It’s time once again to consult with our guest columnist Pious Petunia, seeking her wisdom to console and guide us through the rough spots on the journey from Ash Wednesday penitence to Easter rejoicing.
Dear Miss Petunia: I usually give up sweets for Lent, and I’m never sure how to say no when people offer something sugary to me. What is the best way to avoid a big explanation?
PP: Miss P commends you for your desire to keep your Lenten observance quiet. Back in ye olden tymes, there was more cultural agreement on Lenten practices, and no awkward explanations were necessary. No one would be so rude as to offer you a slab of round steak on fish-only Fridays. These days, however, we consumerist postmoderns personalize our religious observances—rather the way we personalize our iphones—so that we enter a welter of confusion navigating around one another.
Add to this the fact that certain people feel it necessary to engage in super-feats of Lenten deprivation—giving up gluten, dairy, most fruits, and all sugar—and offering impromptu seminars on the virtues of probiotic eating. While one might feel spiritually wimpy in the presence of such piety, one might also suspect that such feats are not so much a spiritual practice as the Body Ecology Diet. In fact, there’s often a fine line between Lent and an internet-induced, self-help frenzy designed to shed pounds and improve sinus conditions.
Not that Miss P disapproves of Lenten fasting. Small deprivations can serve as healthy prompts toward gratitude, prayer, and keener attention to spiritual things. But the Lord himself warned against humble bragging even before that phrase had been invented because of Facebook (see Matt. 6:17-18).
So the best practice when a well-meaning tempter presents you with a sprinkle donut: quietly stand your ground. “No, thank you,” is all you need to say.
Dear Miss Petunia: As a pastor, I dread the Lent-Easter cycle because I always find myself refereeing disputes among worship committee members excited about some (dumb) new idea. This year, for example, some of them wanted the youth group to spend Palm Sunday evening burning the morning’s palm fronds to ashes for the next year’s Ash Wednesday service. They went on and on about “ancient” tradition, while I tried to explain to them that the palms have to dry for weeks first, and even then, you’ll never get the right consistency and you’ll end up ordering ashes from a supplier just like we always do. I know I’m right, but I hate sounding like the party pooper. Every week it’s been something like this. Can I dissolve the committee until Pentecost? It would reduce my stress levels immensely.
Miss P: There’s a reason the Sunday after Easter is called Low Sunday. By the time the last strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus” reverberate through the rafters on Easter morning, the church staff may well have reached a breaking point. The stress derives from the sheer number of services that must be planned and pulled off, but also this one-thing-after-another parade of rituals and traditions, all of them with multiple options and each with its own band of loyal adherents.
Probably you shouldn’t dissolve the worship committee. Try to remind everyone that novelty, spectacle, and outdoing the community church at the mall are not your main goals here. What will support the congregation’s devotion best? That’s the question to ponder when weighing one’s options. Sometimes crazy ideas can wake up tired devotion; sometimes they are a distraction or even a fiasco-in-the-making.
In any case, you’re hardly alone in your ritual wrangling. Here are some other examples of troubling Lent-to-Easter dilemmas that Miss P culled from her files.
Do we impose ashes with thumb only or is forefinger permissible?
Well, the thumb tends to work better. Using the forefinger means the imposer has to come in toward the impose-ee with what looks, for a split second, like accusation. Then again, perhaps that’s appropriate for Ash Wednesday. Nevertheless, this is hardly a matter of scriptural warrant either way.
Should we refrain from saying or singing “alleluia” during Lent?
Sure, this can be a meaningful exercise for a congregation. But I have heard of certain alleluia-nazis who throw an overzealous tizzy when a fellow congregant messes up and offers an unauthorized utterance of praise. If someone accidentally puts an alleluia-laced song in a Lenten service, the congregation can always playfully “mm-hmm-hmm-hmm” through the word. The liturgy police do not need to issue tickets or perform Klingon shunning ceremonies.
A live donkey on Palm Sunday?
Maybe. But is this authentic to your church? Or just an attempt to steal back the magic from the live nativity across town that everyone raved about at Christmas? If you live in a 4H-oriented community where donkeys roam free (on people’s farms anyway), then inviting a furry beast to church might delight the children. A pro tip, though: keep the donkey-parade outdoors unless your sanctuary has an easily hoseable stone floor.
Footwashing? Do we have to?
This one suffers from the vast distance between modern, sophisticated urban life and the practice’s culture of origin. Footwashing was a servant’s job in the ancient Near East, necessary because of the dusty climate and general dearth of hygiene. So by washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus was signalling his lowliness.
I have heard of Maundy Thursday footwashing rituals working beautifully as an intimate enactment of humble service. But these days, we are more likely to associate footwashing with pedicures, spas, and luxury weekend getaways. In fact, if you do decide to include footwashing in your Thursday evening observances, call around to the local pedicure joints on Thursday morning and see if they’re all booked. Your congregants might be cheating, lest anyone wrinkle a nose at their callouses and jagged toenails.
And last but not least, this important dilemma:
My church has gone full-on hipster. Normally I love this, but on Easter, a banjo, harmonica, and cajon just don’t do it for me. I want an organ, a choir, and a trumpet! I feel guilty about these illicit desires, as if I am betraying my hipster commitments.
It’s perfectly fine to wish for an exuberant, celebrative spirit on Easter morning. Probably you are accustomed to associating resurrection exuberance with a trumpet because of I Corinthians 15:52 and Handel’s memorable setting thereof. Or perhaps you were raised at an organ-and-choir church, the kind of church that hires ringers for Easter morning—a trumpeter, a soprano soloist, a brass quintet. This is one strategy for impressing the lapsed churchgoers who appear at services mostly to be kind to the relatives who are providing them with a ham dinner later.
There’s something fitting indeed about the joyous pomp of an organ at full blow, choir at full voice, red-faced brass players with cheeks inflated, lilies festooning the chancel, Easter frocks and hats. Heaven knows we need some help remembering how to celebrate after the gloom of Lent, especially in wintrier climes. But there’s more than one way to do exuberance.
So rather than sneaking off to the tall-steeple church down the block, try to find joy with your own people—in the jangly authenticity of the banjo and the happy kathump of the cajon. Add an Irish penny whistle and everyone’s joy will be complete.
Remember that it could be worse: many a church puts up with bad trumpet playing on Easter morning, the kind provided by the long-suffering middle-aged elder who gets out his horn but once a year and attempts to tootle his way through “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” This does nothing for anyone’s faith in the resurrection. You’re much better off with a drum circle.