Easter joy

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Joy was the emotion that struck me the first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter.

As a child, I saw church as a kind of Sabbath day penance. We were Presbyterians and proud of it. We sat on hard pews and listened to a long sermon which lasted at least an hour. The minister said a lot about sin, but not much about love or joy.

In between the two long church services, we were quiet, not talking or laughing or playing, because the Sabbath day belonged to God, and God liked you to be solemn and serious.

The first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter, I was just beginning to think about becoming Catholic. I didn’t understand the context of Easter Sunday coming after more than six weeks of preparation. My vague idea of Lent was that it had something to do with giving up sweeties. It was quite a while before I realised that Catholics don’t just give up something during Lent; they also try to give more of themselves by making time for prayer and sharing their time and money with others.

Lent is something which I’m still learning about. Last year I was shocked to discover the emptiness of the church on Friday, when the Host is taken out of the tabernacle and the statues are shrouded in cloth to symbolise Christ being in the tomb.

This year, I felt that I learnt more about Holy Week, when the church re-enacts the last week of Jesus’ life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through to the last supper and his death on the cross. Even though I couldn’t attend a Mass during Holy Week, I went into the church to pray and tried to go through the daily Mass readings, which followed the last week of Jesus’ life. These events occurred 2000 years ago, as far as we count time, but I felt that through the church I was participating in them in some way.

On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I knew on an intellectual level, that Christ had risen and that this would be celebrated in the Easter vigil on Saturday. However, I felt that I was sharing in the Jesus disciples’ confusion and grief, and in their long vigil between his death on the cross and the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Holy week seemed very long and I got weary concentrating on the events which led up to Jesus death. Whenever, I went into a church to pray, all I saw was a man on the cross, his face distorted by intense pain. Wasn’t this focus on suffering and death a bit macabre and unhealthy? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the fact that he has risen, rather than making ourselves dwell on the fact that he went through an unfair trial on trumped up charges and that he was handed over to Roman soldiers and tortured to death?

Despite these feelings, I recognise that if Christ hadn’t suffered, I wouldn’t be able to relate to Him. If He had come in triumph rather than sharing in our poverty and smallness and failure and death, I might subjugate myself to Him as King, but He wouldn’t be my Saviour. If Christ hadn’t suffered, if God hadn’t suffered, then He could not understand my suffering.

Without death, resurrection has no meaning, and Easter is just a muddle of fluffy bunnies and cute chicks and sweet chocolate. Without the silence and darkness of the church on Easter Saturday, the candles that are brought in during the Easter vigil would have no significance. It is only because I tried in my flawed way to take part in Lent and Holy week that the joy of Easter Sunday broke over me like a wave.   

Easter thoughts

Easter was a joyful day.

I was away from home and I went to an early morning Mass in an unfamiliar church. There was no fancy music to pull at my emotions and the homily was delivered by a middle-aged priest with a flat, level voice. However, I was moved to tears of happiness.

Sometimes I feel nothing when I go to Mass and at other times, often when I just go without expecting anything, I feel very emotional as if something is working in me which I can’t grasp or understand. It is hard to put what happened into words, but I will try.

I live in a time of continual change. My wee country of Scotland is going through a time of uncertainty. It is like one of the smaller Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferries which take shuttle people and cars and food and newspapers to and from the islands. At the moment, it is so stormy that everyone on the boat is either vomiting or trying very hard not to vomit. Meanwhile the Calmac staff, whose stomachs are hardened by many choppy crossings, go around handing out paper bags. They do their best to clean up sick patches on the upholstery with paper tissues and smelly sprays.

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By Gerry Zambonini (Mull-26  Uploaded by Vclaw) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The UK is like a creaky ship from the heyday of the empire, built in the style of the Queen Mary with luxury quarters for the first class and less salubrious third class cabins in the bowels of the ship. It sails straight through the waves, but we’re all afraid it might be about to hit an iceberg. Things change every day. Yesterday a general election was announced just two years after the last one.

