Sunday, May 4, 2014

Do Penguins Go To Church?

Recently in my blog posts, I said that I wanted to explore the ways that we can live in the light of the Risen Christ during this Easter season (and beyond, for the record). As a matter of tradition, baptisms are most appropriate during Eastertide (or at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday, if it works out that way), as are confirmations. These are both sacramental traditions that give an outward and visible sign to the inward and spiritual grace that we Christians can live into as Easter people.

So, yesterday was the day for confirmation in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota's East Metro Mission Area and also day one for the Mission Area Gathering. I'm not going to explain that whole phrase, just look here. The point is that individual Episcopal faith communities around the East Metro brought people to be confirmed, received and reaffirmed in the Episcopal Church and I was asked to serve at the altar. That meant that I got to sit up in the front of the sanctuary, facing everyone assembled. Which meant I could see who was paying attention, who was "listening with their eyes closed," and which kids really wanted to be doing something else on a Saturday.

For those of you wondering about the purpose of this ritual, it is essentially the renewal and confirmation of baptismal vows. Since we have a tradition of infant baptism in the Episcopal Church, the baptismal vows are (most often) made on our behalf by parents and godparents. If the individual was an infant when the vows were made, it is then up to each individual to make those vows on their own later in life. Well... it's supposed to be up to the individual. Many teenagers do it at the time that their parents or youth director think is best. And by "think is best" I mean that many programs think the end of 9th or 10th grade is a great time for teenagers to analyze, accept and confirm their baptismal vows. BUT this is not a post commenting on this facet of the tradition and I digress...

From where I was sitting yesterday, I was able to see the movement of the whole ritual. Usually, a confirmand (someone who is being confirmed) will come up with their parent(s), godparent(s) or sponsor(s) and the confirmand will kneel before the bishop, who will then lay hands on the confirmand's head and pray over them, while still seated comfortably on a very impressive throne (side note: yes, the gigantic, heavy chair that a bishop may preside from is commonly referred to as a throne... because tradition).  But Bishop Prior, the ninth bishop in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, has been doing something different with this sacramental tradition.

What he did yesterday (and what he has been doing during his time as bishop) is stand at or in front of the steps to the altar. He then invites the whole faith community present (i.e. confirmands, recipients, reaffirmands, parents, godparents, sponsors, friends, family, etc.) to come forward all at once. Mind you, this can cause quite a mob up near the altar. But from there, as he lays his hands on the confirmand's head, he invites everyone else there to put their hands on the confirmand's shoulders. And if someone can't reach, they put their hand on the shoulder of someone who can reach. Sometimes the group of people can all reach the confirmand. Sometimes there are chains of five or six people, all with their hands on the shoulder of the person in front of them. And this entire network: the parents, godparents, friends, family, the other confirmands and even the bishop himself; this whole network centers on the one person who we pray will be filled with the Holy Spirit as they fully take on the promises of their baptismal covenant.

As I sat up near the altar yesterday, watching as each person, in turn, was prayed over by the bishop and their community, I was floored at the power and dynamism of this image. The point of making vows or reaffirming anything as a Christian is that you do it before God and the Church; you take a good look at your life and the grace that fills it and you decide that there is a promise you want to make or keep, so you do it before the one that really matters and the ones who will help you to keep your promise. That's what's done at baptism, that's what's done at marriage or ordination, and it's what's being done here at the confirmation. And the teenage confirmands (whom I have really been referring to, much to the exclusion of the adults confirmands and recipients, so I apologize for that), may not have the same transcendent experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit that the adults in their lives hope will happen. But that's okay. Or I hope that it's okay because I'll admit that being confirmed was not transcendent for me.

Let me say that again, I think it's okay whether or not the confirmands have some kind of mountaintop experience when an old man (apologies for the generalization, Bsp. Prior) puts his hands on their head and whispers a few words in their ear. It's okay because the confirmation that I saw yesterday was a powerful image. Like penguins keeping warm in the wintertime.

I should probably stop and say that again, right? Everybody has now glanced back at what I wrote to make sure that I wrote what they think I wrote, and here it is again: What I saw yesterday at the confirmation was like the way Emperor penguins huddle together in the winter to keep warm. Yes, like the movie March of the Penguins, when Morgan Freeman tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the lives of these animals.

That's you, Bsp. Prior; the one in the middle with his
flipper up above everyone else.

Okay, now that I have everyone's attention again, let me explain why I'm drawing an analogy between the Christian tradition of confirmation with the egg-sitting practices of male Emperor penguins.

I was saying that it's okay if the confirmands don't feel a transcendent, mountaintop experience during the ritual itself and I'm trying to explain it in terms of the penguins. Because you know why the penguins huddle in the wintertime? Because their combined body heat can keep them from freezing to death in the frigid Antarctic winter. And as they huddle, they shuffle around and shift their place in the huddle; always moving, always shifting, always staying warm. Every penguin will take his turn at the middle, being kept warm, and every one will take his turn on the outside, keeping the others warm and protecting them from the storm.

Do you now see the connection here? Each of the teenage confirmands and each of the people being received into the Episcopal Church and each of the people reaffirming the vows they've made, they're being brought into the middle of the huddle, which in this case is literally made up of the most important people to them in their faith community. These individuals are being shown that we pray God will sustain them and they're being shown that we, the community, will also help sustain them in this life. They're taking their turn in the middle of the huddle and they're being kept warm.

And the time comes that they will need to be on the outside of the huddle. The time comes that they will need to use that strength they've been given to shield others and keep them warm. The image I saw yesterday included this because, as each confirmand was prayed for, the only way to make room for the next one was to dodge out of the huddle, under Bsp. Prior's arms. And so room was made at the center for the next confirmand and the former confirmand and their family would circle around to the outside of the huddle, lay their hands on the shoulder of the person in front of them and pray for the person now at the middle, taking their turn to keep that person warm in the knowledge and love of God.

I sat in fascination at this yesterday. The tradition of Confirmation is one which has been in the Prayer Book for as long as I can remember (which, admittedly, isn't that long in comparison to the history of the Prayer Book). But with a few tweaks to the way it looked, I saw it with fresh eyes yesterday and decided that we resemble penguins when we do it. I'd say that's a good thing in this case.