As Don mentioned in his previous post, if you grew up in a Catholic household, Easter, Holy Week, Lent; they were all very big deals. Not as much fun as Christmas time, but equally important, maybe more so. Besides attending Mass, which we did every Sunday, I remember the season as being full of lots of good food, and countless movies and television productions of a Biblical nature. It was an annual ritual of viewing in our household. King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Bible, Ben Hur, Jesus of Nazareth….the list was long. We watched all those films, with Mom tearing up at all the right moments, and us learning our Biblical history courtesy of Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong – they were good, well made films. And maybe Jesus did look like Tab Hunter, and the Pharoh like Yul Brynner, but I doubt it. Still they did their best and truth be told, the story writes itself. Then there was that basket of candy to be found on Easter morning, somehow introducing a large bunny into the equation.
But besides all that fluff, the rest was pretty serious stuff.
Lent, a pretty solemn observance began on Ash Wednesday (where we would receive ashes to the forehead to remind us of that old adage “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust”) and continue for six weeks, ending on Easter Sunday. Catholics the world over struggle to “give something up” for the Lenten season. A sacrifice, if you will to emulate the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made. I have always found it hard to understand how giving up ice cream or cheesesteaks had anything to do with the sacrifice that we were told Jesus made, but hey everyone was very serious about it. It was all done with good intention however and I am sure we too practiced the tradition, though for the life of me I cannot remember giving up anything – maybe I got a pass because of my age. Mom already wouldn’t serve meat on Fridays , even after the Pope said it was OK. And we certainly weren’t forced to give up television as that would have caused our very own family Reformation.
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter was the day the Church told us was the day Jesus entered Jerusalem (only to be crucified a week later) At Mass, they would give out fronds of Palm, that we would diligently bend into crosses that would adorn mirrors in the house, or hang from the rear view mirror in the DeSoto – not sure what the connection with mirrors was, but hey I didn’t understand much of anything.
Good Friday was of course the day commemorating the Crucifixion, and the large Crucifix that stood at the altar of St. Bernards was shrouded in purple silk, not to be removed until Easter Sunday.
And then of course, the culmination of the season, the Easter Mass. Easter Mass was a celebration, of life, eternal life, of rebirth, of redemption. The sermon, of course was one of the most important given in the whole year. Unfortunately over the years many of the sermons I heard, simply didn’t measure up to the occasion.. They could have been spoken on any given Sunday, with their usual themes of righteousness, and faith. But there was this one, interestingly enough given by a Priest visiting our Parish that I remember best. The church was as usual stuffy, huge standing fans spread dust through the air, the smell of cheap candles wafted to the apse and as usual, everyone was neatly attired, stuffed into the wooden pews, thinking about the dinner that awaited them at home, and struggling to pay attention to the proceedings. But this Priest, a tall, thin man walked to the Altar, stood silently for a few moments, spread his arms and started by saying simply:
‘If not today, then nothing’
Huh? What did he say? Curve ball inside corner. But he had our attention.
‘Without this day,” he continued, “ or more exactly, what it celebrates, we as Christians have nothing’.
Down and in, Strike two.
Some frowns, and puzzled looks, Dad squinting, Mom rapt whether she understood it or not. The crowd could sense that clearly this wasn’t going to be one of the usual “Love your neighbor” talks. Who was this guy anyway? This Priest, was God Forbid, challenging us to actually try to understand what the day actually meant. Of course I didn’t get it at the time, being a little kid, but it stayed with me. He mentioned Christmas, saying how it was right and proper to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but what this day represented, was the foundation of the entire Church and its legacy.
Let’s face it, anyone can be born, he said, but how many can be resurrected?
Whoa! Fast ball, straight down the middle and we very truly called out.
The point he was making of course was that without the Resurrection story, the whole house of religious playing cards collapses. It is that event that seals our faith, like nothing else.
It was a short sermon, but effective. I looked around me, and everyone was paying attention, a rare feat at St. Bernards. When he was done, ending with a reminder to us to consider and think about our beliefs, our faith, challenging us to put ourselves to the test and see how we fare. Don’t believe blindly; understand what it is you believe, he said. Man this was different stuff, and I liked it a lot. I remember when we filed out after Mass, Dad still had that “Dad” look which was basically a look of total confusion; Mom looked dreamy, as she always did in Church, Don looked thoughtful, and I was just looking at all of them.
Easter and indeed the whole of Spring is a time of renewal and re-birth, a time of renewed hopes and intentions. The dreaded Winter is over; Summer beckons. It is a magical time of the year, clearly my favorite. I have long since lost a lot of the faith I had as a child; that just happens. And I don’t attend Mass anymore; haven’t for years. Hell, I am not even sure what it is I believe in but I have never stopped searching, learning, reading, questioning. It is when you give up the search, that you truly lose. The Church, Catholicism itself demands a lot from its followers; most pick and choose what they will follow and what they won’t. But even if I were to say I was a non-believer, I still think that Priest was right. Without Easter, without what it celebrates, then the whole thing rings hollow.
Without Easter, there is nothing.
It was the best sermon I ever heard.
We really don’t celebrate Easter now besides making a great meal, and enjoying the wonders of the emerging beautiful natural world around us. But I think of that Priest and that Sermon a lot.
And yes, I still like to watch those Hollywood movies even if no one will ever be able to convince me that Jesus had blue eyes and blond hair.