From the Minister
In Jay's column in the current issue of Voices,
he discusses Christianity's "Holy Week" and how it has helped shape his current beliefs as a Unitarian Universalist Minister. An archive of these and other columns by the Ministers is maintained and is accessible on the left:
April 21, 2014
In a former professional life this was a consuming week for me. At the progressive Christian congregation where I was the minister for a decade, we engaged in “Holy Week” in the same way we did all other aspects of our tradition: not with literal “belief” but with inquisitive engagement. Ours was a congregation that encouraged, even insisted upon scrutiny, encountering the aspects of our religion with open minds and with the willingness to listen for our place in all of it.
We started the week with a combined Palm/Passion Sunday service. Each year we retold and relived the story of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, an emotionally complex tale of triumphalism and humility, loyalty leading to betrayal. We’d carefully craft an emotional dichotomous service in which celebration morphed into somber silence, often ending the service with those in attendance departing one by one as they were ready to do so.
On Sunday evening we reconvened for our annual Seder service. We had a liturgy (literally a “seder” or “order”) that had been crafted in conjunction with a reformed Jewish rabbi. We’d retell the Exodus story of liberation around tables set with a special meal the whole congregation had prepared. And, we’d ask ourselves each year who we thought continued to be enslaved in any way in our world and what their hopes were for genuine liberation.
On Friday evening we gathered either in our own space or in the remarkable Rothko Chapel for a Tenebrae Service. This simple, exquisite service focused around a ritual of diminishing light. We’d set a large, wooden candle holder before us and alternate readings and reflective music with the gradual extinguishing of all of the candles. We wondered about meaning, about how to connect into a story we in no way thought of as literally true.
Then, on Sunday, we reconvened for our Easter service. We sang the grand hymns of the church proclaiming “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” and “Thine is the Glory.” We looked deep into our own lives and into our larger world for signs of resurrection, of life breaking out where death seemed dominant. We didn’t focus on some narrow assertion of a bodily resurrection of some long ago savior but asked how that ancient tale might be our own story as well.
I look back on all of the time and effort we spent carefully crafting engaging, poetic, emotionally complex “Holy Week” services with gratitude and an admitted sense of pride. Though I had long since stopped taking any of it literally, that didn’t keep me from taking all of it seriously. We offered a place for progressive Christians to come and in the process we changed lives and changed our larger community.
I no longer identify with that tradition or define myself by it. If even the most liberal form of Christianity were an option for me, I would have remained where I was—in an unabashedly liberally religious congregation with a deep commitment to social justice. But, that’s not who I am now.
That said, I’ve never felt any need to burn the bridge to that personal and professional experience. Just as that tradition urged me to do, I’ve taken my spiritual life seriously and have evolved. But, I am still able to appreciate so much of what Christianity offers and feel a deep debt of gratitude for all it offered me. I understand that there are those here who had a very different experience. And yet, it saddens and occasionally upsets me when I hear those regrettable memories resurface as derision, as a narrow judgment on a whole complex tradition, as the kind of pathologizing that takes on the self-identity as a “recovering” refugee from some form of Christianity.
We’ll gather on Sunday, April 20 and, like virtually every other Unitarian Universalist congregation I know anything about, we’ll turn our attention to Easter. We aren’t any more literal in our focus than the members of my former Christian congregation. So, we’ll do what they were doing: engage the story in a carefully planned service, listening for the deep spiritual truths that inspire us.
I’m grateful to be a multi-religious tradition that welcomes wisdom from many different places and that aspires to a respectful engagement with the world’s many ways of being religious. And, I’m personally grateful that our openness includes a tradition with which so many of us are so familiar.