Symbolic Magic

The Conservative Mennonites belief in Sacrament was uneven. One writer declared them not magic at all but entirely symbolic which was why they must call them the Ordinances. In reality there was a certain level of power to some of them. Marriage was not symbolic but a very permanent cementing that could not be dissolved by anything but death. The Prayer Veil has several spiritual powers as well as some symbolic ones. 

Communion was entirely symbolic. We were to eat and drink with a wink and a nod to the Lord. We see what you’re doing here. But it’s still no mystery. The only wonder might be the bread. We know bread baking and we know that loaf didn’t mutate while our heads were bowed. 

Communion had no power but eating it did. If you had one inkling of knowledge of sin in someone else’s life and ate without snitching you were damned. 

Baptism’s power was that it automatically made you a member of the congregation whose bishop did it. The membership, not the baptism, qualified you for other perks such as the Holy Kiss, Footwashing, and Anointing. 

Anointing got a mixed bag of symbolic trust and a side eye of hope for a miracle. 

Baptism for a Plain Mennonite follows being saved which happens somewhere between 12 and getting a drivers license. I happened to get born again when I was about to get grounded for a forbidden FM radio. 

I hadn’t really thought it through, using the trump card like that. It set in motion a series of obligations and events I had no intention of ever honoring but no matter what I could not stop them, only delay. 

I was given a black dress hat. I was to wear this while traveling to and from church services. I was too tall to wear it in the car so I wore it the twenty seconds to and from the car door and the church door. The hat carried some magic. I was told that wearing it would protect me from certain temptations. 

I was given a special suit jacket. Some in our community wore custom tailored frock jackets. I was given a standard, medium grey pinstripe which was then tailored and converted to the “plain” button up jacket with no lapels. Bertha Eby, a neighbor across the field did the conversion. 

I went to a special “instruction class” instead of going to Sunday School. This class was conducted with the assumption that we had all been asleep during the previous 15 years of church. Pertinent questions such as how a hat could contain so much parabiblical spiritual powers only extended my classes an additional 6 months. I earned that lesson. Disobey with your mouth closed.

The night of our baptism, Bruce, Elvin and I smoked some Newports, made a pact in the basement men’s room to never tell about anything, and went to our trickling stream of symbolic belief in it all. 

I don’t recall much about the rest of the night except that when the Bishop took my hand and asked me to stand, he welcomed me into the Church. He kindly looked into my eyes and I stared back trying to understand. 

Bend down a little so he can kiss you.

Thank you Grandpap Martin. 

Two weeks later I got my wisdom teeth removed. I was swollen like a chipmunk. But I wasn’t going to miss the next ritual. I went to the basement with my sister and parents who declared peace with all the interested parties and nothing to snitch. I couldn’t move my jaw. 

The next morning I bumbled my way through the footwashing service. I washed Cleophas Martin. He was a childhood enemy and was a real jerk. Somehow he turned into a kind and gentle man who did his best to help young men become real men. He carefully kissed my chin, not wanting to hurt my swollen jaw. I had anticipated this kiss and didn’t need the prompt to bend forward. 

I took the body (wink wink) and rolled the freshly baked bread into a tiny ball. I stuck it between my teeth and it stuck on my tongue. I rolled it around and it somehow got stuck in my throat. I began to cry, trying to gasp for breath. The strain hurt my jaw and I could taste the blood filling my mouth. I managed a little cough and the body of Christ went up into a sinus. I left it there until it tickled too much and I sneezed.

Oh the agony of the swollen, stitched jaw. The tears ran freely. I suppose some observers must have imagined I was having a major emotional and spiritual moment, after all the sadness and loss. 

After I recovered enough I fished around in my Plain suit pocket for a Kleenex and wiped the snot and my share of The Body off my hand from where I caught it sneezing. 


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