It had been some time since incense was used in this church -- so long that the charcoal had expired, it seemed, and was hard to light. Eventually Deacon Bob managed to coax a modest smolder from it, though, and we were off. Because you need incense for the Easter Vigil -- incense and darkness and candles. You can't do an Easter Vigil in a church that's lit up like a convenience store -- no, convenience has very little to do with it. There's no point doing an Easter Vigil at all if you don't want mystery -- that would be like the lady who wrote into the paper asking how she might make a pecan pie that wasn't so sweet. Just don't make a pecan pie, the cooking columnist wrote back.
Oh, it was lovely. People turned out for it, I having harped on it in the bulletin for weeks beforehand and promised strawberries and champagne to anybody still standing after it was over, and the church was respectably filled -- not packed, but respectable. Some of our best readers read the ancient stories. There were no babies to be baptized this year, so the people signed one another with the cross in holy water, their faces tender and beautiful in the candlelight: a son blessing his father, a husband blessing his wife, sisters blessing each other. And the incense was just right -- we didn't want to smoke them to death the first time out, just a gentle plume of sweet-sharp mystery to perfume the reading of the Gospel.
That's when the smoke alarm went off.
They've made huge advances in smoke detection, it seems. The alarm sent out strobes of piercing white light, and the sound of it must certainly have disturbed the repose of the beloved dead out in the memorial garden, not to mention that of our living neighbors. The mood of mystery vanished -- in a puff of smoke, as it were -- and soon firefighters in full regalia and a police officer appeared at the door. You should have been there.
It fell to me to restore reverence after the firefighters left. This would be a challenge, but it is why we study homiletics. Come here, Jesus, I said silently, and began.
What if -- what if---what if it hadn't been a false alarm? What if it had been a real fire? What if this 150-year-old building had gone up like a torch, the building and everything in it: the needlepoint kneelers, the old wooden pews, all the hangings and the purificatory and corporals and all the prayer books? We would have gotten out safely, but the walls would have blackened and then crumbled to the ground, the beams would have plunged to earth, glowing orange as the setting sun. The stained glass might have melted -- certain the lead holding it would have. I wonder if the brass would have melted? The silver would have.
Thoughts would rise in the dark: I was married here, and my kids were baptized here. My wife made the kneelers. My husband' funeral was here, and my son's confirmation. Four generations of our family, all baptized here, in the same white dress.
We would have stood out on Oak Avenue in the dark and watched the firefighters struggle to save it. But in the morning -- Easter morning! -- there would have been a smoking pile of charred wood where one of the prettiest churches you've ever seen used to be.
We would have wept at the sight. Of that I am certain.
But then what? Well, I would have to find us a new place to worship -- if the parish hall were intact, I guess we'd use that. And we'd have been on the phone to Church Insurance, to see about all that. The vestry would have begun the long process if deciding how to rebuild -- because we would rebuild. Without doubt.
Of course, the church we finally built would not be just like this one. No -- we wouldn't make a replica of it. It would be different -- first, because they don't make them like they used to in 1868 and second, because we are not who we were then. We wouldn't make the Stepford version of St. Luke's as we have it now. The church that would rise from its ashes would be different.
The resurrected Christ was different. People who had known him well didn't recognize him. How he was different, I do not know -- I wasn't there. But something about him was so powerfully changed that encountering it changed the lives of those who did, as it continues to transform those who encounter Christ today. A mystery, he was. In broad daylight.