Sunday, April 12, 2020

The agony and ecstasy of Easter


Easter, 1953.

It was a small church in the country, about five miles from where we lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  This is where my mother took us every Sunday—my brother, sister and me.  It was an Episcopal church built with brick and wood like so many buildings in that part of southeastern Virginia, marked and influenced by the colonial past.  We went reluctantly, my brother and I, especially in the summer, when baseball and barefooted freedom called to us.  But there was no question of not going.

I knew some of the people who came and some my mother knew and some we only knew from those Sundays in church.  

In this little Virginia church there were two days that were the mightiest, the most significant.  They were Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Though they were two days apart, the two days could not have been more different.

We usually went to church on Good Friday. We had been taught the story in Sunday school, and the minister had led us up to this day each Sunday.  We knew what was going to happen.  We knew that Jesus was going to be nailed to the cross.  But part of me didn’t want to believe.  Part of me didn’t want to believe that his Father was going let his son die.  It couldn’t be! As the time went by in the church, and the sad words from the Bible were read by the minister, I kept hoping that God would save his only son from dying.  Maybe this time it would be different.

When the minister read those lines that Jesus said, “It is finished,” as he gave up the ghost, despair came over me.  I felt a great sadness sweep through the church as well, as dark as the clouds that the Bible says covered the sky the afternoon Jesus was crucified.  I went home with my mother feeling gloomy.  It was a dark day in every way. Saturday was as well.  

Then, at last, Easter Sunday.  The one day you had to be in church.  We dressed in our finest.  My mother wore a wide-brimmed hat, a lovely dress, and she wore white gloves that inched up her forearms. 

When we walked into the church, it was festooned with flowers.  Sprawling, exorbitant arrangements everywhere, by the altar, and along the sides of the church.  Easter came at the same time as our Virginia spring, so the windows of the church were thrown open and the smells from the flowers from outdoors entered and flowed about.  Everything was bursting with promise.  The women and girls were dressed in bright dresses, yellows I remember, chiefly, and they all wore elaborate Easter hats.  They looked remarkable.  Jesus had risen from the dead!  He had come back from the dead and had walked the earth and then ascended into heaven to be with his father.

Everyone was relieved and smiling and we sang the celebratory hymns in gratitude and hope. 

After the service we shook each other’s hands and wished each other Happy Easter.  The Lord Had Risen! Praise the Lord!  Everyone was joyous.  From great despair to great joy in one weekend.  My little body could hardly contain such wide swings of emotion.

We rode back home in my mother’s car.  If the day was warm, and it often was, the windows we would be down and the sweet breeze would come into backseat of the car. 

In a few years I would stop feeling these things as if they actually happened to a man who walked the earth.  I would still go to church on Easter, though, still love the words and the music and the flowers and love seeing the women in their fine dresses and hats.  But I would never again feel as I did as a boy in 1953 in Virginia that everything was so wrong with the world and then, just a few days later, suddenly, in a burst of wonder and awe, feel that everything was right with the world.

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