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.   

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Lent …. again

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Just when there is a stretch in the days, and the wind dies down and the sun casts a pale shadow through the cloud, Father K stands up at the end of Mass, waves an envelope with the SCIAF collection box, and reminds us that Lent begins on Wednesday.

What, Lent? Already? My health hasn’t been great recently, so I haven’t indulged in coffee or chocolate for a while. Now that my stomach has finally settled down, I find out that there are only a few days left to enjoy it.

Why, oh why, oh why, did I join a church which has an annual six week period of penance? Because I had to, is the answer. I’m not talking about external pressure, but about the still, small voice inside, which said that this was the way I must go. I might not always like it, or feel like doing it, and I might moan about it, but I have to go on.

What I used to think about Lent

As a Protestant, I had very vague ideas about Lent. I knew that it had something to do with Pancake Tuesday, and using up all your eggs. However, I thought that it was a sort of medieval thing which people didn’t do any more.

I got a bit of a shock some years ago when my husband announced that it was Lent, and that it would be a good idea for us all to give up chocolate until Easter.

My angry reaction was out of all proportion to the small sacrifice involved. I enjoyed my wee nibble of chocolate now and then and no-one, certainly not some stuffy, traditional church, was going to dictate if and when I would give it up.

However, I knew that small children will not give up chocolate biscuits, if they see their mother eating them, and so I went along with it. I started without much good grace, but soon realised that giving up something made me conscious of others who had much less than I had. It made sense. Perhaps this was the first step on a slippery slope which eventually brought me into the Catholic church.

How things are now

Even though I’ve done Lent a few times, it doesn’t get any easier. I’m a bit apprehensive. Last year was difficult. Without even trying to turn up at church in a penitent mood, I found that I was quite affected by Lent and became very conscious of my own failings and inadequacies.

In a world where resources are so unevenly distributed, and where foodbank collection points have become a permanent feature in the local supermarket, I hope that doing without small luxuries for a while, will help me to be grateful for what I have, and remember others who don’t have enough.

Lent is mirrors the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying. When I think of Lent, I remember that Christ gave up far more than I can ever understand just to take on human form. I’m sure that he enjoyed his human life. He started his public ministry at a wedding feast, after all. However, he willingly gave up his life.

I’ve just used up all the cocoa in the house. I’m still not sure what this year’s Lent will involve, but I think that it may require an internet diet. If I write this blog, it might just be to put up quotes I’ve found useful. Best wishes for the Lenten season.