As for myself, I am experiencing uncertainty about work and the health of a family member. I see myself as a little boat, perhaps one of the wooden corracles used on the west coast of Ireland. I have left one shore far behind. It is out of sight, no longer even a faint blue line on the horizon, and the next stretch of land is not yet visible. In every direction, I see only sea. Sometimes it is pleasant to be out on the sea, but at other times, the waves are large and threaten to swamp my little boat.

Just as I can’t see land, I can’t see who is steering and guiding my little coracle. However, Easter Sunday gives me hope that Christ is risen, not defeated by death, and that He is there even if I can’t see Him.

I almost felt Christ’s love, not just for me but for every single person in that church, however, ordinary and insignificant we seemed to be. Easter gave me hope that God loves me. I don’t need to struggle on the treadmill of trying to be young enough and attractive enough and strong enough and rich enough and wise enough and important enough to gain the approval of others.

I can’t earn God’s love. He offers it freely despite my faults and failures. Believing in God’s love is an an ongoing challenge. I’ll say more about that in the next post.

Two sides of Easter

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When I was a child, Easter meant eating Cadbury’s cream eggs which covered my hands with goo. My Mum also gave me a boiled egg to decorate with felt tip pens. Lurid blue and green ink smudged on the egg white when I cracked it open, but I ate it anyway. Back in these good old days, there was no such thing as non-toxic ink, and so I if I’ve turned out to be a little bit wacky, I’ll blame it on that.

Joy

Easter, like Christmas, was a strictly non-religious experience, because we didn’t celebrate it in church. I was a student living away from home when I went to my first Easter day service in a Baptist church. It should have been a joyful experience. The church was packed with smiling people, and the choir sang their hearts out, but I felt annoyance, bordering on anger. I had been brought up with such an emphasis on Christ’s suffering and death that I couldn’t understand why they were so happy.

My next Easter experience, many years later was Mass on Easter Sunday. This time I was much less resistant to joy. I was almost overwhelmed by the different sensations: light from the candles, the smell of incense, the sound of singing, the feel of droplets of holy water, from a brush which the priest flicked enthusiastically over the congregation.

At that point, I didn’t understand Lent, or the fact that Easter Sunday is the culmination of a week of preparation which follows the last week in Christ’s life, his death and resurrection.

Sadness

My experience of Easter is like a patchwork. Due to other commitments, I can’t take part in everything, and even if I could, I don’t think I could take it all in at once. This year my new patch in the Easter quilt was a short time of prayer in the church early on Good Friday.

I couldn’t take part in the Maundy Thursday Mass or the Good Friday prayers, but I saw that there was prayer in the church from Thursday night until Friday morning. I gathered my courage and slipped in for a few moments between dropping the kids at school and going to work.

The church felt different. The statue of Christ was draped in cloth and a curtain partly covered the entrance to the side chapel. I crept into the side chapel and found empty rows of chairs facing a little brass box surrounded by a profusion of flowers. The atmosphere was that of a Chapel of Remembrance. It felt as if someone had died. The church itself was a bare shell, too large for the swaddled figure of Christ and the gaping doors of the tabernacle.

Although I had read that the sacrament is taken out of the tabernacle and placed elsewhere to symbolise Christ’s death and burial, it was a shock to see the church like this. Somehow I had thought that these ceremonies occurred later on Good Friday, and had expected to find the church in more or less normal condition.

Even though this was a re-enactment of events which occurred over 2000 years ago, it felt like a bereavement. I knelt in the side chapel and cried as if I had lost a loved one.

Balance

Mine is not a certain faith. I shuffle forwards, testing each step. I keep going, not because I have any assurance that there is anything beyond what my five senses can tell me, but because of a feeling, deep down, that this is what I am meant to do.

The sadness I felt in finding the church empty, testified in a reverse way to the fact that there must usually be a presence there, even if I have no strong awareness of it. The grief I felt at finding Christ symbolically entombed, showed me that, even through the muddle and guddle of everyday life, a part of me longs for him.

I joined the Easter vigil on Saturday, when light is brought into the dark church from a fire lit outside in the night. Throughout the next few days when doubts pecked at me like black corbies, or crows, I remembered that I cannot understand light without knowing darkness, life is precious because we also experience death, and that faith arises from questions and doubts.