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Posts Tagged ‘Easter’

memorial church harvard spire branches blue sky

We have arrived at Holy Week, again – after a long, gray Lenten season that felt like it would never end. Last week, a cardboard box of palm fronds (shipped from Minnesota, of all places) arrived on my doorstep, and on Sunday morning, we passed them out to the waiting hands at our tiny church. I stood in a pew waving my palm branch and snapping pictures with my phone as the kids (and some adults) walked a few laps around the sanctuary, singing songs anchored by the word Hosanna.

Later in the service, we did what we do each week: paused to mention specific prayer requests for our church community and the world. People raised their hands readily to ask for prayers for a pregnant sister, a jobless husband, an ill mother. But when Nate asked about prayers for the wider world, we fell silent, as we often do. Where to begin?

I thought of the chemical attacks in Syria, of the churches bombed that day in Egypt, of the refugees still pouring into Europe, searching for a home. I thought about the headlines that inform so much of my day job: when you work in communications at a school of government, ignoring the daily news is not an option. There is so much fear and anger and unrest, everywhere, and I don’t always know how to react to it all, much less form the words of a coherent prayer.

We always end with the Lord’s Prayer, reciting it aloud in quiet unison. We say it, too, at the weekday Morning Prayers service at Memorial Church, where I have ended up more and more often this year, walking across Harvard Yard to tuck myself into a carved wooden pew right behind the choir.

All winter long, and into this fitful spring, the same line has made tears well in my eyes: On earth as it is in heaven.

I don’t know much, of course, about what heaven is like. I doubt the images from our Sunday School lessons get all that close to the reality of it, and I don’t believe that’s the point, really. But I believe in a world beyond this one: a world of hope and redemption and deep, untrammeled joy, watched over by a God who is making all things new.

I also know that life on earth isn’t like that: the glories of this life are always mingled with heartbreak. We are so far, so much of the time, from any vision of peace and justice and love. There are glimpses of it: spasmodic tricks of radiance, if you will. But we are not there yet.

Holy Week is a time when we enter into the full dramatic scope of the Christian narrative: the triumphal (though unexpected) entry into Jerusalem, the bittersweet last meal with the disciples, the jarring tragedy of arrest and brutal crucifixion. During this week, we walk alongside the disciples as they watch Jesus give himself up, and for a few heart-stopping days, it looks like the horrors of this world have won. It looks like grief and fear and hopelessness. It looks like the headlines I see every day.

Here, in the middle of Holy Week, it can be hard to see the pattern: it looks like heartbreak and struggle, rather than triumph. It looks like tears and frustration and unanswered questions, and soon it will look like deep anguish. But then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, it will start to look like hope. The sky will start to lighten, and the earth will hold its breath. And then – out of the tomb, out of the very heart of darkness and despair – will come the joy.

This week, as I walk the streets of Cambridge, I am also walking a different road: the one that winds through Jerusalem, all the way up to Golgotha. The songs from the Easter pageants at my childhood church are running through my head, and I am remembering how it felt to be part of it all, as a servant of the wise men, a young bride at Cana, a villager joining an angry mob that later became a choir of praise.

For us, Easter Sunday isn’t the end of the story: we still have to contend with the brokenness of this world. But it is worth celebrating that one glorious day when already and not yet meld together: when, for just a moment, on earth as it is in heaven becomes real.

If you’re observing Holy Week (or simply looking forward to Easter), I wish you a blessed one.

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Celebrating Easter

palm sunday church

This year, the Easter planning happened on the fly.

I suppose it always does, really. Our tiny church, as I’ve said before, has no dedicated, full-time paid ministry staff. Instead, there are four or five of us who plan services and schedule preachers, print bulletins and fill glass communion cups with Welch’s grape juice, and another half dozen who deal with finances and building issues (our sanctuary ceiling has boasted multiplying cracks for years now).

We rarely all end up in the same room together for any length of time. We parcel out the responsibilities, and then we have to trust that everyone knows what they’re doing.

In true twenty-first-century fashion, a lot of the planning happens over email, my husband and I touching base with the folks who teach children’s classes, read Scripture aloud during service, lead prayers, bring snacks for the coffee hour before worship. But during the days leading up to Palm Sunday and Easter, even J and I couldn’t sit down together for more than ten minutes to talk about the services. Instead, we had those conversations when we could: brushing our teeth elbow to elbow in our tiny bathroom, sitting at the dinner table while he ate reheated leftovers after working late (again), pulling on our pajamas to fall into bed after another long day.

