Ever since my first encounter in 1976 with high holy days, ancient tradition has enchanted me. A service with people called acolytes, deacons, priests, bishops, thurifers, and crucifers, wearing, not robes, but vestments called chasubles, dalmatics, surplices, stoles, copes, albs, and cassocks--even pointy hats called mitres--this was celestial. If that weren’t enough, they carried huge candles, ornate candlesticks, intricately designed crosses, thuribles, monstrances, shepherd staffs and chalices. And the music--ah--the music.
My parched, low-church, evangelical spirit soared with the heady fragrance of incense, the tinkling of musical bells (in all the right places) and the richness of liturgical prayers and responses with angelic choir voices glorying and alleluia-ing in a seamless whole which left me breathless and inspired. No wonder the medievals built such lofty cathedrals: room for their spirits to ascend to empyrean and be reminded that no matter how small they were, God in His bigness, came down to them.
My favourite has always been the midnight Easter Vigil ending the mourning and meditation of Lent, bringing the “alleluias” back into the calendar and brass triumph insisting that we not find the resurrection hum-drum. It matters not the decades we have known He is Risen. He is RISEN, people--and that is a miracle beyond all our imaginations, bells, incense, vestments and prayers combined. Risen. Centurions flat on their backs with amazed faces. And the Lord smiling, walking barefoot from His empty tomb.
Over the years I have attended so few festival days (living in remote non-Anglican parts of Africa), that I relish each one. When we at East Mountain heard that our three Anglican students would be ordained in September at a truly high ceremony in Langa township, I knew we were in for a treat. I just didn’t know how much of one.
As Americans, we predictably arrived early for the 3 pm service. We rejoiced with our students, Mphumelelo, Sazi, and Khaya. We met the presiding bishop and the local rector as well as another visiting bishop.
The ordination was held in a community hall, much like a gymnasium, because the churches were too small. Excellent idea because it was filled to capacity in less than 45 minutes. The hall was draped in red and white cloth, probably to cover up the non-ecclesiastical feel of such a secular place. An added touch was that all the ordinands were given stoles in matching red and white with the PX symbol like a large football insignia on their backs.
The service itself was truly an inspired blend of the best of the church's liturgical, medieval tradition with the fluidity, vibrance, and volume of the African township. I was entranced. The choir was dressed in brilliantly patterned dresses (no men that I noticed). Some wore the pattern in shades of red, orange and yellow, others in green, blue and yellow. But their outfits were nothing compared to their voices--at least three of them could have competed with Whitney Houston, and won.
As I was taking it all in: the decor, the elaborate altar draped with festival linens up front, the chalices and candelabras, the chairs set out for bishops, priests and the multitude of acolytes scurrying about in their white surplices and shiny white Nikes (or were they Adidas?) something else caught my eye.
Over behind me and to my left, up in the balcony section of the hall sat three men. Not noisily jostling and greeting all the folks around them, quietly smiling and enjoying the ruckus before we started. The procession was attempting to untangle itself in too small a space at the back, the thurifer checking his incense pot for the fifth time, acolytes running up to the front to get the lit candles they had forgotten to bring up in the procession, and these three gentlemen just soaking it all in.
They appeared to be a family, three generations. One definitely with his white hair seemed more patriarchal, but their closeness and knowing glances made them feel more like brothers. No one seemed to notice them or go over to greet them, they were clearly visitors, not members of the families or parishes of the ordinands.
As the procession processed and the choir began the entrance hymn, I jumped at the sound of a gunshot. What was going on? We’d joked about violence in the township, but this was guaranteed a peaceful Sunday afternoon. No one else jumped. Hadn’t they heard it? Then it went off again. Why wasn’t anybody doing anything, and how could they keep processing like nothing was wrong? The three gents were smiling and nodding their heads in time. When the third gunshot went off, I realised it was in time with the music and it was not a gun. One, no two, of the choir members had small dense cushions strapped to their hands and belted on them like portable drums. It definitely syncopated. Then another choir member picked up a metal cup and started banging it with a spoon and the percussion section was well underway. Cowbells, gunshots, and rich amber voices created music you will never hear in a cathedral in Europe. I was transported.
The three gents in the balcony were, too. I saw the bliss and sensed their delight in everything that was going on. No matter that the thurible was over-filled and the incense reached such an intensity that I was looking around to see what was on fire. The service carried on--a picture of unbridled enthusiasm barely held in by the centuries-long format of “ordination service.”
We made our confession, sang the Lord’s Prayer in isiXhosa (so we Americans just thought it in our hearts), we heard the readings--some in English, but the gospel chanted in isiXhosa: now that is something to hear complete with clicks and pops. And the congregation all nodding along, hanging on every word. This may be ritual, but it is not boring or solemn: all of us facing the deacon in the aisle with the tiny acolyte holding up the Bible.
When the activity heads front and centre, chairs up there start getting rearranged, blankets for the ordinands to prostrate on, just a little chaos and confusion so we can all settle back and gear up for the next part. Over my shoulder I see the three gents, watching with interest and appreciation. The rest of us are restlessly resettling, it’s been going a while, but the three are entirely focused. At intervals during the service bursts of mayhem are evident. Well-intentioned confusion: books handed around, papers in plastic sheathes with the words of the next part passed from deacon to priest. Stoles brought for the ordinands, draped, admonitions. Priests switching sides and discovering where to stand. Deacons helping ordinands to stand from being prostrate on the floor. You try that, without stepping on your cassock and ripping it off. (Besides, one of them is carrying a bit of weight which makes it more difficult for him.) The choir director starts and is stopped for announcements. The bishop is intermittently taking his mitre off and putting it back on, depending on what is happening and whether he is permitted to wear it at that moment. He has Parkinson’s, so he needs a little help from a nearby deacon to get the little ribbons lying correctly down his back. He sits for his sermon which is straight from his heart. He believes in these men. He reminds them of the responsibility ahead. A responsibility he has carried for years and will soon lay down.
The Passing of the Peace is utter pandemonium and Rodney sitting next to me (somewhat a stranger to liturgy) asks if it is half-time. Apparently there is a lot of peace in Langa, because it takes a while to pass it all around; the three gents are not passing it, however. They are practically ignored by everyone, which seems strange to me. But they don’t mind in the least, they are revelling in the abundance of joy milling around them.
And then, when I have given up on Eucharist because it is now so late, and to have mass at this point would make the service interminable, the chant introducing the Lord’s Supper commences. To my amazement, we have communion, we share the broken Body and we share the cup of our Salvation. It is not interminable. In our eagerness for this blessing and perpetual reminder of how much we have been given, we tumble forward in orderly chaos. One of my own students gives me my wafer and whispers not “the Body of Christ” but “you can eat it.” My heart bursting at the significance of this moment.
On my way back to my seat, I look up at the three gentlemen. They are not in their seats. I scan the aisles. Not there. The doors haven’t been opened. But they got clean away. Odd. They were clearly enrapt by the whole proceeding. You’d have thought it was all for them.