There is a Jewish tradition that the youngest child present, who is able to do so, begins the Passover Seder with a question: “How different is this night from all other nights?” The sacred meal then unfolds with symbolic foods, scripture passages and prayers, all telling the story of Israelite slavery and the exodus from Egypt.
Some Jews believe that as they taste bitter, salty and sweet foods and listen deeply to the biblical story, they are not so much remembering the story of their spiritual ancestors as they are reliving it themselves. Jesus and his friends shared a Seder dinner on the Thursday night before he died. Because I want to keep him connected to his faith and find him in mine, I am borrowing the first question of Passover on this Easter morning.
Sheltering at home during the coronavirus pandemic means that most Christians are not dressed up and filling church pews around the world. We are finding different ways to celebrate the resurrection, separate but united in spirit. Like many other believers, I am thinking about past years, especially those I spent at Catholic Easter vigils. They are long services -- especially the one we attended one year in New York City, where all the required scripture was read in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
I remember how the service begins outside the church as the darkness grows. Everyone assembles around the Easter fire, a symbol of light and hope. I remember the smell of burning wood and the crack of sparks rising into the darkening sky. I remember the lighting of the tall Easter taper from the fire and watching the light spread as that great unwieldy candle lights smaller ones held by the faithful.
I remember the stream of light processing slowly into the dark church. A leader chants the name of a saint, the rest of us chant back, “Pray for us.” This litany of the saints is longer at the vigil, replete with names of holy women and men rarely mentioned in ordinary services. I remember when the lights of the church are turned on. We blow out the small candles. The smell of smoke and hot wax lingers as the long progression of readings starts. They begin with the creation and end with the resurrection, aiming to remind us all of our shared salvation history.
As I think about these Easters past, I see how the holy celebration of light begins in darkness. That it is seeded in the grief and doubt of Jesus' family, friends and followers. The beginning of its end lies with a tiny group of women, gathered to do the work of preparing Jesus’ body for burial. I remember their surprise at finding the tomb empty, how the words of a stranger send them back to where their compatriots are hiding in fear and sorrow. I see how the women shared the good news despite the scepticism of those who heard it.
This morning, Easter 2020, is different from all other mornings. It holds together darkness and light. It fuses the church’s liturgy of saints with the next-door holy ones who go to work while the rest of us shelter at home. It challenges us all to endure the frustrating and frightening waves of grief and doubt and surprise and hope swirling around us today.
We are not just remembering the first Easter, we are reliving it, too.
I always dread Good Friday services. Somehow, it feels odd to me to gather as a community on such a lonely day. And, after years spent as a Presbyterian, I've never been comfortable with kissing the cross. I can't even bring myself to wear one.
Now, with coronavirus and its attending angel of death passing over us, I'm at peace with my solitary Good Friday. To be sure, there are services online. And there are moving photographs of Pope Francis marking the way of the cross in a mostly deserted Vatican square.
But I took a walk alone through my mostly deserted neighborhood, reflecting on how lonely the family, friends and followers of Jesus must have felt on the day they saw him die. And I remembered an interview I read earlier this week with the pope for Commenweal titled A Time of Great Uncertainty. It's a good piece to read during Holy Week.
So, today, on Good Friday, I am carrying two of his thoughts with me:
First, that we all live next door to saints -- doctors, nurses, clergy, first responders, grocery clerks, shelf stackers, pharmacists, delivery people, mail carriers, and on and on.
And this quotation from Francis, which includes a line from one of his favorite novels, The Betrothed by Allesandro Manzoni: "'The Lord does not leave his miracles half-finished.' If we become aware of this miracle of the next-door saints, if we can follow their tracks, the miracle will end well, for the good of all. God doesn’t leave things halfway. We are the ones who do that."
Unlike those people who first followed Jesus, we know Easter is coming.