind of invitation would that be to a stranger?  Reflect on that as you hear the Word of God, and have your feet washed, and eat and drink, and strip the altar bare.

Many blessings for a very Holy Week.

Ethan +

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