Reflections Theology

Observations of the Customs of a Certain Temple on a Certain Feast Day

I rise. It is a feast day, a holy day. I blink sleep away and begin to prepare a special savory treat to commemorate the end of the traditional annual fast. Outside the window I see a man walk by, his body making jerky lunges in random directions, seemingly at war with specters. His mind is shackled by some demon or other, and awareness of his prison lessens the savoriness of my treat slightly.

My wife and I have been invited to a temple where this holy day is celebrated, the day which proclaims that death is only a hiccup of our existence. We walk to the temple amidst a sleeping city which has not altered its pattern for the sake of today’s holiness. Closer to the temple, we observe disciples in expensive clothing (a tradition I do not understand) making their way to the entrance, where we are all greeted by smiling acolytes who hand us papers on which are inscribed the details of today’s ceremony. Inside is a joyous throng of worshippers, eating more savory treats, drinking a bitter, black tea, and greeting their friends. The fine clothing is impressive, but more so the beautiful faces and radiant smiles of the crowd. In stark contrast with the streets outside the temple, there are no demons to be seen here, just the medley of colorful garments and the exuberance of the end of the fast.

The ceremony begins and we hurry to find our place in the giant indoor amphitheater. Hundreds, if not thousands, have come to celebrate this holy day, and all faces are now focused on one priest on a central stage (he is dressed like a successful merchant). He lifts his hands and calls upon the divine presence, then cedes the stage to a differently-accoutred priest holding an instrument like a lute. This second priest leads various musicians as well as the gathered audience in songs written for this annual feast. But for the words which are sung and the clothing of the audience, I would struggle to know whether I am in a temple or a house of music where the traveling bards play less holy music upon a similar stage.

Soon, a third priest (the high priest of this temple, also dressed like a merchant) takes the stage in order to deliver a speech, after the fashion of this temple and others like it. The speech reminds me of the debates of the University, if they (in foolishness) had only one participant, and if others present were mute. The audience listens in silence, and thus it is difficult for me to discern whether the priest’s speech is being met with agreement or not (as this seems to be the point of it). I see that his heart is pure in his belief, but true to his choice of clothing he wields logic like a merchant. In his effort to convince those of the throng who do not yet belong to the temple to adopt its hopes, he makes several points, and I wonder if anyone has chosen to change his mind as a result.

My own mind wanders to the story which this day celebrates, about the man who died and then was raised by divine power back to life. The high priest in his speech reminded us that the news of that man’s new life was couriered by women (in a society where they were considered insignificant). I ponder the honor given to these women in the story as my wife shares in whisper an irony: the cadre of priests at this temple consists entirely of men! So much for women bearing good news.

I am brought back to the ceremony as the cadence of the high priest’s lecture signifies that he is about to finish. The next ritual is one with which I am familiar, though at this temple it is also rife with irony. Led by yet one more priest, it re-enacts another part of the story of the resurrected man, where, at dinner with his friends, he uses bread and wine to prophesy his death. Owing to the size of the crowd, the re-enactment looks more like a display of martial discipline than a meal. Small wafers and tiny cups of sweet wine are delivered with impressive efficiency, and the worshippers swallow the bland morsels as the musicians play music designed to inspire contemplation. Truly, the music is more reminiscent of the intimacy of that first meal than the small food bits which are intended to symbolize it.

For my reflection, I contemplate death. I contemplate my fear of it and search for that seed within my belly that says death will not be the end of me. I contemplate the story of the man who was raised from the dead, and wonder at its place in history and what it means if it really happened. I contemplate the beauty of the gathered worshippers contrasted with the ugliness of the streets outside. I contemplate a world that doesn’t know what to do with death (physical or psychological), and so inflicts it on others, runs from it, or denies its reality altogether through a steadfast focus on present pleasure. This contemplation submerges me into the deep pool of longing which has always existed in the center of my being, and I am moved in wordless ways.

The amphitheater emerges back into view as the high priest returns to the stage to intone a farewell benediction, accompanied by more music. He then directs those in the audience who are parents to collect their children from a holding area. I realize for the first time that, despite the varied ages of the disciples, no children were present during the ceremony. I can only imagine that they were sequestered so as not to be bothersome, or perhaps because children are thought not to be able to understand the high priest’s lecture.

After the ceremony, we make our way to the temple doors, passing clumps of worshippers (organized by some social principle or other) discussing various topics unrelated to the rituals of the temple. Back on the streets of the city, the people we pass seem to be going about their business in ignorance of the day’s holiness, particularly those who, being deformed and unable to work, beg for money. Without further event (save for seeing several citizens wearing masks with the ears of a hare, presumably about to act in a comedy) we arrived home and began to prepare the traditional feast: a combination of morning and mid-day foods.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

4 replies on “Observations of the Customs of a Certain Temple on a Certain Feast Day”

Really beautiful. How necessary the resurrection in this dying world. But I think the desperate realize this – every day – better than any of us.

Interesting, so what did you eat for lunch?

I think you’re right to consider death in the context of this religious ceremony since death and the (rightful, natural) fear of it is a major crux of religious belief. It is easy to allow our intense longing for eternal life to give rise to belief in eternity, but such thinking (or non-thinking) should be avoided if one wishes to avoid the charge of “wish fulfillment.” While eternal existence may be true for other reasons, the mere longing for eternal existence does not, in itself, entail it. On the other hand, and without discounting other possible philosophical explanations for eternal existence, wish fulfillment has its psychological benefits, and our lives are affected more by our own psychology than what is metaphysically accurate. So perhaps believing in an eternal existence despite its metaphysical accuracy would contribute to a flourishing existence.

thanks for your astute observations. I love the way you re-framed this fairly typical church service in a way that enabled some distance- enough to provide room for some helpful critiques and thought-provoking ponderings. I got the feeling that this is how someone from another era (or planet) would describe their experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *