So there we were, sitting in our pew on Sunday morning dressed in casual tweed and ready to worship, as we have lately, like a layman. Kindergartener Anonymous was beside us, practicing his name on a visitor's card, while the beautiful Mother A. was at another parish, filling in for a pneumonia-afflicted friend. We looked at our watch, and waited for the music to start.
"Ohhh look," we heard one chorister say to another. "There's Fr. Anonymous. Do you think he could --?"
Turned out the scheduled presider had called in sick a few minutes earlier. (She's okay, but had taken some medicine that made driving an irresponsible act.) Were we, by any chance, willing to jump in? To preach and preside on, literally, a minute's notice?
The funny thing is that when Mother A. was invited to fill in for our ailing buddy a few days earlier, she'd worried that she didn't have enough time to put a sermon together. "Relax, honey," we'd said in a cavalier tone. "Any preacher who can't pull a sermon on the Fourth Sunday in Advent out of his hat [confession: we didn't say "hat"] should really be doing some thing else."
This morning, God gave us the opportunity to test that hypothesis.
It's one of those things you've always wondered about, isn't it? Could I, if called upon to do so, simply step into the pulpit unprepared and preach on an assigned text, without doing a disservice to the assembly or to the Gospel? Not merely preaching without notes, which most of us can do easily enough, but preaching without time to study, to think, to pray? Who hasn't wondered that from time to time?
"Unprepared," is, to be sure, an overstatement when we are talking about texts as familiar as the Visitation and the Magnificat. One preaches on them at least annually, and sometimes more often; one prays the Magnificat nightly, at least in theory. This isn't like being plopped down in the middle of, say, Zephaniah and told to fend for oneself; there is a great tradition of preaching and teaching upon which to fall back.
And fall back upon it we did. Our ex corde sermon may have rambled a bit; we remember going off both on the question of blue versus purple and on just why fonts and pulpits are so often octagonal. (People seemed more interested in that stuff than one might imagine, by the way). But recent events -- a storm here on Long Island, a shooting in Connecticut -- certainly helped to bring out the truth of the Magnificat, which is that the work of casting down the mighty and filling up the hungry, meaning the work begun in the Nativity of Christ, is by no means complete. An eager, even desperate, world still waits for the completion of God's work -- waits, in the language of ancient symbols, for the Eighth Day, the New Creation which is begun in each of us by baptism, but which will be completed only when we share the Beatific Vision.
Meanwhile, the kid -- who had agreed to this change of plans only on the condition that he got to sit in the chancel -- played noisily and publicly with Power Rangers toys, before presenting himself at the altar and demanding the chalice in no uncertain terms. This business of impromptu liturgics is not without its challenges.
Still, it could have been worse. Nobody left or, so far as we could tell, fell asleep. Several people seemed quite energized by the explicit connection of symbols to theology. Whether the people and the Word were treated fairly is, of course, a subjective matter; all we can say is that we did our best. And that it was a bit of a cheap thrill.