Thursday, December 25, 2008


As I was cutting up bread for stuffing today I had a very vivid memory of the church ladies all those years ago at the Dutch Reformed Church in Netherwood, New Jersey cutting up bread for communion. There was a lot about church then that terrified me. The dark, mahogany paneled sanctuary, the Crucifixion depicted in the bright triangles of stained glass, the slightly funereal scent of candles, flowers and wax, the suddenly serious aspect of adults with whom I had joked or by whom I had been teased only minutes before the service. But I loved the church kitchen, where the communion bread that seemed so mysterious and so eerily sacred during the service came from big white bags with the Arnold Bread trademark and was cut up by apron-wearing grandmothers using the old blunt church kitchen knives.

There was a homeliness and comfort in that routine - I realize now, it was "religion" brought back to "faith" - the faith of those hard-working grandmas that somehow Arnold bread could become the body of Christ.

I've always been attracted to the homely rather than to the pomp and it was always the "irreligious" circumstances in church that brought the whole meaning of why I was there back to me. The poignancy of my uncle making his way down the aisle as a beturbaned wise argyle socks; the over-enthusiastic use of incense by a friend in 8th grade that nearly made the church uninhabitable - yet we all stayed in our pews. The itchiness of the tinsel halos we wore in junior choir. The way the littlest angel in the Christmas tableau wrapped "Mary's" cloak around her and fell asleep. Maybe all the candlelight and evergreen and solemnity and music and vestments and flowers was too much for me - and at home, maybe the big tree in the cold living room held too much veiled possibility (and possible disappointment). At home at Christmas I was happier making gravy, folding the snowy napkins just so, or arranging the spring-green lengths of celery on the platter topped with a snowy mound of creamed cheese than trying to rise to the expectations of amazement at the array of gifts I was offered. After a morning of unwrapping presents, I was very content to lie, forgotten, on my back under the Christmas tree and watch the play of light through the branches, squinting my eyes to turn each bright glass bulb into a star.

Simplicity is having a comeback and in spite of the economic pain, it's a relief. We're top heavy with stuff, we are burdened with expectations. Not being able to afford it all provides a kind of respite from it all. It's not about the singing or the stuff or the food or the trimmings - the things we have created a religion around. Of course we know that in our heart of hearts, down deep where something better than what we show the world every day lives. Perhaps now in the quiet and the calm and the bright we can remember that simplicity - we can remember again what faith means, whether in Saint Nicholas, or an even higher power, or ourselves.