Last Year: Easter
It’s the middle of the night, dark and cool. I walk out of my first Easter Vigil service holding onto a swirl of conflicting emotions. Part of me is excited; I have never seen Christians get so energized and thrilled about Jesus before. It is as if I have been somehow pleasantly shocked, and I wonder why I’ve never seen Christians act like this before. I feel slightly hopeful about igniting my own spirituality for the first time in years. I am a little sad to see the joy in other Christians and to recognize it as a great exhilaration I have never tasted. I still wrap my feelings of separateness and exclusion around me, the feelings I always wear to church, watching these Christians love and enjoy each other while I stand awkwardly to the side. Even though I am lonely and skeptical, full of anger and doubt, I have seen others taste the Resurrection joy. This experience, indirect though it is, does not leave me untouched. I don’t believe in miracles, but yet, isn’t it a miracle that I am here this evening at all?
This Year: The Beginning of Lent
My husband and I observe Lent this year for the first time. I do it because I’m desperate to find something to bring me closer to God. Nothing is working, not church, not small group, definitely not my own self-will or random declarations. We get an email from the church about Lent, calling it a bright sadness, a time to be sober about our sin, to change old habits, and to look forward to the hope the Resurrection brings. I decide to go for it, secretly thinking this spiritual project will fail like all the others. I give up drinking alcohol. I agree to pray and read every day, find ways to volunteer, and skip church less.
I don’t become suddenly perfect and whole during Lent. I slip up and drink a few times. I miss the readings and prayers a few days here and there. I skip small group and church a few times as well. Other times I force myself to go but leave in tears. Some days I have intense crying sessions for the people I love who are going through so much, and for myself. Some days I hate people at church for not letting me into the inner circle.
The spiritual disciplines began to slowly work, little shoots bursting through my rocky soil, surprising me. It is beautiful to thirst after God finally and to begin feeling a small sense of the wholeness and peace people talk about. It is a bit embarrassing to see how long I’ve waited to try something that so obviously works. I guess I had been waiting for a spiritual experience, light shining down from heaven, a specific word whispered in my ear, a vision like God striking Paul blind on the road to Damascus. Not that I really want to be struck blind, but I had wanted something spectacular and tangible to happen so I could know God was real and wanted to communicate with me. I hadn’t wanted to work for it. After all, how do you work for something you’re not sure is real?
Someone at church tells me that faith is a gift, easier for some, harder for others. And because it is harder for me, I might have to be willing to praise God and trust Him, even with really big questions weighing on me. It would sometimes have to be a decision that my heart would catch up to later on. A decision to do the right thing when impulse tells you it’s OK to do the opposite. A decision to realize that “Follow your heart” is bad advice when your heart is broken and sinful. I had hoped that one day God would make it easy for me to trust Him, give me a tangible way to know He was real, but I am told it is not going to be so simple for me. And that this is not a valid excuse to live the way I want and ignore Him.
Lent was hard and imperfect and good.
This Year: Easter
On Saturday evening, the sunset sky, light orange and blueish, is visible through the gaps in trees and row houses. I walk with my parents and Josh to the Easter Vigil service, the one that kept me from giving up on God last year. I am expectant and hopeful. There’s also a tiny sliver of fear that the service will fall flat, not matching my memories. My parents will regret driving all this way. My joy will remain unkindled.
We walk up to the church and see a long line stretching down the sidewalk, like to the opening of a big movie. People are buzzing with excitement; the doors will be opening soon. Once inside and seated up in the balcony, I start to feel claustrophobic, hemmed in on both sides, not enough leg room, my knees in the back of the person in front of me. There is no polite way out; hot air is pushing on me. This is a mistake, and I need to get out.
But then the sound of bells, a magical tinkling, fills the air. The first song begins vigorously, and I sense my expectant hope for joy echoing in others around me.
The lights go out. Someone is reading about the very beginning of the earth, a familiar passage become almost tedious with repetition is made new, read aloud in the vast darkness of the church. When she says, “Let there be light,” an eerie, beautiful light shines forth. I picture the majesty for the first time, the millionth time I’ve heard about it.
The readings continue like this, being made new through lighting, the emphasis and emotion of the readers, the true drama of the Scriptures I always miss. These are interspersed with music, beautiful choir pieces or all of us calling out to God together.
I am hearing all of this as if I’ve never really understood it before. I’ve heard about hearts being made new, and this must be what that feels like. I feel tears in my eyes, I am consumed. I try to grasp these feelings tightly, calling out silently, “My God, I hope this lasts.”
There’s an intermission, an invitation to reflect and pray and cry in the darkness of the church. When we are loudly called back to the service, there are bright lights, sweet smells, people dancing, white banners, a procession, music playing loudly. Someone from the front yells, “Christ is Risen!” And we all scream back. The joy is palpable, tumultuous, infections. There are cowbells ringing loudly, keys shaking, whistling, screaming, shouting, and hundred of “Alleluias!” I can’t breathe. Everyone in the church is holding a lit candle, hundreds of tiny pinpoints of light. A beautiful, exuberant fire hazard. We sing celebratory songs, we continue to yell and ring bells, we cannot sit down or stop grinning.
As we put out our candles and finish the service, my thoughts are scattered, floating, joyful, fearful, amazed.
Afterwards we walk outside together into the courtyard, the stars and trees and cold fresh air are invigorating. We walk into the reception hall to see the wine flowing and the abundance of the feast. There are hugs, shouts, and happiness. Some people know who I am, and I begin to feel as if I belong here. I continue to be amazed, comparing last year to this year, as we party late into the night.
This Year: After Easter
I continue to be amazed. Those feelings did not immediately disappear. Of course, they faded somewhat in strength and consistency but can still be recalled. They are recalled in the champagne at brunch, in the celebration with friends, in Communion at church, in seeing a friend get baptized, in the beer and empathy at dinner. They are recalled even on Monday, in conversation with friends, in the sense of belonging a bit more than before. On Tuesday, in the caring for a child, in a friend accepting help, in wine and laughter. They are recalled Wednesday in the sunshine, the walk through the park, the budding pink and yellow flowers on the trees, in the flowing of words as I wrote. In the songs playing in my ears, in prayer to God.
And I continue to say to myself, “Oh God let this last, let this last.”
Let me always remember this Easter joy through sorrow.