Friday, March 30, 2012

Pussy Willow Sunday

In the early spring of 1995, while on a road trip sabbatical, I was trekking through Texas in a shiny new Ford Ranger pick-up truck. I had a study plan of sorts to legitimize my time off. I was seeking signs and expressions of American Religion during the span of Ash Wednesday through Easter—40 days of Lent I thought, until I discovered that Sundays don’t count in Lenten ciphering. I began on Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras in New Orleans and ended on Good Friday at El Santuario de Chimayo in the Sangre de Christos Mountains of New Mexico—also known as the Lourdes of America.

I found the Big Bend region of Texas especially alluring, a huge chunk of arid hill country ablaze with blooming cactus. There are two small towns at the Northern edge: Alpine and Marfa. Marfa is famous for mysterious lights that flicker and dance in the hills and for being the staging site for the 1950s movie Giant. When I visited it had a new presence of the minimalist sculpture artist Donald Judd, who was buying property and putting up post-modern installations. 

I drove through the Big Bend region toward the great dip of the Rio Grande. I followed El Camino Real to the dusty border town at the tip of the Big Bend, Presidio, said to be the author James Michner’s favorite place in America. There’s not much habitation in the Big Bend. But there are many collectible rocks. At a rock ranch where I spent a night camping, wild pigs snorting around me, the solitary keeper of the place, learning of my trek, told me I must visit the little Mexican city across the border from Presidio. “Ojinaga,” he declared, “has the most incredible Palm Sunday Procession you’ll ever see.” 

On his recommendation, I staged a visit, daring to drive my truck into Mexico. In Presidio, I bought supplementary auto insurance, spent the night in an old motel, and got up early on Palm Sunday to visit Ojinaga, Chihuahua. No one was about when I arrived at the Plaza facing the smallish 16th century Catholic Church designated as a cathedral. I perched myself on a bench along the length of the plaza and surveyed the mounting activity. I learned that I was a rare gringo visitor and something of a curiosity. 

Slowly, people began to arrive, beginning with a half dozen shoe shine and squeegee boys. They immediately approached me and we had a very halting conversation. I speak little Spanish and tried to tell one engaging boy that I was from Chicago to no effect until I said “Casa Michael Jordan.” “Ah,” the lad nodded his head. A balloon man appeared to sell from a colorful array of Disney characters. And worshippers, mostly women with children, walked across the plaza carrying flowers in their arms. More people arrived and entered the dark interior of the cathedral—all carrying flowers.
I was, so I thought, witnessing a quaint local custom: flowers not palms on Palm Sunday in Ojinaga. I entered the church and the cool, dark interior was redolent with the smell of fresh blooms. The priest was an operatic appearing, basso voiced, bearded presence. He gathered children to tell them a story. From the choir loft, a group of women wailed songs that seemed of another culture and time. And after the children’s story, everyone left the cathedral, flowers waving to the sky, to process around the square. This was in remembrance/imitation of Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, beginning the week of his death and resurrection. 

I loved the ritual in the bright light. I imagined the flowers, rather than the traditional palms, remembered the ancient Aztecs love of color and feathers. 

After the service, I recovered my place on the bench watching the crowd disperse more quickly than it had formed. A man sat next to me and essentially checked me out, but in a friendly way. He turned out to be the town treasurer. I told him of my trek. “I just love your local custom of flowers instead of palms.” He looked at me with a crinkled smile. “So you didn’t hear. The Father explained at the beginning of the service that the truck bringing the palms had broken down, so he had the word spread that everyone should bring a flower or a branch.” 

This comes to mind today, Palm Sunday, a Sunday Unitarians have long observed as Pussy Willow Sunday. I was introduced to this custom during my internship at the Universalist Church of Syracuse, where there were several congregants influential in the great Unitarian Religious Education movement of the 1950s. (One couple had written the first Church Across the Street Curriculum.) Another Jo Gould, a small sprightly woman in her 80s had written/edited a series of religion and science booklets for the Beacon series called How Miracles Abound.) Jo introduced me to Pussy Willow Sunday as she placed a huge bouquet of catkins in a vase for the altar. 

