December 18, 2017

love feast

Last night, my wife and I went to our first Moravian love feast.  

We still aren't sure why we wanted to go to one.  We're trying to get into Christmas.  It's come on us all sluggish and reluctant this year.  But we live in an area with a heavy Moravian population, and if you throw a rock, you hit a Moravian church with a sign advertising its Christmas love feast, with date and time.  The churches do not appreciate thrown rocks, just so you know.

We don't go to church.  Ever.  But I used to.  I grew up Southern Baptist and was a model youth, singing in the choir and working in the nursery and walking through the door any time it was opened.  I wanted to be a missionary.  I wanted others to see the light of Jesus and be saved from their sins.  I wanted them to be like me.

God and I had it out in my twenties, when I peeked behind the curtain and didn't even find an inept guy posing as a sky wizard.  I found nothing, or at least something so big you can't see it, an entity experiencing the entire universe and emphatically uninterested in what I had for breakfast each day and how much I prayed to it.  If anything, I'd hold to the fringes of Whitehead's process philosophy, but I've moved past that enough to call myself an atheist.  Otherwise, it's too complicated to explain to someone.

See, that part is the philosophical bit.  There's more to it.  There's the cultural stuff.  I haven't attended church regularly in over 12 years, and in those 12 years, I've changed a lot.  Boy howdy, have I learned to curse.  I curse with enviable creativity.  When others hear me curse, their vocabulary is expanded.  When he was nine, my son had to ask me what a "rancid whore" was.  I no longer belong in church, showing up each week and cultivating the intent and will to change and become a better person.  I like who I am now.  And if you stay away from church, you start thinking back on it and seeing the members of the congregation as these conformist, hypnotized zombies, standing and sitting and singing and praying as directed, all at the same time, unthinking.  You forget what it's like to be part of ritual, part of a whole.  Plugged in.  The cultural stuff.

So there we sat last night, after obsessing over what to wear and whether it was appropriate, then speeding toward the church hoping there would be more than six cars in the parking lot.  We took one of the back pews in an effort to render ourselves completely invisible, though this might have come from my Baptist upbringing.  The sanctuary of the church was brightly lit, the windows trimmed with traditional greenery, an impressively large Moravian star hanging over the choir loft up front.  Jesus Christ, it was big.  Moravian stars are constructed from three-dimensional triangular spires that radiate in all directions, mimicking the beams of light one sees when observing a bright star on a cold, clear night.  They're kind of neat.  We had a Moravian star on our front porch a few years ago, but we couldn't get one of the plastic spires attached correctly and a bird built a nest in it and we had to dispose of it and clean up the guano on the porch after the baby birds had flown.  This sanctuary star could have held an eagle's nest.  I stared at the suspending cables and questioned their integrity.  If it fell, it would impale the organist and blood would spatter all over the organ and the eagle would fly into a stained glass window trying to escape and fall unconscious to the carpeted floor.

You can tell I have issues with reverence, can't you?

While waiting for the service to start, we read through our printed programs and listened to the traditional pre-service brass band playing carols, occasionally wincing when a trombone hit a wrong note, which was every three seconds.  My wife pointed out a typo in the program, in the lyrics of "Silent Night" - "radiant beans from thy Holy Face."  We were shaking silently with tears of laughter streaming down our faces, unable to look at each other, diaphragms in agony.  When we'd recovered, I speculated about whether eating the beans would make you glow in the dark.  

A few minutes later, I pulled a random Christmas ornament out of my purse, intended for work the next day, and hung it on an offering envelope next to the hymnals.  My wife asked why the fuck we were decorating our pew.  I pointed to the line of pews ahead of us and said, "Pew, pew, pew!"  More silent shaking.

They didn't kick us out, to their credit.

The service commenced.  And I was able to straighten up and behave and take it just a little bit seriously, because we got to sing loads of mainstream hymns and carols, the stuff I grew up singing from pages 79 through 108 of the Baptist Hymnal.  The choir was rather good and a chamber orchestra accompanied them, a euphonic relief after the brass band.  

Love feasts are the continuation of a tradition started in the late 1700s, and involve the passing around of Moravian buns (they taste like Hawaiian sweet rolls but with a hint of orange) and mugs of coffee.  We accepted our buns and mugs graciously and held on to them until everyone had been served.  When others started sipping, we did, too.  After my first sip, I quietly slid my hand into my purse and pulled out some liquid Splenda sweetener for the coffee, which had just enough cream and sugar to piss a person off.  Purses are indispensable things, I'm learning.  I figured the bun would make me dump later (a gastric bypass thing), but it didn't.  I got crumbs all over my dress.  They came and collected the empty mugs before distributing the candles for the candlelight portion of the service, during which "Morning Star, O Cheering Light" is always sung.

Have you ever smelled a pure beeswax candle?  I have the same issue with them that I do with handmade soap in stores, which is a desire to rub them all over my hands and forearms so that I smell like that for the rest of the day.  They're intoxicatingly wonderful.  A lady lit my wife's candle and she in turn shared the flame with me.  Beautiful, yes, but I begrudged having to burn part of my candle.  I mean, someone had just given me a beeswax candle.  That was huge.  They're not meant to be burned.  They're meant to be aromatherapeutic.  

Yet the most hardened and faithless of us cannot, I believe, help but be moved by a sudden darkened room full of people clutching small, lit candles, holding them up and singing.  Ebenezer Scrooge would have been bemused.  And my wife and I were admittedly a little choked up.  I considered approaching the minister afterward and telling him that we didn't hate it.

Most of my candle survived.  As we were leaving the church, a man collected the used candles in a box.  I smiled at him, my candle tucked snugly away into my purse.   

Forget it, Suit-Man.  It's mine.

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