A couple of years ago, PW and a local rabbi presided over the wedding of a Romanian Orthodox Christian woman and a Russian Orthodox Jewish man. The wedding ceremony included a chuppa, a three crowns ceremony, and a eucharist, with challah made by the groom’s grandmother who lives in Israel and wine made by the bride’s father. I’m not sure what the grandmother thought happened at communion, because the challah loaf was approximately the size of a miniature pony.
At the wedding, some of the groom’s family surprised PW by lining up to receive communion, along with the bride’s family. In a scene that has long since taken on a life of its own, PW quickly changed the words of distribution to “Bread for the Journey” when she put bread in the hands of the Jewish family members (instead of “the body of Christ.”) She hadn’t had time to suggest alternate words to the chalice bearer, so she heard him repeat as he followed along behind her, “Blood for the Journey” (instead of “the blood of Christ.”)
Can I just say that, to me, never is Christian liturgy more like a Monty Python sketch than during communion? Of course I can, this is my website! The scene above is reason #814 why I wish Christianity would move past this yucky body and blood of Christ business. The first 813 reasons are that it’s just gross. This is the 21st century, folks. Must we STILL be littering our liturgies with the language of cannibalism and vampirism? But I digress.
This same couple brought their new baby to church last Sunday for the Jewish ceremony for naming a daughter, and a baptism. The church bulletin included the Jewish prayers in both English and Hebrew, along with the usual Episcopal baptism liturgy. In addition, we had the Boston Children’s Chorus as guest musicians, so we had a house full of company, so to speak. I’m sure most of us have never been involved in a service like this until Sunday.
Male members of the groom’s/father’s family all wore matching bright pink kippot, perhaps in celebration of the new baby daughter? No idea what the color signified, if anything, but it was stunning. After brief remarks by PW and the rabbi, the families were invited up to the front for the Jewish ceremony, which included a Chair of Elijah and ceremonial sips of sweet wine from a kiddush cup. Immediately following, everyone moved down to the baptismal font for the baptism.
In PW’s comments prior to the two ceremonies, she noted that the baby girl (whose name combines the Greek word for “wisdom” with the Hebrew word for “life”) would have full dual citizenship as a Jew and a Christian. This will likely be a stumbling block for many on both sides of her citizenship aisle, since we humans are notoriously exclusively-minded. I can hear it now:
“What religion are you?”
“I’m Jewish and Christian.”
“What? You can’t be both?”
“Yes I can!”
“No you can’t!”
“I already am!”
“No you aren’t!”
“Oh yes I AM!”
This imagined conversation reminds me of the time I picked up GForce at preschool one day and overheard a boy asking where her dad was and why he didn’t ever pick her up.
“Who is your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad. I have three moms.”
“You can’t have three moms!”
“Well, I do!”
“But where’s your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad.”
“WHAT? Why do you have three moms and no DAD!”
“Because THAT’S how I wanted it!”
The next time I saw that kid’s mom, she told me that her son went home that night wondering why he only had one mom. She and I had a good laugh about that.
For the life of me, I cannot fathom how Christian and Jewish communities can justify any kind of exclusiveness – particularly when it comes to hosting ceremonies that mark rites of passage: weddings, baptisms, naming ceremonies, funerals, etc. If anything, these are the occasions when faith communities should be throwing open their doors.
Believe it or not, even opening communion to anyone who wants to participate is STILL a radical thing to do in the Christian tradition. Crazy, right? Thankfully, PW’s eucharistic theology is basically this: if you put your hands out, she will put bread in them. She’s not going to bother interviewing you about whether you’ve been baptized or attended membership classes or whether you’ve repented for anything. She doesn’t even care if you are Christian, Jewish, Atheist, whatever. If you want bread, you get bread. She’s a rebel like that.
