The Christian liturgical calendar identifies today as The 1st Sunday after Easter
Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, was the first time in my life I have not attended or officiated at an Easter service. I felt an emptiness, appropriate perhaps to the prevailing symbol for Easter Sunday ––the empty tomb –– which is about people entering an empty space where a loved one had once been. This Easter, access to religious services were being streamed online. Typically, services showed one or two clergy officiating along with a couple of soloists providing music. Most churches and other houses of worship throughout the country, once packed, remained empty.
The Eucharist celebrated at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. was simple and dignified; conducted in Spanish and English, a testimony to inclusivity in our postmodern world. The music was provided by an organist, two soloists and trumpeter. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church delivered the sermon. His sermon was engaging, I thought; he introduced it by saying: “It doesn’t look like Easter; it doesn’t smell like Easter; it doesn’t feel like Easter, but it’s Easter anyway.”
He caught my attention. It didn’t feel like Easter to me either, but of course it was.
For me, Easter has always been a festive, colorful, day that appealed to all my senses, from the resounding tones of an organ, to the warm spring sunlight. We sang familiar hymns and listened to the anthems that the choir had prepared. There was the sight of the priest proceeding to the altar, cloaked in celebratory vestments like the cope, a kind of brocaded cape; he looked regal, like a medieval king. Silver communion vessels glittered on the altar in the early sunlight; people dressed in their Sunday best. There was the firm feel of the hardwood as I gripped the pew in front of me while I knelt or rose. The piquant smell of incense rolled over the altar like mist and the heavy-sweet smell of lilies filled the church. A subtle, but pervasive scent of women, was always present. Even taste played a role: as a boy, I couldn’t believe communion wine tasted like Christ’s blood, or any blood for that matter. When I had bloody noses, the blood always tasted like iron when I licked it from my upper lip.
For me, a melancholy note wove its way throughout my experience of Easter. I felt the note rising and falling in me, appearing and disappearing the way fugues wend their way through musical compositions. The smell of the lilies evoked melancholy. I can recall a boy how their scent filled the funeral homes when I attended the services for my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, and later my mother. The lilies smelled sweet, but almost suffocating, as if the smells of Easter services and gatherings at funeral homes kindled two powerful emotions in me – representative of the two great challenges in the human drama: loss and hope. Their confluence left me longing. I was never sure for just what, but the longing had something to do with death and the hope of the resurrection. I feel the longing to this day.
I often think of the religion of my boyhood and how I understand it now. For many people of my generation, their early religious experience had been negative. The weight of moralism and judgment burdened them. Leaving church behind was a relief. In conversations over the years with some of those people, there was indeed relief but also a residual longing for something inspiring, for what is good and pure, what I would call holy. My experience was positive.
Through the awe and the mystery that the several rites and rituals aroused in me, I was left with a sense of divine presence, an idea of the holy, but the holy as a visceral impression on the heart, not doctrinal or dogmatic formulations. I felt as though just around the corner, behind that cloud, around this oak, in a tulip, in those waves breaking on the shore and somewhere deep inside me, even in the dark, something wondrous lived. I could not apprehend it directly. I would try so hard to lay a firm hold on it, but as I did, it was like trying to catch a pantry moth on the wing; just as I’d swing and think, “I’ve got ‘em,” he’s darted away and gone from sight.
I understand better now how a pious practice of boyhood reflected how I thought about God. I believe I liked him. I say “him” not to limit God, but only from habits from the past.
There had been a succession of family deaths during my childhood, seven to be exact. These were grandparents, great aunts and uncles, all well up in years. I don’t recall feeling grief as I know it now, but a kind of emptiness, a vacancy of an inner space where someone once lived. Then I developed a prayer practice at bedtime. I’d kneel by my bed and pray for my relatives. It occurred to me only recently that my supplications were not guided by fear or obligation, but a quiet conviction of divine kindness. I mean by that, how my prayers were not offered to redeem souls from any kind of perdition; I was just reminding God to look after my kin (those were my actual words, “Look after Aunt Daisy.”) I assumed God was caring for them anyway, but I was just checking in, a gentle reminder, not that I really thought God would forget. I remember the innocent trust fondly.
The Bishop was right. Last Sunday didn’t look like Easter, smell like Easter or feel like it, either; but it was Easter anyway. The virtual simulations on TV were sufficient to begin me walking again down the corridors of memory. I was able to relive once more all the Easters, now as alive in me as they had always been so many years ago. I suppose I’d call such recollections a resurrection of sorts.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.