This past Sunday, the final Sunday of Advent, I got to church at the usual time, but couldn’t sit in my usual pew.
Because there were strangers sitting there!
You know, those people who only go to church at Christmastime and Eastertime.
Of course I’m glad when people visit my church; it was great to see the place packed.
But maybe we should take note of the sections of pews that rarely get used the rest of the year, and designate them for the Christmas and Easter folks — maybe with a nice bronze plaque that says “Art thou a major-holidays-only kind of Christian? This is the place for you!”
I can’t tell you how disconcerting it was to experience the annual Lessons & Carols in the seventh row from the back instead of my usual fourth row from the back. It’s like that lovely song from My Fair Lady: I’ve grown accustomed to my place.
In “my” pew, I sit at a certain proper angle to a certain memorial plaque (one of the Appletons who spent years as the church’s senior warden) and a certain stained glass window (I’ve memorized the arrangement of yellows, greens, and reds). Sitting in the “wrong” pew, I’m all tsemisht, which is a Yiddish word, and I know we don’t typically associate Yiddish with the Church of England, but sometimes you just need a Yiddish word, nothing else quite does the job. Sitting in the wrong pew is confusing, it’s disturbing, it puts a crimp in my already tenuous connection to the divine.
It’s complicated enough to be an Episcopalian, having to keep track of all the sitting, standing, kneeling, crossing yourself, singing, reading prayers aloud, praying silently while the priest prays aloud — thank heaven they write out all the instructions for you every week. But to navigate all of these religious rituals in the seventh row from the back is virtually impossible for a fourth-row-from-the-back guy.
When the time comes for the Eucharist, an attendant appears and stands at the end of each pew in turn, starting at the front of the church. When the attendant clears your pew, you stand up and walk to the front of the church, where you kneel and wait for the priest and a helper to bring you the bread and the wine. This is normally a simple maneuver for even the clumsiest Christian, which would be me. But when you’ve spent years taking a certain number of steps down the aisle before you kneel at the altar rail, you have to really concentrate; otherwise, by the time you get to the front, you could still be taking the number of steps you’ve been conditioned to take, at which point you could pitch yourself over that altar rail, right into the arms of an unsuspecting acolyte. Which is going to dissipate the Spirit, I’m afraid.
Wait, let me retract something. I called them strangers. These folks who show up in church at Christmas and Easter aren’t really strangers. I think I know who they are. I believe they’re the same people who show up on the Fourth of July to spread out their blankets on my section of Crane Beach. And take my favorite table at Zumi’s. And my parking spot at Dr. Hromadka’s office.
Peace on earth? It’s doable. Try sitting over there, and we’ll see.