We were doing our best to be thoughtful, not to put off the planning until the last minute. But sometimes, the last minute – or a series of minutes, snatched here and there – is all we have. And inevitably, it makes me worry.

What if we can’t have the Easter egg hunt outside? Will the bulletins get printed with all the correct names on the list of Easter lily honorees? Will Bob remember to bring the flowers and Dan remember to make the coffee? Will the kids be so excited and hopped up on sugar that they can’t sit still? Will we have enough food for the after-church potluck? And – this is the big one – will it really feel like Easter?

Our friend Mason, who preached on Sunday, admitted to dreading Easter sermons. It’s like the Super Bowl for church, he said – a day fraught with high, often conflicting expectations, which no sermon can possibly meet. My own expectations for Easter are less about the sermon than about a few beloved hymns and the feelings they are supposed to engender. But it’s still a day with a lot of anticipation. And inevitably, not everything goes according to plan.

Yesterday, we realized five minutes before starting that we hadn’t asked anyone to give the communion thoughts – so I volunteered. Miraculously, the snow that still blanketed the backyard last week had melted – so we did get to have the Easter egg hunt outside. Bob filled the altar with armloads of lilies and the two deep windowsills along the church’s southern wall with tulips and daffodils and hyacinths. Dan did make the coffee, and we had plenty of snacks for the potluck afterward. We stood around in groups, eating scones and carrot sticks and spinach-artichoke dip with pretzels, catching up joyfully – if a little haphazardly – on each other’s lives.

easter flowers brookline

We sang “Low in the Grave He Lay” and “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The older kids gave a presentation on the life of Jesus, standing in a ragged line on the stage, mumbling through their parts or speaking them loud and clear. The little ones were not quiet – they never are – and at times the whole morning felt a bit frenetic, a bit cobbled-together. But this is Easter: a story that takes unexpected turns, right in the middle of our ordinary, messy human lives.

I marvel at it every year, sometimes every week: how the logistics, the details, the words and notes on paper, become a living, breathing thing, a celebration of the story none of us can quite explain, but to which all of us, in our various ways, are clinging. It’s rarely neat and tidy, and it almost never turns out quite the way we plan. But – this week and always – it is beautiful.

If you celebrated Easter (or Passover), I hope you had a wonderful holiday.

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the empty tomb

We are – suddenly, it seems – headed toward Holy Week, as the temperatures (slowly) rise above freezing and the calendar spins toward April. The first half of Lent (with snowbanks up to my elbows) seemed to drag on forever, and many of those frigid days were simply about putting one foot in front of the other. (Carefully, since the ground was covered in snow and ice and half-frozen slush, not nearly all of which has disappeared yet.)

Holy Week for me, here in Boston, revolves around the two Sundays that bookend it: Palm Sunday and Easter. Palm Sunday means a sheaf of green, spiky palm fronds, waved in the air from every pew as we sing various songs containing the word “Hosanna.” It means planning the service to include glimpses of the Last Supper, the garden of Gethsemane, the long walk to the cross. We end in silence, and it feels off-kilter, unsettled. (As it should.)

Easter means lots of logistical details: special music, an Easter egg hunt for the kids, finger foods after service (during said egg hunt), lilies for the altar. My husband and I don’t handle all this alone, but we are right in the thick of it, and this year the timeline has caught me completely by surprise. I haven’t had time to think about what it all means, to walk through the story the way I want to. We are scrambling a bit, because Holy Week has shown up suddenly in the midst of our ordinary, walking-around lives.

I was in Texas last week visiting my family, and on Sunday morning I sat between my parents in the sanctuary of the church where I grew up. They’ve stopped producing the elaborate Easter pageant that was an almost annual occurrence from the mid-nineties to the mid-2000s – a huge chunk of my growing-up years. But sitting there, two weeks before Easter, listening to Doris play the organ and George conduct the choir and orchestra, it all came flooding back, the way it does every year.

I remembered stepping carefully down the church aisle wearing gold harem pants, playing a servant of the three wise men (one of whom was played by my dad). I remembered racks of costumes in an empty Sunday School room, presided over by Janice, a calm, white-haired woman who is a genius with a needle and thread. I saw the sets – the stable in Bethlehem, the wedding at Cana, Pilate’s balcony and the long table in the upper room and the bare hill of Golgotha – take shape again, before my eyes.

breaking bread

I remembered so many faces I knew: the people who taught my Sunday School classes and served on committees with my parents, faces I saw in the choir loft every Sunday. Friends of my parents’ and their children; my own friends, and their parents. My mom, helping with costumes and props; my sister, acting alongside me as a servant or a villager; my dad, playing “everyone but Jesus” (six different roles over 12 years). And George, our beloved, infinitely patient music minister, who led us through weeks of rehearsals and performances with kindness and grace. We stepped into the story of Jesus together, in a way that made it newly real and powerful even for those of us who have heard it from the cradle.

