Thinking About Good Friday

 

Tomorrow is Good Friday, an important day in the Christian Holy Week, which culminates in Easter Sunday, but I won’t be going to the services. Although I have spiritual beliefs, I am not an active participant in a formal religion. It’s odd to feel the pull of a religion I no longer practice.

As a Catholic grade-schooler, on Good Fridays, I spent the hours between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. in church in a vigil with Jesus while he suffered on the cross. Even if I summoned all of my imaginative powers, I could barely conceive of the pain. Was the crown of thorns like a skinned knee but a thousand times worse? Would having a spike through your hand be like the time my sister stabbed my hand with a meat fork while we were fighting about the dishes? (I don’t recall what I did to her, but I’m sure it was just as bad. Or worse.)

To better appreciate the sacrifice Jesus had made for us, I tried to imagine how miserable he was, but I had so little concept of real pain that torture was beyond my understanding. Instead, I squirmed in the oak pews, kneeling up straight, then slouching, then straightening up, trying to do better for Jesus. If he could be crucified, I could at least kneel up straight for a few hours.

At 3:00, the church bell tolled for Jesus’s death. Our teachers told us that in Jerusalem on the day Jesus was crucified, the earth quaked and the temple curtain was torn. That day, there might even have been an eclipse that darkened the earth for a while. Solemnly, I walked out of church into the sunny afternoon, relieved that the Stations of the Cross and vigil were over, but too respectful to say so.

After church, I was subdued and at loose ends at home. It didn’t seem like I should just play like I always did. Ride bikes, tag, Barbies. For a while I hung around the house. By suppertime—tuna noodle casserole, or fish sticks with tartar sauce, or maybe baked halibut steaks—life felt back to normal. The next day was Holy Saturday, a lighter day when my family would hard-boil and dye eggs. Maybe I’d try on my new Easter dress and shoes and look forward to wearing them to Mass.

More than fifty years later, Good Friday is a nearly normal day. Most businesses are open and people are shopping for their Easter meals, hoping to beat the Saturday-before-Easter crowds.

Despite my nonreligious ways, I often feel a twinge on Good Friday.  At 3:00, I might glance at the sky to see if the sun is darkened and think of Jesus.

 

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Pondering Easter Traditions

Growing up, Mom was the creator and keeper of Easter holiday traditions. She helped us color eggs, and after we were asleep, she hid the Easter baskets. Each one had a name in it so the four of us wouldn’t fight. She made sure we each had the same amount of candy and eggs. She bought my sister and me Easter hats, dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, gloves, and spring coats. My brothers had dress shirts, pants and ties. It was always too cold for the summery clothes we wore to church. But every year she lined up the four of us next to the tulip garden for a photo. Year after year, she made ham, au gratin potatoes, fruit salad, and Mimmie, my grandmother, brought coffeecake. It was work, but all I saw was the joy Mom took in those traditions.

My husband, sons and I don’t live close enough to be a part of my parents’ celebration and our own observances are hit or miss. When my sons were young, my husband and I traveled to his parents, and I bought the Easter clothes and candy and sent the greeting cards. We all went to church despite my ambivalence about Catholicism.

Over the years, the old ways had begun to seem hollow instead of joyful. I told myself that it was better to lighten up and let go. We would invent new traditions and keep the day simple.

In the last ten years since my father-in-law died, we have stayed home. Now that Mom is gone, I feel even more unmoored from Easter customs. I have quit pretending to be an observant Catholic. Easter is a low-key affair. No church. No dress-up clothes. My sons and husband are relieved. None of the four of us likes ham, so we make a big Easter breakfast instead. Mimmie’s coffeecake is the one thing we always have.

FullSizeRenderWe have gone our own way and simplified our celebration, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve let too many of the old ways slip away.

Keeping up those rituals tied us to generations of family who did the same things—put on new clothes to symbolize renewal, ate special rich food after a period of fasting, and came together as family because that’s how you strengthen bonds.

What remains in our minimalist Easter ritual is that my family of four spends the day together, eating good food, talking and laughing. There is little history or religion in our day, but I believe our celebration has what’s essential: it strengthens our ties with each other.