I mentioned this to Pam Fodor the other day. Pam remembered that when she was  a young girl in this church, someone came into every classroom on Palm Sunday with a vase full of pussy willows.
For forty years, since first introduced to our little ritual, I think of the Sunday before Easter as Pussy Willow Sunday. How Unitarian, I’ve thought, bringing nature and spring to the beginning of Holy Week which in many traditional churches is literally shrouded in symbols of death—purple cloths covering statues and crosses. 

I Googled Pussy Willow Sunday to find references and remnants of this Unitarian practice. What I found instead was a host of references to Eastern and Greek Orthodox practices, particularly Latvian and Ukrainian. The commentary here generally declares that typically in the northern climate the only natural sign of rebirth in March or April involves the early growth of willows. So, traditionally, the willow branch was substituted for palms and the moniker Pussy Willow Sunday became commonplace. 

It further seems that this was grounded in an ancient pre-Christian custom. According to one blogger:

The last Sunday before Easter (Palm Sunday) is called Willow Sunday (Verbna nedilia). On this day pussy-willow branches are blessed in the church. The people tap one another with these branches, repeating the wish: “Be as tall as the willow, as healthy as the water, and as rich as the earth.” They also use the branches to drive the cattle to pasture for the first time, and then the father or eldest son thrusts his branch into the earth for luck.

The cutting of pussy-willow branches was not originally a Christian substitute for palm branches. Since pagan times, the pussy-willow’s bloom was seen as a signpost for spring and was thought to have healthful qualities if ingested. Pagan Ukrainians would cut the branches and swat one another with them to bless each other with the pussy-willow’s strength to come out of winter so early in the year. When Palm Sunday began to be celebrated, the two practices merged into one.
For me, Pussy Willow Sunday is a reminder to look deeper on any subject. Don’t believe that what you believe to be is totally or unimpeachably true. Beware of your own prejudices and misimpressions. Check the facts. THANK YOU, GOOGLE! 

I’m also reminded that beneath all religions there are similar if not the same impulses. Easter we know is an amalgam of customs. The very name references an ancient Indo-European goddess of the dawn and its date is set by a Jewish lunar calendar as processed through the Julian calendar and the church. Paganisms blend with pre-Christian and Christian customs: the egg and rabbit juxtaposed to the cross and empty tomb.

On this Sunday before Easter Sunday, let’s gently tap one another with spring branches,
  • reminding one another that a Great Event will be reenacted after an eventful week, in mythic solidarity with our Christian friends
  • and invoking the natural powers of spring emerging from winter to make us strong in spirit and body for another year.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The One Whom You Love: Homily for a Same Sex Marriage Ceremony

Sean and Gregg
I’ve performed several hundred wedding ceremonies in my three decades of liberal ministry. The larger portion by far involved couples outside the two congregations I’ve served.  Unless, asked, I don’t formally counsel the couple; but in an initial interview, I frame the event for them by drawing on insights I’ve cobbled together through the years. I may, in the actual ceremony, offer a few words formally known as an “admonishment:” that a declaration of marriage is a serious but not solemn undertaking.

I tell them that a marriage ceremony contains symbolic elements that connect to the medieval Catholic Church and cultures of Europe.  I explain how the ceremony evolved into the generic Protestant outline I follow. 

I never neglect to mention that a wedding ceremony is a public event, with the invited guests serving as proxy representatives for all of society.  Society has a vested interested in committed relationships for the sake of its own survival.  A marriage is foundational, a conservative element in our larger society.  So the words spoken on the couple’s behalf, as well as the words they say, have additional importance for the perpetuation of society.

