Probably no more than one or two people who read this—if that many—will have gone to church or synagogue during Passover and Holy Week or on Easter Sunday. Still, perhaps the most committed nonbeliever can accept that the egg represents spring, new birth, even hope—which is the reason I’m giving an Easter party today for old friends and new friends, neighbors and family.
When I was raising my sons, it hardly occurred to me to take them to church or Sunday School, let alone the Young Churchmen’s (sic) meetings and weeklong retreats that were part of my adolescence. A bitter argument with my mother, when my first son was a few weeks old, ended the issue for me. She announced with asperity that if my baby died, he would go straight to hell since I wasn’t having him baptized. This so enraged me that I never stopped to wonder whether what she said with such certainty was church doctrine.
That kind of statement, informed or misinformed, is often what undermines our frail belief, as does any discussion of original sin, hell or damnation. Whatever the doctrine of the several faiths may take as their core message—and this troubling issue is never discussed, in my church—I have come to accept the truth that lies behind these blundering attempts to explain the evil—or unknowing—that causes the wrong doing we see around us, on a personal level and a world level, every day.
That acceptance allowed me to begin to go to church again, in desperation, about twenty years ago. I remember walking across wintry grass that dark Christmas Eve in a little Hudson Valley town to read the times posted for the Christmas Day services, I didn’t go then, but I went soon thereafter.
I doubt whether anyone goes to any kind of religious gathering unless driven there by sheer desperation. The idea of faith, however defined, is too foreign to our world; we are insulted by the claims of Fundamentalists and never sure that the church—any church—is doing enough to help others. And that raises the vexed question of faith versus deeds with which the churches have toiled for generations.
Along with desperation, what drew me back was the memory of childhood Sundays. We all went to church together almost every Sunday until adolescence, when various forms of rebellion drew us away; in my case, it was, again, my mother’s whispered insistence that I take communion even though I felt deeply that I was in a state of sin that alienated me. Not a sin I could name, but simply the sin of being an unhappy, angry, out of place girl.
I didn’t take communion that Sunday and for hundreds of Sundays afterwards. And, in a cruel twist of faith, my poor mother in the last years of her life turned against the church because of revisions in the Book of Common Prayer that removed the language she adored.
The dumbing-down of ritual and language is for me, as a writer, also a big problem; sermons based on jokes rather than on the text, the dreary rewriting of the liturgy to replace all words that might not be familiar with flat contemporary diction, the removal of any mention of sin which I think may leave some of us sinners feeling we have no business being in a pew.
For which of us really believes we are free of sin—however we may name it? The question is what we do with it.
But when I was a child, dressed in a little grey flannel suit and patent leather slippers with short white socks and a wide leghorn hat, holding my parents’ hands as we went up the steps to the cathedral, I knew I belonged, there at the great entrance, and also, briefly, in my family, which so seldom came together.
And then, when I was about twelve, I went to church alone with my father—Mother must have been out of town—and listened with little comprehension to the rector’s speech about the sins of sex—or something like that. I didn’t really know what he was talking about but I did gather that he hated bodies and everything that has to do with bodies, which dismayed me because my body has always been my source of pleasure and comfort.
My father must have been seething all during the sermon, for as soon as we were in the car, he burst out that I must on no account believe what the rector had said, an astonishing bit of candor at a time when one simply didn’t criticize one’s rector or one’s president—or mention sex.
And I believed him. Later I came to realize that what he referred to occasionally, with a gleam and a smile, as “Midnight feasts” probably had something to do with sex. Clearly, he enjoyed the feasts, and with a little encouragement, might have described them, which would have embarrassed my mother.
But, to go back to my childhood Easters: when I got up that morning, I would always find, outside my bedroom door, a basket with a child-sized rake, shovel, hoe and trowel as well as five or six bright colored packets of seeds: squash, tomatoes, radishes, lettuce. Mother was a passionate gardener and hoped that her five children would develop her love for getting her hands in the dirt.
I certainly did. Her Easter offering went to creating a small garden where some of the seeds even sprouted—at least the radish—although I don’t think I ever brought in a harvest.
What a sign of health a garden is. When my youngest son who was going through a difficult time planted a vegetable garden, I saw it as a sure sign of hope, and I was broken-hearted when rabbits and weeds destroyed it. And broken-hearted again when he looked at the ruin with resignation.
Another of my memories, from early adulthood, is ambiguous; my parents organized a big Easter egg hunt for their grandchildren, but the grand prize, a golden goose egg and a substantial amount of money, roused the competitive urge to a fever pitch among these emotionally malnourished young and the hunt always ended in tears. My father dressed in his academic gown and a huge papier-mâché rabbit head for the occasion, which also terrified the younger children.
We’ll have no golden egg, money prize or huge rabbit head today for my party, but instead about four dozen beautifully colored eggs which two dear friends helped me to dye yesterday, hidden in my garden and collected—if it doesn’t rain!—in little baskets made by the women of a rural cooperative in Mexico.
There is a prize egg, decorated with a piece of peacock feather and a ribbon, but the prize, a beautiful box of chocolates, will not—I hope—cause anyone to burst into tears.
And so, yes, He is risen, as the church bells that have rung all morning announce, as that Easter hymn, “Morning has broken like the first morning,” tells us, and perhaps we can all agree that the egg—at least—symbolizes the promise of spring.