Sunday, April 7, 2013

Performance, Ritual, Bewilderment—Easter, 2013

This past Sunday, the sixth day of Passover, walking through the riot of sun and blooming, I happened upon a crowd of people in their Easter finest. Their outfits shouted celebration! Peach kimonos. Red-and-white hounds tooth-checked men’s suits. Pink crinoline skirts. Flowered tights. And the hats! Vintage feathered affairs. Multi-colored turbans. Homemade hats as tall and floppy as the Cat in the Hat’s. Easter baskets affixed at a rakish angle. Fuzzy bunny ears. Poor Boy caps. Black hats with netted veils pulled so tight they distorted the wearer’s face. A glittery crown of thorns atop a young woman’s tousled brown hair.
They were heading toward the Century Ballroom. Each dressed more fancifully than the next, all of them wrapped in a mood of anticipation and joy. How could I not follow them up the stairs?

Pastor Kaleb’s 14th Annual Easter Service, the posters in the grand ballroom announced. I stood beside the donations jar and peered inside. The place was packed. Singles, couples, mothers holding infants, families with small children, older people, younger people. Each one dressed more fancifully than the next. “Welcome!” the usher greeted me. “So glad you’re here!” She meant it. Her voice was warm and she was cheerful, in a genuine, so-happy-to-be -here way, and I took to her immediately. Her shoulder-length wig was a bright, almost-Smurf blue, a perfect contrast to her bare and beautiful face, with skin the color of a warm cappuccino. “Come in! Don’t be afraid. Everybody’s welcome!” As she nodded to me a purple plastic egg fell from her Easter-basket hat to the floor and rolled away. Laughing, she chased it down. She was tall and her very short skirt showed off her very long legs—she was a dancer, she told me later—and off-white sling-back heels. As she tucked the egg back in its nest on her head, I stepped inside the door. She pointed to the balcony. “Go ahead, take a seat upstairs.”

I planted myself next to her, my guide. While she greeted those on the way in or called out the bathroom code to those on the way out, I stood, my back against the bar area, where the bartender was working hard to keep up with the constantly replenishing line, surveying the scene and trying to orient myself. I was bewildered by what was happening. Was it a mock service? A theater performance? Another slam—albeit a colorful and good-natured one—at Christianity and the failures of the church? Or at all religion and religious ritual as “established,” boring, stodgy, empty, meaningless, intolerant, hypocritical, moribund—in a word, unhip? Was it a condemnation of our materialistic and conservative culture, using the medium of the church as theater to dramatize the judgment? Or a chance to openly flaunt what was sacred to others, to be irreverent or even give offense, with impunity—a kind of Mardi Gras or Purim of its own, when everything is turned topsy-turvy and the chaos of life or the pagan wellsprings of later ritual are given permission to come into the light for a moment?

Or was the key to what was going on the cacophony of images? Church hats, church clothes, bunny ears, a crown of thorns, a giant wooden cross dangling from a petite woman’s neck, gold dreadlocks, wigs of all the colors in a Skittles rainbow, eggs and flowers everywhere—it was dizzying. Was that it? Was this a post-post-modern feast of meaninglessness? In a world gutted of meaning, people left wandering about, in a pathless world, in tangled confusion, the old left behind, no new yet established , bewildered, yet hungry for meaning, hungry, picking up the dried and brittle carapaces of cast-off images, the bones of once-living symbols, and shaking them to try to create a new world of meaning, or the sound of a joyful noise? Strangely, this last seemed to me, a Jew, to fit the meaning of the season, a community of people wandering in the wilderness, escaped from an old order, desperate for a new order, groping toward freedom and new life. But neither this nor any of my wonderings fit the feel of the gathering. The picture of what was happening around me religiously speaking just wouldn’t come clear. I was lost.

My guide leaned over to me. “The sermon’s about to start,” she said. On the stage a man was standing behind a pulpit cobbled together out of tree branches. A church lady in a white suit and heels sat in a pew to his left. A choir of fantastically dressed individuals stood to his right.

“Is this a service or a performance?” I asked.

“We’ve been doing this for 14 years,” she said. “It’s a lot of people in the theater community, the drag community, families, a lot of people.”

Pastor Kaleb took the pulpit, dressed in black pants and a black shirt with what looked like huge Boy Scout badges patched all over the front. He riffed on the significance of the number 14, the years the community had gathered to celebrate. His text was random sentences from the weekly newspaper The Stranger, which he interpreted to great laughter. But amongst the jokes, this truth: “We wait all year for this! We prepare all year for this.” “Amen!” my guide.
The choir sang a rousing number worthy of the best off-Broadway theater. When they sang, “I’ve lost my way and I don’t know which way to turn,” my guide called out in merriment, “Turn left!”

The next preacher’s message was hope: “We made it! From the dark to the light, we made it!” And, “I’m a fool. Are you a fool?” And he brought out the day’s special guest, the “old” pope, Pope Benedict, a very old man dressed in full papal regalia, including a mitre. The pope took a seat on the stage and the preacher removed the pope’s mitre, revealing a full bunny cap and long ears. The Easter Bunny stood up, called the children to him, and handed out Easter baskets. Then they took a collection from the congregation.

All this time my guide was greeting the people who wandered by or gently rubbing the back of an infant whose mother stood near us, rocking the babe to sleep. She spoke so sweetly and lovingly to the child. She was cooing to the child as I left. I wanted to tell her “Thank you.” Tell her, “You are a beautiful person.“ But I was too shy. I left without speaking to her.

Walking home in the glorious sunshine I realized I had been in the presence of and why I had felt so comfortable in spite of my mind’s thrashing about for a meaning. I had witnessed, in sociologist of religion Emile Durkheim’s understanding, a true ritual celebrating the sacred. For Durkheim, the sacred is something that is set apart, non-ordinary, or forbidden. And ritual is the public action of a community that strengthens the bonds of the believers toward their god and “at the same time really strength the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he is a member, since the god is only a figurative expression of the society” (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, pp. 257, 474-57, passim). This community, whatever its gods may or may not be, was strengthening its hope, strengthening its bonds to one another and deriving hope and strength from that. They were at this moment, together, after great planning and preparation and anticipation, stepping outside (entering ecstasy, ek-stasis, standing outside) the ordinary world, a world where they had perhaps known more than their share of rejection and “difference” and pain and sorrow, and entering a non-ordinary reality together, as a sustaining and supportive community, stepping into a moment when all ordinary time and space is suspended, a place in which their hope could be renewed, their bonds to life strengthened, and their bond to one another strengthened, so that they could go on living and live more fully. Is this not human? Is this not wonderful?

Forget cynicism and the emptiness of the post-modernists and chilly superiority of those too hip to live among us. Forget those too evolved to have anything to do with “empty rituals” or “crutches.” Forget those afraid to be fools by showing their longing for hope and community and daring to live it out loud and sacrifice to create it. Forget those who fear laughter and merriment and experiment on the way to new traditions. Remember to love. In the words of my guide, "Come in. Don't be afraid. Everyone is welcome!"