Six years ago, I attended Easter services in Williamstown for the first time. Our friend Bernard was here that year and needed a place to worship. He was far away from his home church of St. Kizito's in Nima, Accra, and he'd had a rough Holy Week, which had included the death of one of his sisters and the robbery of his house back home. Easter that year fell on his birthday, so we offered to take him to church and then out for a birthday/Easter brunch...but Ethan came down with the flu, so I gathered a couple of friends and we took Bernard to daven at St. John's.
Going in to the experience, I felt oddly nervous. I was worried that I might stand out as an obvious outsider -- and worried too that I might blend in, that it might be spiritually dishonest of me to "pass." Mostly I worried about whether I would feel comfortable. In college I sang with a madrigal ensemble which often performed in churches during Holy Week, and on one memorable occasion the sermon was about how the Cross is meant to be a "stumbling block to the Jews." (I don't remember where that was; only that I ran out of the sanctuary in tears, and that the most ardent Christians in the a cappella ensemble followed me to offer comfort, bless them.)
Anyway. On Easter morning in 2003 I parked my car down the block from the church and emerged to see the rector of St. John's standing outside. He'd just come from the early morning service, and was getting ready to do the 10am. He saw a friend across the street, beamed a hundred-watt smile, gave him two big thumbs-up and called "He is Risen!"
In that moment, I knew I was going to be just fine.
What I remember of that Easter service: one of the acolytes had bright yellow streamers on a tall bendy rod, which he waved over the community as he processed down the aisle. Everyone wore their Easter best, including pastel hats on some of the ladies and frilly dresses on some of the little girls. The rector's sermon included verses from Rumi, and at the end, when he concluded with the words "will you rise?" we were all so moved that we took his question as a rhetorical/spiritual one, not a literal invitation to stand.
Many Jews have inchoate feelings of apprehension about Easter. The liturgy of Holy Week (with its story of Jesus' death, blamed on the Jews until the late 20th century) has historically sparked anti-Jewish violence at this season. Accusations that Jews tortured Christian children and/or used their blood for making our Passover matzot resulted in Eastertide violence against Jews in England in the twelfth century (see The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich), Lisbon in the sixteenth century (the Easter Massacre) and the twentieth century (the First Kishinev Pogrom.) (For more on this history, read Why Some Jews Fear the Passion at Christianity Today.) It can be hard to shed the collective memory of these stories.
But whatever of that was dormant in me, six years ago, was washed away that Easter morning and replaced with a renewed awareness of how sweet it can be to be (in Reb Zalman's terms) a "spiritual peeping Tom," looking to see how other people "get it on with God."
I'm taking a class in the liturgy of high holidays and festivals this spring. One of our assignments is to attend three festival services, and to write some short reflections about each. We're asked to reflect on questions from the physical (how was the space set up, and how was it used?) to the musical (what did we sing? were the words printed on song sheets, in siddurim or hymnals?) to the meta (did the observance make me feel connected with the deep annual cycle of the liturgical-festival year?)
One of our field trips, Reb Sami said, should be to a non-Jewish festival gathering. There's much we can learn from other traditions, and from juxtaposing their practices and their strengths and weaknesses with our own. So yesterday morning I got up bright and early to attend the 8am Easter service at St. John's, the same place where I went with Bernard for Easter services in 2003. The morning dawned cloudy and cold, marked with snow flurries and high wind.
The church was sparsely-populated at 8am. The people serving on the pulpit wore simple white robes which reminded me of the plain white kittels Jews traditionally wear for some festivals and life-cycle events (though once the time came for the eucharist, the rector donned beautiful embroidered white vestments over the top of the plain robe.) The color white was echoed in the sprays of lilies which adorned the front of the pulpit.
After the rector greeted us, he said simply, "bells," raising a leather strap adorned with bells and giving it a shake. Suddenly the room came alive with the sound of bells in every register: low and high, rumbling and jingling, from every direction. It was a moment of wordless rejoicing which felt like an alleluia.
The liturgy was straight Book of Common Prayer, simple and familiar. The psalm we read aloud together was an abridged version of psalm 118 -- which is also part of Hallel, the six psalms which Jews pray on festivals (including daily recitation during Pesach.) Reading the lines in English, I felt echoes of the familiar words in Hebrew rippling through me. When we recited the Lord's Prayer, I remembered the dean of my rabbinic program reciting it for us in her own Aramaic translation a few years ago, and marveled again at how very Jewish a prayer it can be.
For the sermon, Reverend Elvin left the pulpit and brought a music stand down to the center aisle so he could speak to us from the midst of the congregation. It was a beautiful sermon, delivered with heart and good use of silence. "God," he began, "walks with a limp." He spoke about how after the events of Jesus' death, the incarnation of God in the world walked with a limp and reached out to the people with a trembling hand -- a beautiful metaphor for the way all of us inhabit fragile bodies which are nonetheless holy reflections of divinity. (His sermons are archived at Sermons and Reflections; ETA, the Easter sermon is now online: God walks with a limp.)
During the few minutes when we passed the peace -- turning one to another and clasping hands, saying "peace be with you" or "God's peace" -- I met the rector in the aisle where he was mingling with everyone. His smile upon seeing me in the pews felt genuine, and instead of merely shaking hands we embraced. "How wonderful it is to see you," he said, and I knew that he meant it.
As a Jew, I inevitably experience Christian ritual from the outside. Sometimes it challenges me. I'm not always comfortable encountering the places where Christianity refracts or reframes Jewish texts or teachings. (Take the hymn "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us," e.g. -- "Passover," "sacrifice," these are words we each use but we mean different things by them, so that encountering that language feels like hearing a snip from a familiar song transposed into a new mode and unfamiliar key.) And sometimes it blesses me -- like today: the sound of the bells, the moment of silent meditation, the I-Thou opportunities of passing the peace, the reminder that in human frailty and fragility we can learn something about the nature of God.
Visiting someone else's worship service is incredibly valuable for me as student clergy. It decenters my experiences, and reminds me that the way I'm used to doing things isn't the only way to do things. The way I typically pray is not the only way to pray. My understanding of God isn't the only understanding of God. Easter isn't my holiday, but it touches on themes which resonate for me even from afar. I'm grateful for that.
Thanks for making me feel welcome, St. John's of Williamstown.