I won’t even bother getting into the handwringing hoohaw that various strains of both Christians and Jews go through over whether queer people can/should be ordained, and if so, to what level. Really? Both the Christian and Jewish faith traditions are rooted in generations of people being exiled, outcast, persecuted, and annihilated. So what do we do? Well, we exile, outcast, persecute, and annihilate. Or, we study things to death in hopes that the people who want to join our ranks (as well as the issues they bring with them) will give up and/or go away — which is just a more passive form of exiling, casting out, persecuting, and annihilating.
Emmanuel Church has a reputation for having no residency or belief requirements for membership, weddings, baptisms, communion, you name it. As a result, we end up hosting ceremonies and casts of characters that force us to re-examine what it means to be inclusive, and occasionally struggle with how inclusive we really want to be. It’s good, stretchy work. Like any stretch, sometimes it leaves us feeling uncomfortable. And sometimes, what feels perfect to one group of people feels jarring and disturbing to another group. Still, I’d rather be stretched than frozen any day, even if it means occasionally feeling like we’re a kind of Island of Misfit Toys.
I’m pretty sure that the combination Jewish/Christian ceremonies we had this past Sunday would not have happened without our ongoing and deepening relationship with Boston Jewish Spirit and their Rabbi Howard Berman. PW refers to the relationship as “an interfaith family,” which testifies both to our deep commitment and struggles to understand and work with each other, set in an environment of mutual affection, admiration, and respect. It can be hard work, swimming against the tide of centuries of mutual suspicion and distrust, as well as the overt anti-Semitism that is threaded through much of the Christian Testament. But swim we do, and our two congregations have formed a kind of buddy system in the ways we look out for and help each other.
As a capper to Sunday’s extraordinary liturgy, we had a stunning moment during the Bach cantata. At the beginning of the instrumental prelude for the tenor aria in BWV 96 – “Herr Christ, der einige Gottes sohn,” I noticed that the tenor credited in the bulletin was not moving toward the front for his solo. I looked down at my bulletin to make sure I was looking for the right tenor.
By the time I looked back up, the conductor (who used to be a tenor in the chorus before he was selected to be the new music director) had turned to face the congregation, holding the big, clothbound conductor’s score in his hands. The orchestra continued playing without a conductor and Ryan sang the aria beautifully.
At coffee hour after church, I learned that Ryan found out only that morning that the regularly scheduled tenor was having throat problems and wouldn’t be able to sing the aria. None of the other tenors in the chorus had ever sung that particular aria before, so not even an hour before the service started, Ryan decided to sing it himself.
Several people told me after the service that the expression on my face was priceless when I looked up to see Ryan readying himself to sing. Apparently, a look of rapturous amazement remained on my face throughout, and Ryan told me later that looking at my face helped him get through the aria. I had absolutely no idea that I was providing any assistance whatsoever. I was just sitting there, awestruck by the whole morning.
It’s cool and curious how the simple act of showing up and staying open to the crazy possibilities of life can sustain the people around us. And, most of the time, you’re lucky if you find out that you’ve provided this support. Moments earlier, I myself had drawn similar inspiration and sustenance from the brilliant pink kippot bobbing around the empty chair for Elijah and then the baptismal font.
The other day I read an interview with Tom Waits in the New York Times. In the interview, he shared what he tells the sidemen who play in his band or on his records: “I want you to play like you’re 7 years old at a recital. I want you to play like your mom’s in the room. I want you to play like you’re miles from home, and your legs are dangling from a boxcar. Or play like your hair’s on fire. Play like you have no pants on.”
If you substitute the word “worship” for the word “play” in the above quotation, that’s what church was like for me on Sunday. Full of surprise, sweetness, boldness, jarring moments, and tiny shards of time that took my breath away – like watching the Jewish and Christian parents of a newly welcomed baby walk up to the communion rail together for a blessing, or like watching the orchestra play without their conductor, because he has turned to face the congregation and is singing like an angel. It turns out, sometimes you figure out how to do things you’ve never done before by just, well, doing them.
A song didn’t come to mind for me today, so I’m sharing this fabulous clip from the movie “Three Kings.” It was playing in my head the whole time I was writing.