This year, I haven’t had time to think about Holy Week – it is suddenly upon us, the way spring is breaking out at odd moments around here. But I have woken up every morning this week humming songs from the pageant. I’m trying to remember half-forgotten lyrics and smiling over memories both onstage and backstage, and seeing the scenes unfold again in my mind.

Maybe I don’t have to think about it so much. Maybe I can simply pause for a moment and remember how it felt: the darkness of Gethsemane, the haunting melody of “Via Dolorosa,” the jarring sensation of shouting “Crucify Jesus!” with the crowd. And the undeniable power and joy of the final, triumphant song – “Hallelujah to the Lamb.”

Maybe I can simply remember – and let the story enter in again.

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empty tomb oxford easter

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

green blooming tree appian way spring

This Good Friday, as we prepare for both Easter (on Sunday) and the 2014 Boston Marathon (scheduled for Monday), seems a fitting day to practice resurrection.

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“It feels strange to approach Easter without a pageant,” my mom said on the phone this week. “Even though we haven’t had one for a while.”

They haven’t. The last one was in 2006. But I knew what she meant.

For nearly a decade, the weeks before Easter meant stacks of sheet music and long racks of costumes, palm fronds and orchestra music. They meant weekly rehearsals, then twice-weekly ones, and finally two weeks of piling into the car and heading to the church building nearly every night, for dress rehearsals and then five performances in four days.

It meant stashing our street clothes and backpacks in Sunday School rooms, running up and down the halls between scenes, while my mother (who was there too) fretted about lack of sleep and takeout meals and homework left unfinished. (It never was.) It meant Dad growing a beard so he wouldn’t have to glue on a false one, then pulling out the clippers to shave it off as soon as we came home from the last performance on Sunday night.

This year on Palm Sunday, in our tiny church here in Boston, we stood in the pews and waved our palm fronds as the children marched in a ragged line waving theirs, all of us singing “Hosanna.” Later in the service, we did a quick tour through Holy Week: the Last Supper that became the first communion for the disciples, Jesus’ anguish in the garden as he faced what he knew was coming. We talked about Pilate’s reluctance to sentence Jesus to death, how the crowd clamored for Jesus’ blood and how Pilate capitulated. We heard about the darkness that covered the earth for three hours in the afternoon, the way the soldiers mocked Jesus, the words of the two thieves crucified with him, the slow, quiet carrying away of the body to lay in a new tomb.

And the whole time, I saw, not the colorful drawings of my childhood Bible or the gritty, blood-soaked images of Mel Gibson’s film, but my own home church, the one I still go back to when I visit my family.

breaking bread

I saw the sanctuary transformed, the pulpit moved offstage and replaced by an elaborate, multilevel set with a black-curtained orchestra pit off to the side. I saw dozens of men and women I knew, hands and feet and faces darkened with stage makeup, the older people walking more slowly without their glasses, everyone but the smallest children wearing head coverings, making them surprisingly difficult to identify.

I saw the story of Jesus made alive by my people, by Robert and Lisa and Shane and Greg, by Diana and Max and Keith, by Ravona and Tracye and Jana and my dad. I saw George, dapper in his black tuxedo, conducting the music and directing the action. And I saw myself – first as a servant of the wise men, later as a musician in the house of mourning when a young girl died, then as the bride in the wedding at Cana. And always as a villager, part of the choir-crowd, observing and listening and singing the songs that took us from Bethlehem to Galilee to Jerusalem to Golgotha.

I saw myself cheering when Jesus raised the girl from the dead, shouting “Crucify him!” with the rest of the crowd, watching wide-eyed as he took his last breath on the cross, hearing the centurion say, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” I saw myself bursting into song with the others when Jesus emerged from the tomb in a glittering white robe. And I saw myself crowded onstage next to my parents and sister, all of us raising our hands for the last chorus of the triumphant final song, “Hallelujah to the Lamb.”

hallelujah to the lamb

They said we did the play as a witness, to tell the story of Jesus to those in our community who had never heard it. But more than anything, we were making the story come alive for ourselves.

I have heard the story of Jesus all my life, through sermons and readings, songs and Sunday School stories. It lives in my heritage, in my very bones. But acting it out, stepping into it as a participant, held a power no other telling ever has.

