This past Saturday, like last year, my Canterbury group inflicted our liturgical whims upon our Lutheran compatriots and joined together for an Easter Vigil.
Being college ministries, we got to hold our vigil at a respectably late hour of darkness: 10pm.
(and look: While I realize that it is TECHNICALLY appropriate to hold a vigil at any time after sundown, really, if you can’t see stars and there are still birds singing, then it doesn’t count as nighttime. Y’all are worse than toddlers in your fear of darkness.)
It looked to be a good Vigil. We had twice as many show up as last year, and no one panicked over the incense smoke. I ran to our local Episcopal church right as their service ended, and
stole borrowed their thurible. I even showed a novice Lutheran the esoteric workings of church incense. (Grind it up. Never burn anything other than pure resin incense & charcoal. Don’t hit passers-by in the face with hot thurible, etc.). Our new Easter fire lit in the nearby Weber grill with ease, and there was no wind.
Everything was going smoothly.
So we started the service. Outside, in the parking lot, I lit the mini- Paschal candle from the new fire, declared it the light of Christ and led everyone inside. I was nearly done with exulting in th Exsultet, when there was banging on the front door.
I ignored it. Because I was rejoicing, and singing to the marvelous and holy flame standing near me.
Then there was more banging, this time on all the doors of the building at once. And I noticed that there were flashing lighting coming in the windows.
I kept on singing. Because I was going to FINISH singing the praise of this great light if it damn near killed me, and since this is the night when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away, the surely it could work on annoying people who INTERRUPTED MY CHANTING ?!?!?
Meanwhile, Fritz walked on back to figure out what the banging was all about, while I attempted to restore harmony and balance to the cosmos through the power of an-increasingly-intensely-chanted-Exsultet. Finally, I was done, and finally, the banging stopped, and the flashing lights went away.
As I moved to sit down, Fritz leaned over and explained.
It seems that someone passing from the road (a good 100 yards away) had seen us light our new fire, and called the cops. The cops, not being hip to liturgics, had come in force: the campus police, the city police, and two fire engines.
They were not dissuaded by the fact that our New Fire was contained in a grill (off the ground), had been snuffed out at this point, and was sitting in a massive parking lot in which there were no cars. They made a student walk out and dump water on it while they watched, and told him if he ever lit a fire like that again, we’d all be fined.
(It’s been pointed out to me that this could have happened because there had been a red flag warning of fire danger two days before, and that we might have required a permit to light a fire (in a grill?) all of which might be true. For all I’ve been talking about the snowpack being low and fire season starting early this year, I am a Eastern Elitist at heart, and I do not know from the mountainous high desert, really, at all.)
But practicalities aside, how telling is it that a small band of believers gathers in the middle of the night, lights the Light of Christ.,..and the authorities immediately come and tell them to douse it? Douse it! It’s too dangerous!
I don’t know how many Easter celebrations I’ve been to that pose a such a threat to the status quo– where people truly, deeply invested in the Way Things Are would be uncomfortable. But resurrection itself is uncomfortable. It inspires fear, terror, the sort of thing that makes you run away in a panic and not say anything to anyone. It doesn’t let you remain as you are. And that’s uncomfortable, generally.
The language of the Exsultet itself is language of action and change. We are reconciled to God. Pride and hatred are cast out, wickedness driven out,, peace and concord are restored. Joy is given to those who mourn. Death and hell are vanquished, Earth and heaven are joined. God saves God’s people, because that’s what God does. All sorts of tumult.
This isn’t “stay as you are” language. This isnt “warm Fuzzy” language. This isn’t language even about God giving us lots of stuff one day when we die, so hooray, something to look forward to! This is God restoring us on this night, God working to right what is going wrong in this moment, through the redemptive power of Christ in the world.
This sort of language, to live this out, this would get you in trouble with some people. There is quite a lot invested in keeping pride and hatred around these days, (We do have a presidential election to think about, after all.) That one alone might get you stuck in some catacombs, to say nothing of the investment we have in our suffering, and all our varied versions of hell. Pretty tumultuous, scary stuff, to give all that up, even for God. Even for those of us who have been at this Christian thing for a while.
I’ve decided I liked the cops showing up to the Vigil. I have a hunch that this is what post-Christendom church may look like: communities so on fire with the Spirit that the world becomes suspicious, and people that embody the resurrection life and transform the world around them, provoking confusion and panic.
May we all have the courage to live a complete resurrection: complete with tumult, earthquakes, and light in unexpected places.
Bless you for sharing this story. You evidently “get it” re post-Christendom. It’s a song I sing non-stop as a diocesan bishop. Not sure how often I’m actually heard.
LOL. Sure wish I had the problem of having started a ministry fire that was so vibrant it caused people to come running,and threatened the status quo. And I love your musings on this.
Though, on a literal level, having lived through the major 2003 and 2007 wildfires/firestorms in San Diego County (the 2007 one coming pretty close to both my home and work) as well as assorted little ones, fire is NOTHING to be messed with in the desert, and while the FD may have seemingly overreacted a titch, I can see where they were coming from. Not something mid-Atlantic-native me understood til I experienced it first-hand. Firestorms are terrible and terrifying, and can start from very small beginnings in red-flag conditions.