We sat, waiting expectantly, in a very large worship space. Every pew was full of people, and the 1500 seat church was packed—even people in the side balconies.
After a lovely organ and brass prelude, there was a hush. Then the trumpets and timpani began the introduction to the hymn. I looked back down the aisle to see a crucifer coming towards me. He bore a large brass cross decorated with Easter lilies and greens; he was flanked by two torchbearers with white gloves and tall candles. The huge crowd began to sing that great Easter hymn: “Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia!”
I had never in my life experienced such a wall of sound. I have been in gatherings (General Convention of the Episcopal Church, for example) where people sang. But this was different. This was 1500 Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Church of Christ, etc. people—an ecumenical gathering of mostly clergy. I suspect the greatest percentage were Lutheran, because Luther Seminary has sponsored this National Festival of Homiletics. You may have heard a rumor (thank you, Garrison Keillor) that Lutherans can sing. This Episcopal priest can testify to that truth. Wow. Can they ever. And when you get that many pastors together in a great space? It is an experience in which words fail.
That huge worship space filled completely with the sounds of voices, organ, brass and timpani. Suddenly, without warning, I found myself weeping as I watched the choir process, slowly and with great dignity. Bell ringers, their bells adorned with long blue and white streamers, processed. Readers, someone bearing the Gospel book. Among the ranks in procession, two more processional crosses were borne down the aisle. What did I think? I stood there thinking that I had truly been given a delicious taste of Heaven.
No, Monday evening was not Easter. In fact, it was the day after the Feast of Pentecost—51 days after Easter. It was no longer the Easter season. Why had we suddenly been transported back to the great Day of Resurrection? The hymns were all Easter hymns. The Gospel was the resurrection story in John. No Pentecost here in this place on Monday, May 16.
The preacher, the Rev. Anna Carter Florence, told us why we were celebrating Easter all over again. She said that we needed a celebration of Easter so that all these preachers could experience a special service “that you did not have to plan.” That drew laughter, and not a little appreciation, I must say.
From Monday evening until this afternoon, I have been able to sit among colleagues of all denominations, men and women, of all shapes and sizes and colors. We have come from all over the US and Canada. We have heard amazing preaching. We have listened to rich lectures on various topics of faith. We have heard all sorts of musicians—from that mighty pipe organ to historic Ebenezer Baptist’s Celebration Choir to a bluegrass group called “The Fleshpots of Egypt” to an African American woman who sang a spiritual to us as she walked up and down the aisle this morning.
On Monday evening, I could not sing because I was weeping—my senses overwhelmed with joy and a strange sense of relief. I realized that sometimes you just do not know how thirsty you are. Only when you are standing under a waterfall of sweet water that quenches the thirst of every part of you—body, mind, spirit—do you understand what it means to be fed. The gifts of God, poured over the people of God. I cannot speak for the others, but I can tell you that this particular child of God had no idea how weary and thirsty she was, until she has gotten some rest for her body, and spiritual food and drink for her heart and mind and soul. Grateful. She is most grateful.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
Photos taken by McJilton