I attend a scrappy little church in a ragged neighborhood on the far side of town. The roof is coughing shingles and the carpet is tired, but I wouldn’t trade it for the cathedral at Chartres. We do a number of things well, among them:
being awesomely bilingual
making sense of our budget
Now, I’m not saying we’re an unusual case — I’ve attended churches where, halfway through Mass, somebody had to run to the store for communion wine — just that at our joint, when you serve at the altar, your job description is somewhat malleable from one week to the next. You might do one reading, per the custom, or you might do two, if you notice during the opening collect that the lector hasn’t shown up. You might do emergency mop duty if someone knocks over a vase. You might station yourself discreetly near the front pew, just so you can keep an eye on the guy who wanders in the side door during the Gospel reading, long enough to figure out whether he is (a) drunk or (b) high or (c) just having a rough day. You might read the epistle, preach the sermon, bear the chalice, and break up a fistfight between acolytes (I recently did all four on the same very busy Sunday morning). You never really know until you get there.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I had the supreme and terrifying honor of being the subdeacon (altar helper) for Easter Vigil, my favorite service of the entire year. If you have attended a liturgical church before, you know that there are a lot of people doing a lot of different things at any one time:
I was fretting about this, so before I got dressed for the service, I held a team huddle with my co-servers.
Me: You guys, I’ve never been subdeacon on a feast day before.
Seventh-grader #1: I’ve never been a crucifer before.
Seventh-grader #2: I’ve never been a thurifer before.
Me: I’m pretty sure I’m going to mess something up.
Seventh-graders (in unison): Me too.
Me: You’ve got my back, right?
Seventh-graders: [solemn nods]
With that, I wandered away to get dressed in special feast-day vestments, which at our church are made of heavy polyester and bear a noticeable resemblance to the court-jester costumes you can purchase at Walmart.
A little more fretting and sweating (it’s HOT in those vestments) and some murmurs from the choir, and a moment of panic when I realized I had no idea which reading I was doing, and then all at once it was time to light the Easter flame and we processed down the aisle and our deacon began to sing the Exsultet and all my worries fell away.
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!
I stopped agonizing about my reading and my vestments (the gold lamé did NOT match my silver shoes) and all the people holding candles, one of whom was surely about to get distracted and set the building ablaze. I realized I wasn’t very worried about tripping over my hem or having a coughing fit at the altar. I realized I wasn’t very worried about anything at all.
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!
Of course, the crucifer and the thurifer and I, we made some mistakes. We got confused and stood in the wrong places. We bumped into each other once or twice. To the trained eye, I’m sure we looked unrehearsed and disorganized.
But the crucifer didn’t drop the cross, and the thurifer didn’t hit anyone in the head, and I managed to read the right prophecy and avoid dousing anyone in wine. And we got the point across just fine:
Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!
And so it did.