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Happy Quasimodo Sunday.

The Light of the World, by William Holman HuntThis year in the Octave of Easter we put aside the penitential devotional books that had been our companions through Lent and Holy Week and decided to dig into some really powerful stuff: the novels of Barbara Pym. Pym was an English novelist and a parishioner at St Gabriel's, Warwick Square in London; her books are like cool glasses of water in their quiet, calm power, and whether she writes about people or Anglicanism or gentrification, Pym illuminates with diagnostic clarity the heart of a matter.

In the pre-commute morning light on Easter Monday, our eyes roamed over the bedroom bookshelves, passing over Pym's Crampton Hodnet, Some Tame Gazelle and The Sweet Dove Died, landing finally on Quartet in Autumn. Its plot revolves around four coworkers wending toward the autumn of their lives. Pym guides us through their days as they look at retirement, their lives as single people and widowers, and the big problems of life, like what to do about lunch and where to go for an evening service on St Luke's Day. It is a special book, one we hadn't known so well before, and surprisingly suited to a train commute in Eastertide. One would not call it a churchy book, but it is a book in which the lives of four ordinary people living through ordinary joys and tragedies are bathed (with or without their knowledge) in the light of the resurrection. The ordinary is grace-filled and startlingly holy if only our eyes and hearts are open to the goodness of God in them, even on a tired Monday morning. About a third of the way through Quartet in Autumn, one of the characters launches on a slightly uncharacteristic liturgical commentary that caught us by surprise this year:

Everybody knew about Lent, of course, even if they didn't do anything about it, with Palm Sunday ushering in the services of Holy Week—not what they used to be certainly, but there was still something left of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday with the ceremonies, the prelude to Easter Day. Low Sunday always seemed a bit of an anticlimax after all that had gone before but it wasn't long before Ascension Day and then Whit Sunday or Pentecost as it was properly called. After that you had Corpus Christi, with a procession out of doors if fine, and then Trinity Sunday, followed by all those long hot summer Sundays, with the green vestments and the occasional saint's day.... That was how it had always been and how it would go on in spite of trendy clergy trying to introduce so-called up-to-date forms of worship, rock and roll and guitars and discussions about the Third World instead of evensong.

This run-on summary of part of the liturgical year has a hidden flaw: all of Pym's characters' liturgical celebrations are solitary events. If you read this summary again carefully, you will see that Easter itself with its resurrection joy is actually missing. This sort of Christian life lacks what another Barbara, this one surnamed Ehrenreich, has called collective joy.* The characters' atomized, anomie-filled personal lives are undeniably Christian, linked with the life of the church and with one another, wrapped up in steady engagement with questions of love and redemption. But the flight from collective joy that is content to let the liturgical year be a succession of undisturbed color and climate changes sets up the unfortunate need to make a false opposition between 'discussions about the Third World instead of evensong'. The undercurrent of sweet sadness in this novel is elegiac and in its own way quite attractive for those among us who have a hankering after sepia-toned Anglicanism. But we do not need to—and we should not, ever, if we can help it—decide between the needs of the world around us (Pym uses 'the Third World' as shorthand, we're sure) and the enriching, enlivening course of liturgical life inside church buildings, whether or not it involves evensong.

Low Sunday—whether we call it Quasimodo Sunday, White Sunday, or the Second Sunday of Easter—isn't in fact very emotionally Low unless we let it be so.** Our Easter joy is just a little older than it was last week, but not, we hope, more tired or less real. Like newborn babes, we have tasted the kindness of the Lord, not alone and separate, but as brothers and sisters in one family with one recently-refreshed baptism. So rejoice, for Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Tune your hearts to find collective joy, and when you do, join in!

See you next week.

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Last updated: 15 April 2007

* See (and read, if you like) Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, by Barbara Ehrenreich, published in 2007.

** Liturgical scholars argue among themselves about why it is called Low Sunday in the first place; they have four or five theories, all of which are somewhat philologically creative and satisfying in their own ways but occasionally obscure.

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