Is It Just Passing By?

a602b4d26844aaeb999c463a6ac292f5Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me … (Lamentations 1:12)

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

St-Paul-BikeWe were driving to church for Maundy Thursday services, taking the usual route … talking about usual things. The road we were taking runs along the river bluffs and there is a walking/biking trail along the roadway, between the road and the river area. As usual, people were biking or walking in the evening light, appreciating that recent adjustment known as Daylight Savings Time. Things were proceeding along the usual course.

Then we saw something remarkable: a police car parked on the trail area. The two officers were standing in front of their car, observing two people who were interacting with each other. It might have been two women; one seemed to be combing out the hair of the other. We passed the scene quite quickly (the speed limit there is 45 or 50mph) so it was hard to discern what was happening … and even harder to speculate on what might have happened.

Collecting evidence, perhaps? Likely not. It was an odd place to be combing someone’s hair for stray fibers or other clues. Neither of the police officers were doing the combing.

Was one of the women assisting the other? That seems more likely. Perhaps the one having her hair combed out had fallen or had something catch in it and the other was assisting her. The other might be one who had been walking with her … or a friend who had come to her aid … or a stranger walking past who stopped to help. But why the police, then? Had someone seen the woman after whatever happened that apparently fouled her hair and then called for help? Did the woman call the police for help herself and then a stranger arrived before the officers? Had the woman who was doing the combing called the officers for assistance before involving herself in the situation?

There was no way to reach a clear conclusion as to what was transpiring by the side of the road as we passed along … no clear indicators as to what had happened before we passed.

untitled (4)After the service, we were driving home along the same route, going the other way, about two hours later. By that time, it was dark. Around the same point in the road, we saw a multitude of flashing emergency lights. There were maybe three firetrucks plus a paramedic vehicle or two and a couple of ambulances. In addition, there were nearly a dozen police vehicles. In the pulsing light, many figures could be seen standing and moving around. Yellow tape – crime scene tape? – had been put up and it appeared there was a body bag beside the road or on the path.

Now what had happened? Was it in any way connected to the scene we had observed around that same section of road earlier?

I don’t know. It’s now more than three weeks later and I still don’t know. There was nothing on the newspaper or the radio or the local television news websites by 10pm that night. There was nothing in the newspapers the next day. There was nothing in the local news reports of the local public radio station (headquartered just a couple of miles from the scene). Even the local bi-weekly community paper didn’t mention this incident in the regular summary of police reports and fire calls. All those firetrucks and police vehicles and, apparently, a body bag … and nothing?

Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

No, this was not “nothing.” Clearly something happened – something significant enough to call forth a large turnout of first responders. And with all those first responders, whatever it was that happened must have been sad and tragic … at least for some people, somewhere. Something did indeed happen. But as to what that something was, no one is saying anything in any sort of a public way.

Driving to and from church that night … and the next, we passed by any number of people doing usual, unremarkable things. While we were inside the sanctuary, participating in the services, any number of people passed by the building … on foot … in their cars … in the buses that rumble by. And there was the occasional emergency vehicle passing by, announcing its passage with the blare of sirens. I suppose for those passing by outside, the same question still applies:

Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

LCR North faceWhat do people see as they pass by our church building … any church building? As Holy Week began on Palm Sunday, if people had passed by with a view of the north side of our building at just the right time, they might have seen a line of people moving across the open side of the courtyard. At the beginning of the line, they would have seen people in various robes, a type of clothing rarely seen outside of church doors. But after the choir passed, it would have been normal looking people in normal styles of clothing. Everyone was carrying a long, pale palm frond. Did anyone who chanced to see it wonder, “Now what’s up with that?”

Later in the week, what would those passing by on the streets outside have noticed? That the sanctuary, normally dark on a Thursday or Friday night was lit up? That there were a number of cars in the normally empty parking lot? Might they have wondered why people were there on those weeknights?

If they could have glimpsed inside as they passed, what would they see? Things that surely would seem strange to outsiders passing by looking in: People washing one another’s feet … taking off shoes and socks, walking around barefoot in a semi-public space … kneeling before each other to splash water on the feet and dry them with a towel. People taking bites of bread and sips of wine, urged to do so “in remembrance of me” … and who might that “me” be who is remembered in this way? Votive 1People sitting before a prominent cross in dim light … light that becomes dimmer and dimmer as candles are extinguished … or later lighting small candles near the cross, bowing or perhaps even kneeling in reverence before the piece of wood. What’s up with any of this … with all of it?

And for those few churches that keep the vigil on Holy Saturday evening – what would the people passing by that evening see? A fire burning outside in a fire pit or a grill, but no one sitting around enjoying the display of flame or even cooking anything on the grill, despite the presence of people signaled by the cars in the parking lot. At the right moment, they might see a line of people following a large candle … some perhaps in odd robes again … but most others in regular clothes. The lights in the sanctuary grow brighter as the evening goes on. Activity out of the ordinary in a church on a Saturday night – could it be a wedding? What else would be going on?

Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

And honestly, based on general attendance trends, the numbers of people who come to the Holy Week services – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the daunting hours-long event of Saturday’s vigil – are markedly less than the typical church attendance of Palm Sunday … which itself is maybe half of what the numbers at Easter will be … is it as nothing to many of us who claim membership in a church body, many of us who identify as Christian? This is the central story of our faith, yet relatively few of us stop to attend to it.

Easter Display 1Many years ago, singing in the choir in a sanctuary where the choir sat facing the congregation each Sunday, I remember looking at the assembly on an Easter morning, seeing many unfamiliar faces, people whose names I did not know … and I thought, “What’s it like to be you, to live week after week, month by month, for a whole year away from this place, from these rhythms, from this story that we tell here? How does that work for you?” I wondered because I actually have no idea what life would be like that way.

Perhaps it comes to this, as John Irving’s same-named narrator puts it in the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany: I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through his crucifixion, my anxiety about his resurrection is undiminished – I am terrified that this year it won’t happen; that, that year, it didn’t. Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.

Lilies 2Easter is the main event. That plenty of people turn out and swell the attendance (for whatever their reasons) attests to that. Resurrection is a hope-filled, wondrous, beautiful concept; it points to an open future in which anything might be possible – any manner of fresh starts and new beginnings. But there’s no resurrection unless there’s first been a death. Holy Week is the journey into that death that makes the good news of Easter’s resurrection – and all other resurrections – possible.

Palm 2To pause for Holy Week, to tend especially to the three days that precede Easter – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday – is to enter into, to sit with the story of Jesus in his journey from death to life. This is the story that gives meaning and purpose, identity and direction to those who call themselves Christians, followers of this Jesus called the Christ, the Crucified and Risen One.

But it is so inconvenient to spend hours at church … during a week … when life is so very hectic and busy … and we already know the story anyway … so does it really matter?

Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

Is it?