When in Rome
(or Slugged by Nuns)
Thomas C. Willadsen

Every year, one of the local Roman Catholic parishes in our town invites other Christians to their Tenebrae service, on Palm Sunday in the evening. They really do a good job with this service. It is powerful and emotionally rich. The parish administrator sends a form letter to Protestant clergy asking us to promote the service and inviting us either to do a reading or share a reflection.

This year the invitation arrived on a bad day. I did not take the letter as it was intended, as an open, sincere invitation to worship together on an occasion when it is allowed by their tradition. I took it as a half-hearted attempt to convince themselves that they are open, broad-minded, and inclusive. My efforts along the same line have been uniformly ignored by my Roman Catholic colleagues, and I didn’t feel inclined to slip through the door they left cracked open for Protestants. My meds kicked in a few hours later, and I realized that no one would notice if I refused to participate as a protest [hmm “protest”… “Protestant,” coincidence?] and I would cede the moral high ground to them if I refused the invitation. I signed up to give a reflection.

A few weeks later, an email informed me that I would be reflecting on readings seven and eight. The former was Jesus crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This reading was followed by “stripitus.” I went to my dictionary; the term did not appear there. I went to the Internet and found all kinds of suggestions for making this dramatic, crashing noise. Some of which, the posters admitted, worked better in empty sanctuaries than those filled with worshippers. This is the kind of thing that Protestants aren’t good at. I admit it and confess it myself. I write good sermons and conduct faithful liturgy, but rarely give attention to any other feature of the worship experience. Once someone asked me if I noticed the morning’s flowers, and I replied, “I don’t see them unless I knock them over.”

The stripitus following the seventh reading was just one of the features that makes this service so effective. Candles are extinguished at regular intervals. And the electric lights are also turned off throughout the course of the service. As it gets darker it gets harder to read the bulletin.

The eighth reading describes how the curtain in the temple is torn from top to bottom at the moment of Jesus’ death. My Greek returns to me. Weeks before the service I think, “I can work with this.”

When I arrive at the church I learn that I am the only non-Roman Catholic who has a speaking part this year. The psalmist shows me where to sit and where to speak from. He’s really on top of the details. I tell him services like this are like All-Star games. We’re all great at what we do, but we’re not used to being on the same team.

I introduce myself to the nun, Sister Mary Ann. I know it’s Sister Mary Ann. She’s in a habit, and she’s the only sister mentioned in the bulletin. I had been at an installation with another member of her community the day before. At that event, Sister Pam preached a really fine sermon.

As we gather for a brief prayer before processing in, I realize that I am the only one wearing a black robe and a purple stole. The priest and deacons are wearing white albs and red stoles. I joke that I did not get the memo. The priest assures me that purple is a correct choice because we’re in the season of Lent. He considered wearing purple, but was pretty sure he had last year. This kind of thing does not make me self-conscious anymore. I realize that part of what makes these services interesting is that people come from different traditions and represent different things. Then I snicker to myself because here are five grown men playing dress up. I turn to Sister Mary Ann and say, “You’re not wearing that, are you?” Of course she is. She’s a nun. She probably wears the same thing to the gym. Luckily, she knows I’m kidding. Not all nuns appreciate my humor. Sometimes they slug me. I like Sister Mary Ann.

As the procession begins, I’m third behind the priest and a deacon; I remark, sotto voce, “There’s no business like show business.” We walk single file. They bow to something. I don’t know what. I pause, to keep from running into them, then go to my seat.

Father Jim sets a nice pace, dignified and measured but not plodding. The worshippers feel the full effect of silence and darkness.

I begin my reflection paraphrasing Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when sister and brothers dwell together in harmony.” I thank Father Jim and Joe, the psalmist, for inviting me and planning the service so skillfully. I talk about the sudden, startling stripitus and how it makes me jump even when I’m expecting it. Then I point out that the description of the curtain in the temple being torn from top to bottom is not really adequate. The Greek verb σχίζω, is much more violent. The curtain was not separated along a nice perforation, like a coupon in the Sunday paper, it was “rent asunder” as the older translations have it. The curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the people was completely destroyed. It’s as though there was no longer any separation between what is holy and what is human. The same word appears when Jesus is rising from the waters of baptism in Mark’s gospel. The sky was torn in two and the Holy Spirit descended into Jesus like a dove. Again, God has acted dramatically and violently to break the separation between God above and humanity below.

At the start of Christ’s ministry, and at the end of his life, the barriers that keep God and humanity apart are completely, utterly, violently destroyed. God’s strong, resolute, relentless desire is that we recognize God’s profound, fierce love for each of us.

Toward the end of the service the worshippers are instructed to kneel. I had not read ahead in the service and had a moment’s hesitation. As a Presbyterian, I only kneel in worship to retrieve a penny that has fallen out of the offering plates. This evening I shrug and think to myself, “When in Rome,” then nearly laugh out loud at my silent, internal quip.

After the service, I realize that this verb σχίζω is also the root word of schism, which seems eerily appropriate to me.


The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is ­pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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