This past Wednesday, I woke at 7, still tired from a class that got out close to 10PM the night before. An hour or so later, I packed my bag for the day and walked to our campus coffee shop, the Flamingo, to fill my 16oz. tervis. Over the past six weeks my every-other-day latte treat has become daily morning coffee with almond milk, and sometimes a latte as well (I may have seriously underestimated the time commitment for a few of my classes this quarter…). Coffee in hand, I walked to the library to study for my liturgics midterm with a group of classmates. We were all very much looking forward to spring break which felt just out of reach on the other side of our Thursday exams.
A few minutes before 10, we walked together to the chapel, still discussing which aspects of ritual theory and sacramental theology might appear on the liturgy exam. From across the grove, we could see students, staff, faculty, spouses, and even a group of children from the childcare center on campus gathering outside the chapel. As we approached, the bell began to toll. It rang seventeen times. It rang once for each person killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida one month ago. And then we stood, still and silent, for seventeen minutes.
Across the circle from where I stood, a group of three year olds wiggled, all bundled up in hats, gloves, puffy coats, and scarves. I wondered if any of them would ever feel unsafe at school, or be at school during a shooting, or be shot at school. And my heart hurt. I thought of the seventeen people who died in Parkland, of those who loved them, and of the ripples of pain their deaths caused. And my heart hurt.
The seventeen minutes ticked by slowly. The wind whipped around us, making a whistling noise, fluttering scarves, and chilling our faces. The index temperature was twenty-eight degrees. The air felt thick with silent prayer and unshed tears. As the minutes passed, my mind wandered back to the scattered papers, white board drawings, and highlighted liturgy books we left in the library. For a moment I was drawn into recalling definitions that would surely appear on the exam, but then I realized that beyond definitions and specific historical texts, what we are learning in “Liturgy 501” has everything to do with standing in silence outside the chapel waiting for another seventeen bells to ring.
When we gather together for Christian worship, we participate in an ancient ritual that enacts how the world could be. We shake hands at the peace with those who do not share our political beliefs, we center our focus on Jesus, we give thanks for all that God has created, and we recall how we are called to live in this world. And yet, as we gaze into what the kingdom on earth might look like, we are fully aware of the world’s imperfections. The liturgy is both/and. In a world that pushes us into “either/or” thinking, into binary systems, the Christian faith hold space for things in tension. When we gather around the table on Sunday we can bring both the joy and the suffering of our lives, because church is a place where we recognize both the suffering of Christ on the cross and the joy of his resurrection. It is a place steeped in mystery and paradox. We believe in the divinity and humanity of Jesus. We believe that bread is holy because it is part of God’s creation and in the Eucharist bread becomes a symbol to point us towards God in a specific and unique way. It is both already holy and made holy through consecration.
Standing in the cold, listening to a second set of seventeen bells ring out across the campus, I found myself deeply grateful for our faith tradition. I live in a world that is filled with love, joy, and beauty as well as a world filled with fear, pain, and hate. I need a place that I can take lived experiences of both. Somewhere that can hold it all, where I don’t have to check part of myself at the door. I need a community that understands how seventeen minutes of cold silence in remembrance of a tragedy can be an experience of both heartbreak and gratitude.
When the reverberations of the seventeenth bell faded away, we returned to offices and classrooms, homes and library tables. As we drifted across the campus in various directions, no one spoke. We were all returning to our “daily lives” in a way that the families of the victims of the Parkland school shooting would not for some time. Maybe they never would. This is certainly not the world “as it could be.” But at least we have a place to name that, a place to take that, a place to remind us that we are not responsible for the work of redeeming the world. We live in the knowledge that God has redeemed all creation – and at the same time – we live in anticipation of the full redemption of the world which is yet to come.
Photo Credit: Shawn Evelyn