unwitting witness

 Have you ever done something habitual, totally commonplace, without thinking, and afterward, someone–or many someones–look at you as if you’ve just come back from the moon?  This happened to me a few weeks ago…

At my grandfather’s funeral in Minnesota five weeks ago, I gave a short homily/eulogy (captured here), I wore my Episcopalian frippery, and aside from my strong emotions and the presence of my family in the first rows of the church, it felt just like dozens of other worship services at which I’d served over the last three years of my ministry.

To most everyone in the congregation, it looked shockingly different from anything they’d ever seen before.

Grandpa Chuck was buried from St. Bonaventure Catholic Parish in Bloomington, a suburb of the Twin Cities.  I’d spent many Christmas Eves in those long, long dark wooden pews, squished amongst cousins, aunts and uncles, passing the babies from lap to lap up and down the Thomey rows.  I’d been the flower girl when my dad was remarried there–somewhere I have a photo of my four-year-old self leaning nonchalantly on the altar’s side while the priest at the rehearsal went on and on.  Since I’d last been to the parish, they’d built a new narthex–welcome and gathering area–along the back of the church where we held the visitation before the 11 am liturgy. Sisters and cousins read the Scripture passages and prayers, and immediately after the opening prayers, I delivered my message.  The rest of the service, I stood and sat when appropriate–as in life, clergy are often looked to for an example of how to behave–a silent but significant witness to the prayers, hymns, and Scripture recited and reflected upon.

When it came time to pray the Eucharistic Prayer, the local priest who was in charge of the service invited me to stand with him by the altar.  Most Sundays, I stand by the altar praying out loud myself, helping the priest who’s praying, or sometimes just adding my silent prayers and presence along with the body and voice acting out the drama at the altar table.  I stood that morning, as I always do, with folded hands, focusing intently on the moment–somewhat distracted by the strange and complicated-looking Roman Missal out of which the priest prayed–I looked up at the bread as he elevated it, and the chalice, I bowed and knelt when he did.

After the end of the service as people came to greet the family and ministers, many mentioned my eulogy.  More than the eulogy though, and even more to each other than to me, this congregation of mostly Roman Catholics said again and again what an affecting joy it was to see a woman at the altar.  Ladies who’d prepared lunch for us stopped me in line and grabbed my arm, “I was so, so glad to see you up there!  I hope we see more women at the altar.”  An old priest who had been my grandfather’s chaplain during his college days came to introduce himself and not only told me, but wrote again to my grandmother the next week, how amazing and gratifying it was to see a woman standing there at the altar during the celebration.

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Of all the parts of the service and the weekend that I’d considered and prepared in my mind and heart before, standing at the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer had not entered my mind once, and yet, I suspect some attendees will remember that visual–just my silent physical presence–long after they’ve forgotten my name, and perhaps even at whose funeral that woman stood there.  Something which had become everyday to me was more than exceptional to them–it was gloriously category-shattering in their spiritual experience.
What a reminder to each of us of the opportunities available each day to transform others’ perspectives, to shine light into others’ lives, to offer new life and hope to each other through our witness–witting or unwitting.

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