Yesterday, I went to Church with my boot on, having broken my foot. The choir was singing, and my wife is the choir director. High councilmen spoke, and as is often the case, my mind wandered. So a wander-y post; please forgive. There’s always a chance it will lead somewhere interesting.
The subject the speakers had been asked to address was ‘reverence,’ and as usual, the speakers emphasized that reverence isn’t just a matter of keeping small children from disturbing the meeting. In fact, for the most part, the parents of small children in our ward are particularly punctilious about taking obstreperous infants out to the lobby. But our speaker (a man for whom I have a particular fondness, because he’s from Kentucky, and speaks with the soft burr of a Kentucky accent, so familiar to this Hoosier boy) began speaking of reverence in lots of other settings; the music we listen to, the popular culture we consume, the clothing choices of young men and (especially) young women on dates. We show reverence for Heavenly Father by eschewing hip-hop, by avoiding ‘certain movies,’ by dressing modestly; that seemed central to his thesis. Rebutting it in my mind, I thought: ah, Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season and a purpose under heaven.” And modesty standards are ephemeral/cultural/patriarchal/anachronistic, not transcendent/eternal/reverent. And what of irreverence? What of comedy? “A time to weep, and a time to laugh.”
But my wife had been thoughtful ever since the passing of the sacrament. From time to time, we pass notes in Church. We try to do it reverently, or at least, secretively, and I love it, love communicating with her in these tiny notes scribbled in the margins of the program. “Why,” she asked, “is the sacrament a two-part ordinance? Why body AND blood, bread AND water?” “Because that’s what Jesus instituted, at the Last Supper.” “But why?” she asked. “Why should we remember both the body and the blood? Could it be because our bodies can survive lots of difficulties, but not the loss of blood?” I wondered about this. “Perhaps because Christ’s atonement was meant to overcome both pain (body) and death (blood)?” Could that be it?
The Last Supper is described in all four gospels, but as with many incidents, is more elaborately told in John; it gets four chapters in John. But John does not really mention the Supper itself; most of it is given to what must have been his last great sermon to the Twelve, a great dissertation on discipleship. ‘Body and Blood’ aren’t mentioned, but the whole talk is full of dualisms: Jesus as ‘true vine’ and Father as ‘wine dresser’ for example, ‘servants’ who are also ‘friends.’
So perhaps our speculation isn’t scripturally based. I still think my wife’s on to something profound. The sacrament celebrates Christ’s victory over pain and death, both. We don’t just resurrect, we recover. We overcome too.
And that’s something to cope with reverently. We finished our note: the high councilman sat down, we headed up to sing. But on our way up to the stand, my knee gave out a little. I had to gimp my way up, then stand awkwardly while catching my breath enough to sing. The song we sang was lovely, and the arrangement my wife had made for it emphasized the text in beautiful ways. And I thought about pain, and the overcoming of pain, the part of the sacrament service (maybe) relating to bread, the body. The beauty of music is enhanced by the difficulty of learning it. The real dualism isn’t pain and death, but pain and joy, neither of which can be experienced without each other.
And another way to overcome pain, another way of coping with the endless struggles of human existence really is comedy, it really is irreverence. That’s why people in power can’t really be very funny, unless they’re also self-deprecating. A joke by a white supremacist about silly black people isn’t funny. A joke by a black comedian about his own people can be. Humor exists to afflict the comfortable, as well as to comfort the afflicted. That’s also why the atonement was given us; that’s what Jesus meant by ‘inasmuch as you have done it unto one of least of these, my brethren.’ Did Jesus want us to laugh?
(And the single most reverent event I have attended was a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at Indiana University. With rock music, and bad language, and a priest blaspheming. And a child leading us towards atonement, and peace. And there’s holiness in great comedy, there’s God in the details of theatrical performance, however secular. I feel God’s presence, listening to Bach, to the Beatles, to Tupac, to Arcade Fire. To every season there is a time.)
Also over the weekend, I re-read Anne Wroe’s spectacular Pilate: Biography of an Invented Man. In the medieval passion plays and cycle plays, Pilate was always a leading character, and a comedic one. A ranter and a drunk, he’d lay about him with a club, shouting curses to Mahmoud (Mohammed, and who cares about anachronism!). Pilate was, as governor of occupying forces, the most powerful man in Palestine; Jesus as powerless as it was possible to be. But, especially in John, the tables are turned on Pilate. His conversation with Jesus is just strange enough to be plausible–Pilate asking what he must have thought were utterly straightforward questions (“where are you from?”) and Jesus giving answers as baffling as they were provocative. (Funny? On purpose? Comedic?) Because Jesus knew from the beginning that his body and blood had to be forfeit; he had to be killed, and in a specific way, and this Roman administrator had to order it. But Pilate was just unsettled enough to see, with perhaps some genuine insight, how wrong his own role would have to be. He nearly overcame his own limitations; three times, he declared that he could find no fault in this man. But ultimately, his own weaknesses reasserted themselves. And, finally, he affixed his seal to an order, and then ordered a basin, and washed his hands.
He did it because he was afraid. He did it because he knew how Emperor Tiberius (pedophile and murderer and a Roman God, a vicious tyrant, and also believed to be divine) treated the bodies and blood of men under his command who did not handle the affairs of Rome perfectly.
So we all have the same choice Pilate had, the choice to behave courageously or cravenly, bow to authority or (at times, when prompted to) mock it. And we’ll suffer either way, and die whatever we choose. But we can honor that body and that blood, by the choices we make. But we have to make those choices. And not let our culture, whatever it might be, dictate them for us.