I’m very easy-going about religion. I generally find religious stuff quaint and charming, even the stuff I’m actively involved in — and I am more actively involved in religion than almost any of my lay colleagues. I go to church every week, drop in at centering prayer, participate in and publicize my participation in church activities and initiatives. Yet I often seem to be the person in my circle who cares the least about religion, either as a support or a threat.
There’s one bit of religion, however, to which I react as strongly as the most anti-religious of my friends, and that is Palm Sunday. I hate Palm Sunday as much as some of them hate being sprinkled with holy water, which makes it a useful natural experiment and guide for churches of What Not To Do. How did those churches of long ago poison Palm Sunday for the most easygoing christian in the western world?
It was by telling me I was guilty of stuff I hadn’t done. You know (or maybe you’re lucky enough not to know) those play-acting services, the ones where at one point you have to parade around the outside of the church waving palms and then later you have to yell ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ and sit through a sermon about how we all are to blame. This was the pattern in the episcopalian church of my youth, and I can still feel the combination of embarrassment and indignation it sparked in me. I would never have waved these pitiful bits of stiff green leaves to indicate approval and had never heard of anyone called Barabbas, so it was all pretend, right? But then if you really pretended and got into the ‘struck him over the head’ part, people were mad at you.
My episcopalian days are long over, and for years I have belonged to churches whose Palm Sunday ceremonies involve donkeys and dyeing Easter eggs; but the poison of the past is still in me, and I decided last year that I am old enough to just stay home on that day. It’s become obvious that no amount of more enlightened churching will ever overcome my indignation at having been blamed for something I didn’t do. I see the day coming when I will skip Easter as well; it was always the Sunday when you went back to the church you were mad at and pretended they hadn’t grievously insulted you just the week before.
This isn’t just a lesson for churches. There’s an awful lot of blaming people for things they haven’t done nowadays. An awful lot of policies and positions from both sides of the political spectrum stand on it. So let me go on record as saying that whatever momentary acquiescence can be forced out of people by such arguments, it will not last as long as their indignation – not even if you give them chocolate and colored eggs afterward. The day will come when they decide they are old enough to stay home, and you will be very lucky if they only stay home one Sunday out of the year.