Palm Sunday has always been one of my favorite days of the year. Sometimes my birthday falls on Palm Sunday, and as a child I always rejoiced in that. Maybe because my first children’s Bible had a picture of Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey surrounded by children waving palms and singing and dancing, and I thought it was a special day celebrating how much Jesus loved to hear children singing.
I grew up in a strict, conservative Presbyterian tradition, where they say every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection and Easter gets no special festivities. No egg hunts, no bunnies, no chocolate. No baskets, no yard decorations, no parties. We did get new dresses and new shoes, and we did get to start wearing white shoes and straw hats. My mom went against the tide a bit and usually got us a smallish chocolate bunny and a few eggs, placed on the breakfast table. I think she couldn’t stand for us to be left out of the celebrations completely.
I didn’t understand Easter as a festival celebration for the church until I was in my late 20s and went to an Episcopal church during Holy Week. Starting with Palm Sunday, and including services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and finally Easter Sunday, it is the pinnacle of the church year and it was a complete surprise to me. It took me several years of practice before I started to get what was going on and really participate. I didn’t understand the whole Lent thing at all, until I had an Episcopal friend that I could watch and learn from. It really is one of those wide and deep rituals that become wider, deeper, and more significant the more you experience it. That is why, in my late 40s, I feel like I am just learning how to celebrate Easter, and why I still find Palm Sunday and the week following, culminating in the Saturday night Easter Vigil and the joyful Easter Sunday morning celebration to be my favorite time of the year.
This year I am reading two books that my mom gave me. The first is Strength for the Journey: a Pilgrimage of Faith in Community by Diana Butler Bass. In it she tells the story of her faith journey through eight different Episcopal churches. She compares the various faith traditions she has been exposed to and embraced over the course of her life and shares her growing insights. In chapter two she talks about how she first came to experience the power of celebrating Lent and Holy Week and it is really speaking to me. She describes the Easter Vigil, which is celebrated Saturday night before Easter morning and the dramatic effect it has on her.
After the Thursday evening service the church is stripped of all alter decorations, flowers, candles, etc. and is kept in quiet all day on Friday and Saturday. Saturday evening you come to a dark, quiet church and everyone is given a candle as they enter. The priest kindles a new fire in a hibachi in the back of the church, as the symbol of new, resurrected life. The large Paschal candle is lit, and prayers are sung. As the priest and acolytes and choir process down the center of the church everyone’s little candle is lit and each person turns and lights a neighbor’s candle. Slowly the light spreads through out the congregation. The priest sings “The light of Christ” and the people answer, “Thanks be to God”. It is very dramatic and impressive. Occasionally at other times in the year I can hear that chanting in my mind and it brings back the anticipation, the contained joy, the wonder of seeing how God’s light and love is passed from one to another and light conquers darkness.
Then in the service there are many long readings as the history of God’s people is retold from the Old Testament. Finally the time comes when Christ’s resurrection is announced and the whole church breaks forth in light and bells ring and everyone shouts for joy. This is the most amazing, breath taking, joyful release of praise and exultation. It is most deeply felt and experienced as part of the whole ritual cycle of Ash Wednesday thru the Great Vigil. There is nothing else like it in my experience.
My mom gave another interesting book to me on my birthday. It is called Chapters of Gold; The Life of Mary in Mosaics by Rachel Billington. It is a series of her essays and photographs by Gered Mankowitz of the Lady Chapel mosaics in Westminster Cathedral, London. I had no idea of their existence until I read this book.
It amazes me how sweetly and delicately the emotional expressions of Mary and the others are shown in these mosaics, which are really just little pieces of ceramics. But these pictures show Mary in all her humanity and grace and beauty. Meditating on them and the accompanying essays of this book has deepened and expanded my Lent and Easter experience this year.
There are short essays from Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, and Muslim leaders on the importance of Mary in their spiritual traditions and symbolism. As the mother of God she carried Word of Life in her body, gave birth to the Word/Life, followed and worshiped the Christ, witnessed and shared the agony of sword and cross, believed and rejoiced in resurrection, shared the founding of the church, and now sits in glory with God. She becomes the mother and advocate for us all. Even if we cannot literally accept all the fanciful stories of her life we can take comfort and courage in her grace and spirit, seeking her love and strength for our own journeys.