For a few nights, I left behind my routine of homework and flute practice and school social politics, and entered a different world: a hot, dusty place simmering with political tension, a world of farmers and laborers who were waiting for a Messiah. They and their leaders were divided and confused, but captivated, by this gentle man from Galilee with fire in his eyes.

Each year we make the journey again, from the wilderness to the city, from the upper room to the garden, down the Via Dolorosa to the cross. We realize again the depth and power of the love we cannot explain. Our hearts leap within us when Sunday comes, and we can say: He is risen.

And every year I remember how it felt: the smell of the makeup, the feel of the wooden stage under my bare feet, the sight of Jesus walking among us, healing and teaching. The sound of Pilate thundering, “Whom shall I give you?” and the crowd’s answering roar. I hum the songs, their melodies now inextricably intertwined with that story. And I remember the joy when he stepped out of the tomb and the lights flared into brilliance, and we knew this man was just an actor on a stage, but we also knew in a deep-down-knowing way: He is risen indeed.

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the empty tomb

The empty tomb, Headington Quarry Church, Oxford

I remember walking to Port Meadow with Seth and Kayla before dawn on a gray Oxford morning, carrying communion bread and grape juice for our sunrise service. I remember sharing communion, and later pieces of a gigantic Cadbury chocolate bar, with thirty of my fellow American students and the professors who lived with and loved and shepherded us.

I remember hunting plastic eggs in our living room every year, running around in ruffly church dresses and white tights, breaking each egg open to find candy or a penny or a dime inside. I remember Dad’s glee at watching us search out every hiding place, and two baskets sitting on the fireplace – mine yellow, Betsy’s pink – with green stripes on their handles, filled with crackly Easter grass and goodies Mom had picked out especially for us.

I remember Mom hanging plastic eggs on the slender Chinese willow in our front yard, colorful harbingers of Easter bobbing and swaying in the West Texas breezes.

I remember ham glazed with brown sugar, fluffy mashed potatoes with lots of butter, hot rolls from the oven and fresh green beans, passing dishes around the table with the three people I loved most.

I remember dark stage makeup and racks full of costumes and long hallways full of people mumbling their lines or studying the words to a dozen songs, the story arcing from Bethlehem to John the Baptist to Galilee, to Jerusalem to Golgotha and finally the empty tomb. I remember weeks of rehearsal, rehearsing in jeans and then in costume, memorizing every word to every song.

I remember my dad changing roles every year, from disciple to thief to wise man to Simeon, holding the baby Jesus and singing:  I have seen your glory. I remember watching Jesus perform miracles and break bread with His disciples and then hang from the cross (and gasping in shock, once, as he nearly fell off the cross). I remember the soldiers’ yells and Mary’s tears and the centurion’s quiet confession: “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

I remember Pastor Gary, tall in a light gray suit, raising his arms to the congregation and saying in his quiet, gentle voice, “He is risen!” And the thunder of voices answering back, “He is risen indeed.” And then the choir bursting out in the Hallelujah Chorus, because they could not keep silent any more.

I remember Val singing “Arise, My Love” in the dim Highland auditorium, his tenor voice soaring on the last notes like the joy of Easter itself, feeling it throb through my soul and nerves and fingertips: The grave no longer has a hold on you.

I remember a quiet Holy Saturday in East Oxford, and opening my window at twenty to midnight to hear a joyful cacophony of church bells ringing through an indigo sky.

I remember marching from Folly Bridge up to St Aldates, holding yellow and green balloons aloft and singing, with fifty or more others, at the top of my lungs, not caring who saw us because on this day we are fools for Christ, fools for Him who has defeated death once and for all.

I remember visiting Headington Quarry Church, where C.S. Lewis is buried, and looking at the lush green grass and the tulips and daffodils blowing over the graves, and thinking: Death does not have the last word here.

headington quarry church graveyard

The graveyard at Headington Quarry Church

Today I remember the triumph, so long ago, of life over death, and I give thanks.

He is risen, indeed.

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Easter Q&A

Yesterday at church, Charlie (our rector) called all the children up to the stage, read some passages from the crucifixion/resurrection story aloud to them, then asked them some questions about it. The prizes for correct answers were chocolate, so as you can imagine, this was very exciting.

Many of the answers were spot on and some were even quite wise, but the first one was a particular hit. It ran as follows:

Charlie: What did Jesus Christ say while he was on the cross?
Child: My God, my God, why have You employed me?

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