Other People’s Joy
Imagine that it is Saturday, the night before Easter. You’ve been at church for an hour already, listening to lengthy, familiar Bible passages and lengthy, familiar chants, singing hymns and saying prayers in a room lit only by the glow of several hundred tiny flames. The long, slender wick you were handed when you entered the church has burned at least halfway down. It’s been a long service, a long week, a long Lent, a long winter, a long three years.
Then, a proclamation rings out from the front1. The lights come up and you see that the sanctuary is absolutely overflowing with flowers and ribbons; the organ starts at last and you can finally see the choir (or, the part of the choir that’s visible behind the gigantic floral arrangements). It’s 9pm on Saturday night, and you’re at church, and everyone is singing SO LOUD.
The Easter Vigil service at my church2 is about as theatrical as “traditional” church services get, and the results are storied. For people who are into it, the buzz is undeniable: it’s the best service of the year; you can’t miss it; you have to see it for yourself to understand. It’s only natural to sell the experience on the music or the flowers or (especially) the theatrics.
But I don’t think you can really get across what makes this particular service so magical without mentioning the bells.
In the bulletin and online during the weeks leading up to Easter, the phrase “Bring your bells!” appears under the Easter Vigil listing. Thankfully for the uninitiated, one needn’t bring a bell to be a part of the whole bell experience. My bell — procured for my second Holy Week at All Saints’ — is a multicolored, rattle-shaped thing that sits in my music cubby in the choir room all year long waiting for this one night of use.
I’ll get back to last Saturday night and the bells in a moment. Let me skip ahead to this Saturday night. I went to the movies with one of my best friends. Specifically, we went to see the new Nicolas Cage movie at the AMC Burbank 16, one of the LA area’s bigger cinemas. Depending on your moviegoing habits (and what chain of theaters is dominant in your area), you will either be very familiar or not-at-all familiar with a promo starring Nicole Kidman that currently plays before every movie at AMC. Every. Single. Movie. It ostensibly honors of the 100th anniversary of the chain, but that was in 2020 (oh the irony!). In 2022, it’s more of an ode to the power of the big screen. Sure, she’s preaching to the converted (we’re already at the theater!) but by now, that’s part of the fun. Every moment of Nicole Kidman’s AMC promo has been memorized and meme-ified by cinephiles. It’s essentially pop culture liturgy.
This Saturday, I leaned over to my friend as the long parade of trailers finally ended. “Do you think we’re going to get audience participation for Nicole’s thing?” I asked him. He did think so. It was 7:15 on an opening weekend night for a very meta film that was built around the idea that Nic Cage movies rule. This was a gathering of the faithful.
The promo started. A small puddle reflects the lights of an AMC marquee; a stiletto steps into frame; ripples in the water fracture the image. A loud whoop rippled across the auditorium too. More than one voice intoned the opening phrase along with Kidman: “We come to this place for magic.”
We were sitting pretty close to the front of the theater. I could hear the voices of the congregants, but I couldn’t see them. It was so deeply silly. But for some reason — and not for the first time — I got a little choked up. Just for a moment.
The next day, I went with my roommate, Megan, to Knott’s Berry Farm on the final day of something called the Boysenberry Festival. I could have filled this whole newsletter with boysenberry details, but instead I’ll limit my recounting to one notable (and berry-free) moment of the day. Megan and I decided to ride the Dragon Swing, a ride that goes by many names depending on the park: pirate ship, viking ship, ship swing…you know the one I mean. It’s a big ship that swings like a pendulum. The ship swings up and half the passengers scream in a mix of terror and delight at the other half; then, it swings back and that other half gets their chance. Kind of an involuntary call and response.
I warned Megan that the pirate ship makes me scream and laugh like a maniac, but I also wondered if that would still be true. I hadn’t been on one of those things in years. Maybe the thrill would be gone now. Or maybe I’d just be sick.
Happily, I screamed and laughed like a maniac. And when the ship had nearly stopped swinging, Megan turned to me and said, “it’s so great seeing other people’s joy.”
So, let’s go back to that dark sanctuary (the church I mean, not the movie theater).
The lights come on, the organ starts, the hymn begins. Even before voices are raised in song, all around you people are ringing bells. The hymn has five or six verses, but the bells never falter — and it’s not a machine ringing them, or a paid professional, it’s just everybody, arms tired, wrists getting sore, ringing ringing ringing.
As a choir member, it’s my role to help lead the music, but I must confess: I always have to stop singing for at least half a verse during that hymn. It’s just too much — too much in the best way. Pure, loud, unabashed, unadulterated joy blasting me in the face. And with it, hope.
This is true and good every Holy Saturday, but lest we forget: My bell sat in my choir cubby, untouched, for three years.
If we want to find the anger of others, the despair of others, the cruelty of others…I think we know where to look. It’s not hard to bump in to by accident, much less find on purpose. How about the bad habits of others? Hell, the GERMS of others! Don’t get me started! It’s enough to make you want to stay home and turn the WiFi off.
But I’m starting to remember now: to find the joy of others — not a recreation, not a simulacrum, but the raw, unadulterated real stuff — we need to BE with others. It doesn’t need to be hundreds of others. It doesn’t need to be a crowd of unmasked strangers. Whatever works. Just bring your bells.
“Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”
and many others with similar traditions — the one at St James Cathedral in Chicago was similarly dramatic