Early on as a minister, I fell under the influence of an analysis called the Natural History of a Marriage.  In the light of this analysis, I sometimes caution the couple, in a loving way, of course, that they may be getting married for a cluster of wrong reason. In the throes of peer, family, and cultural influences, as well as the intoxication of early love, neither has a true sense of the other, yet.  So one day, when the proverbial honeymoon is over, one or both will wake up one morning, and find they married a figurative stranger.  Then, whether its seven months or seven years, the real work of creating a deep relationship will begin.  Here, I toss in a little of Martin Buber’s notion of an I/Thou, subject/subject relationship, when each part of the equation accepts the other in her and his fullness of being—as subject (or complete person) and not an object.  When this occurs, the Eternal Thou—God—is realized.

In more recent years, I might tell a couple not to expect each partner to first and forever fill all the needs of the other.  The mere expectation is a recipe for failure.  No one person can fulfill another person’s needs.  I interject what Joseph Campbell called the myth of marriage, that the myth exists outside each partner; and a marriage succeeds when the couple first commit to the myth they share before committing to one another.

Anecdotally, the ceremonies I perform generally result in enduring marriages.  Only a few that I know of have led to divorce.  This probably measures the relatively mature and thoughtful persons who seek me out, wanting to begin their life together with the sort of a personally meaningful ceremony properly conceived as a religious ceremony.
From what I understand, the state’s involvement in issuing so-called marriage licenses resulted largely from nineteenth century lobbying by evangelical Protestants, eager to impose their moralism on society.  Through the nineteenth century a preponderance of marriages were what we now call common law.

Same sex marriage continues to be a controversial issue in the so-called, ongoing culture wars.  I come to Gay Marriage with some experience, as well as wide ranging knowledge of the evolution and meaning of marriage.

I favor same sex marriage as a matter of civil rights, including equal opportunity and protection, under the Constitution.  Btu even more I favor it for intimate, relational, and social reasons, which my longtime companion Ecclesiastes has helped inform.

My standard wedding meal blessing draws from Ecclesiastes, an ancient Old Testament work:  “Enjoy life with the one whom you love all the days of your life.  Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might.  Eat your bread with gladness, and drink your wine with a merry heart, because your God has already approved what you do.”  [adapted]

Long ago I adapted the word “wife” to the phrase “the one whom you love,” to include the woman as well as the man.  Now, as I’ve come to realize that love, straight or gay, come from the same impulses and has the same results, I’ve expanded my public intentions in saying “Enjoy life with the one whom you love, all the days of your life.”

A public ceremony (wedding) and a civil contract (license) together give a love relationship meaning and imprimatur, plus legal status, no less or more for a same sex couple, as for a heterosexual couple.

Today, we come together to perform a religious ceremony, a wedding of two souls.  Susan and Lori have already entered into a legal covenant—a marriage in the State of Iowa.

As in most relationships that continue and mature, their initial meeting was serendipitous.  Initially, there was attraction but reluctance, too.  The wayward course of their togetherness gradually surmounted the impediments and transformed the difficulties.  And they become one in that mythic sense they proclaim and affirm today.   Central to their growing relationship are their respective faiths.  Each has her own understanding of God; yet together they have reached a common faith that the Divine works through their individualities and their togetherness, as God’s Providence works through the larger world.

This afternoon before us gathered here and the world, Lori and Susan proclaim not only their love for each other, but also for the overarching Love of God.  The foundation of Susan and Lori’s marriage is surely their mature love for and seasoned devotion to each other.  Yet they freely and faithfully proclaim that the source and strength of their marriage is a shared faith that God loves and sustains us all.  They will embody that love in their dealings with one another and take that love into the larger world of which they and we are all a part. 

Joseph Campbell declared that a true marriage results from the recognition and more importantly the practice that the couple commits henceforth, not merely to one another’s welfare, but to a transcendent relationship the marriage itself, informed and accountable and accountable to God’s Abundant Blessing.

There is no doubt that this couple is Blessed by their love, and in this hour and in all their time together they stand under  the Blessing of Creation, especially as that Blessing is affirmed and proclaimed by an d made real by their Church and embodied in the living community of believers that creates their Church.

As the old Puritans proclaimed: marriage is a little church within the Larger Church, each formed and sustained by the Love of God.

Blessings of Divine Love on us all.  But in this auspicious hour, blessings most of all on Lori and Susan.