Growing up, I had an amazing priest, Fr. Fred. Not only did his guidance shape much of my faith today, but he was a master of events. A former advertising executive, he knew not only how to give a compelling homily, but how to put on a show when the time called. We had Christmas pageants (where I played the Virgin Mary more than once) and Pentecost mass with people speaking in multiple languages around the church.
He was great at Easter, too. We’d have mass outdoors when the weather permitted (as it did most Southern California spring times), with a big, beautifully decorated platform and crucifix. The whole thing would be decked out in flowers– draped over the crucifix, surrounding the platform. As part of his Easter homily, Fr. Fred always had not only multiple chocolate bunnies he would give away, but a real life bunny he’d hide under his vestments, waiting to reveal it to the squeals of a hundred little kids. He’d always have a darkly hilarious name, like “Stew-y,” for it too (the rabbits were normally lent by a parishioner or local pet shop). The rabbit was always used as a point to talk about innocence, redemption, and God’s love.
As I got older, I came to expect the bunny, knew it was coming, did not squeal with delight as I had as a child, but instead enjoyed seeing the smiles on kids’ faces when they saw the rabbit. The joy was watching their happiness. It was one of many things that made me love Easter mass. We’d laugh and celebrate with each other, held together under the beautiful blue sky.
In truth, I can’t remember an Easter where I didn’t go to mass. Even when I was angry with God, when I claimed to have “left” the Catholic church, I still went to church on Christmas and Easter. At the time, I said it was going for the sake of my parents, but I’ve always loved attending mass. I love the ritual and community of it all– knowing I am saying the same words (or similar words) that my family has been saying for generations, speaking them in rhythm with people who have either known me since I was 10 or never seen me before. It’s a powerful, heady thing, particularly for someone like me who loves a bandwagon to jump onto or being part of a team.
Yet, like so many other events in the time of COVID-19, I will not be attending mass this year, nor celebrating with my faith community. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very lucky. Michael and I have a place on the North Shore we escaped to and we’ll make a nice dinner and I’ll watch mass and then we’ll watch Jesus Christ Superstar on TV. I’ll call my family. It won’t be terrible.
But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t all make me terribly sad. All of the little tragedies outside of the actual sickness and death– our postponed wedding and family plans, not seeing my students, feeling for my kiddos who won’t get graduation ceremonies– have been weighing heavy on my heart. Honestly, this is how I’ve been feeling all month:
So, when I thought about Easter earlier this week, I didn’t particularly feel like rejoicing. Yes, He is risen and there’s still much to be grateful for– but all of that feels much less sweet when you can’t celebrate with the people you love and there is still so much heartache around.
Then, a few days ago, a phrase popped into my head that Fr. Fred used to say each Easter as well: “If not today, Easter will come.” I remember being confused when I first heard it as an eleven-year-old. Wasn’t Easter today?
What he explained to us that year and reminded us each year after was that Easter isn’t just a day, but a spiritual place we seek. Easter is finding redemption and hope again, even in the midst of despair. Easter is the magic of an embrace long-awaited, the sweet joy that comes after trying times. Easter is the strength to get through the darkness because we believe something greater is on the other side.
It’s a phrase I’ve been sitting with a lot this month, since so many things we would call “joyous” feel like they’ve been stripped out of our lives.
Then, I am reminded that “joy” and “happiness” are not the same thing. Joy can be found even in the darkest events, because we know that from those trials great things can come. The crucifixion itself is a joyous event, but not only because we know that not only will it lead to the resurrection, but it reminds us how beloved we are. In spite of it all– the destruction and wrath and muck of humanity– there is still someone willing to love us with unfettered and unadulterated generosity. There is someone who looks at our faults and also sees the beauty, magic, and potential within us. It’s joyous because it gives us a model for how we could attempt to love others. What would it mean to seek and give love that is bigger than ourselves?
And there, in that question, is the grace of Easter.
Easter is found in our ability to look at the muck of it– the bungled handling of the situation, the sadness of death, the grief of what is lost– and still seek new ways of connection, celebrate the generosity of others, and believe that there is something better on the other side of this. Much as God looked at problems of humanity and still chose to see our positives and potential, Easter is found in the ability for us to see that light within others.
So, yes, I am grateful because I believe that even if it’s not today, Easter will come and this will end. I know that, ultimately, I hope all of this could lead to something much bigger and more beautiful than I’m able to see (while still acknowledging the very real pain it’s causing).
But I’ve also recognized that Easter is already here, as it always has been, in the way we connect with and support each other. It’s smiling and laughing with those around us even when we know the trick, because the joy isn’t found in our own surprise but in reveling in the light of others. Easter isn’t just the resurrection, it’s the love we give to those around us and the expression of that love in action and words. As much as I love the ritual and community of mass, the bandwagon-effect pales in comparison to the faith and relationship with God that give me the strength to look this difficult times and try and find grace within it. It reminds me that even when I am not physically with my community, I am not alone.
So, even though this Easter will be a quiet one, I am comforted in knowing that not only will Easter come, someday, but Easter is already here. I just need to look for it. The magic isn’t in the celebration with others, it’s remembering the sentiment Fr. Fred used to end each weekly message with: “Remember, above all, you are loved.”