I’ve been in the ministry long enough that I’m rarely truly surprised by something church-related. But, today was one of those rare days of blessed surprise—on one of the saddest days of the Christian year.
A few years ago, I gave up on my quest to increase attendance at special worship services during Holy Week. Those who came, came. Those who didn’t, didn’t—no matter what I said or how I cajoled. Instead, I changed our Palm Sunday observance to a Palm/Passion Sunday service. At the start of the service, we listen to Palm Sunday scripture and the choir sings something appropriate to the theme. After a pastoral prayer and an offering, we transition to the Passion.
We begin with a choral piece from the choir. Then, we read through the Passion from one of the Gospels, with passages interlaced with verses of the hymn, “My Song Is Love Unknown.”
At the end of the service we sing “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” and then go through a lengthy benediction, making note of the difficult, and complicated, story of Holy Week. We acknowledge the ways in which the disciples, and we, fail Jesus. We ask for blessing as we begin the week, and reflect briefly on the grace and hope that is intimately part of the unfolding of the sacred story.
This year, we focused on the Passion according to Mark, as we have been following the Narrative Lectionary. I read sections of the story and we sang the verses of “My Song Is Love Unknown” separately, at breaks during the reading of the story.
After the benediction, I walked down the aisle. Since I was helping with hospitality, I walked out of the sanctuary and into the vestry, where I could still hear the postlude. After pouring some coffee, I went over to the large doors between the sanctuary and the vestry and opened them. When the postlude concluded, I realized that something was different.
There was silence.
Usually, at Old South, a round of applause follows the postlude. I don’t ever remember silence after the postlude—in more than a decade as pastor of Old South.
But, today there was silence. A beautiful, amazing, extraordinary silence.
In some churches, a good worship experience is affirmed through voices and noise. In good New England Congregational churches, a good worship experience is affirmed through silence. Over my years of ministry, I have come to appreciate and give thanks for those occasional experiences of silence. It means that something is happening. The Holy Spirit is afoot.
Today, there was silence. I had certainly been moved by the service. Though the story was familiar, as were the hymns, there is something remarkable in the telling of the story, out loud in a sanctuary. And, for me, “O Sacred Head” is a favorite hymn. But, I couldn’t tell if anyone else shared what I had experienced.
But, there was silence. And, after the silence, quite a few parishioners thanked me for the service, and affirmed that they had found it to be an especially meaningful service.
I must admit that there have been some frustrating days of late in my work with Old South. So, today felt strangely good. Though a difficult story to be sure, the shared sense of the sacred was inspiring.
For this, I offer an incomplete, but sincere: thank you.