This year Palm Sunday was also the vernal equinox — the first day of spring. It might make sense to meditate on how Easter, a celebration of resurrection, has more to do with this point in the cycle of the year than does Palm Sunday. But why not take this year’s convergence as an opportunity to meditate on something different?
Palm Sunday, for me, is a deeply bittersweet day. I love a good procession with singing and waving and donkeys, but somehow I’m not capable of letting the joy of this day sweep me up enough so that I forget that this procession leads inevitably to crucifixion. And then on to resurrection, I know, but through quite a lot prior to that resurrection.
Likewise, the first day of spring never really seems like the first day of spring — at least not in west Michigan, where I’m from. More often than not it’s cold-ish with a likely frost or snow to follow. I wouldn’t put plants in the ground before late April or early May. The first day of spring always feels a bit arbitrary, a bit like cheating. The days don’t really feel longer than the nights.
Celebrating Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, in days where the daytime is longer than the nighttime seems wrong somehow, like cheating. In some of the darkest moments in the Christian story — the capture, torture, and murder of Christ — I want comforting darkness. I want to wrap the cold air around me in a vigil so, in the words of the epistle to the Philippians, I can better ‘know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participating in his sufferings, becoming like him in death’ and only then ‘attaining to resurrection from the dead.’
I don’t want this because it is pleasant, or because it is some kind of metaphysical promissory note. I want it because, to me, it is the only thing that makes sense of how wrong the world is: how many people are still tortured to death, how many people still languish in (or have been kicked out of) refugee camps, how much hurt we do to each other and this world.
The sharp contrast between the necessary comfort of the winter darkness and the vernal equinox left me in a bittersweet place indeed, moving into Holy Week with ambivalence, like someone who had been shouting ‘Hosanna’ and suddenly stopped to realise the depths of her own doubt and fear.
Holy Week also saw a full moon. I am not an overly enthusiastic watcher of moon-cycles or much related esoterica but I have observed enough human behaviour to know that the full moon does something to us gravity-dependent beings. Emergency Room nurses tell stories of absolutely mad night shifts; obs-and-gynie nurses and midwives tell of more women going into labor around the full moon; hospital chaplains and mental health professionals tell of particularly ‘interesting’ or extreme behaviour around that time of the month. A friend who is a yoga teacher always cautions her students to go easy on themselves — not to demand too much of their bodies, to stay grounded — during the full moon. The fringes of our health fray when the moon is full, it would seem.
The night of the full moon (Wednesday) I traveled down to Canterbury to spend my last Easter as a layperson in the cathedral. The services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are probably the best things that Anglicanism has to offer in the way of liturgy (maybe in addition to the funeral and baptism services, but that’s another blog post). They are stark and moving and elemental and dramatic, and cannot be undertaken lightly, even as a first-time punter. This was my third or fourth time participating in these services, the first time in which I had no role to play in them whatsoever. My role was just to show up and be shaken.
My partner always gets his weirdest dreams around the full moon. A person who dwells quite a lot in his head already, he reports feeling muddled and off, usually without realising that the full moon is on its way. On Wednesday I rang him after arriving in Canterbury and we spoke about the brightness of the night sky, and how it seemed that might brighter because we know Maundy Thursday was the next day. It was an odd calm before the storm, both liturgically and literally, for England was about to be battered by the remains of a hurricane.
Easter Eve (Holy Saturday) and the Easter Vigil in the Cathedral, 10 p.m. The hurricane was upon us and so instead of lighting the paschal candle outside and processing into the dark cathedral together, a brazier was lit at the west end, its red light casting dancing shadows of a thoroughly barbaric sort on the walls and vaulted ceilings. This is just one of my favourite parts of the Holy Week liturgy: the candle is lit, processed in, and the person holding the candle sings, ‘the light of Christ’, and is answered by the congregation with, ‘thanks be to God’. This call and response happens three times, at the end of which the congregation members have all lit their own candles from the light of the paschal candle. It is not until much later in the service, after many readings reminding us of God’s work in the history of the world through water, that the rest of the lights are flung on, bells are rung, instruments played, noise made, and the resurrection is declared with singing of hymns and many an ‘Alleluia!’.
Water and fire/light are old, old symbols of Divine presence at work. It is because of their age, and because of the reality they speak to almost preconsciously, that they lend so much to the Easter vigil. One of the readings of the vigil is the story of Jonah and the great fish, overcome by the sea because he has disobeyed a divine mandate to go minister in Ninevah; as the story’s storm raged, the hurricane lashed the cathedral walls. The scripture and the sounds of nature begged the question: where have we God-followers refused to go because we think it is a lost cause?
The uncomfortable ambivalence in which I began Holy Week was theologically emotional, given a sort of extra-personal form by the simultaneity of the vernal equinox and Palm Sunday. The heady, heavy lull of the full moon at the start of the triduum brought me out of my ambivalance into rawness. And then, there was the fiery jump forward of the Easter vigil, which ended after midnight on Easter Day.
After the vigil, coming out from under the shelter of the cloisters and running through the torrential rain, I remembered that this was the night when the clocks went forward an hour for Daylight Savings Time, changing into what is called in the UK, endearingly, ‘British Summer Time’. I have always wondered exactly when the clocks are meant to change. Which hour, each year, is lost? I have since discovered that this year, 2016, is the 100th year of British Summer Time, that horological shift which in its own modernist-enlightenment way connects with pagan equinoxes, signifying the turning of the seasons.
Buckling into our car, my friends and I drove past the front of the cathedral, where the a little ‘Easter Garden’, complete with tomb, had been built. The large stone which had been blocking the tomb-entrance had been rolled away during the vigil. I decided that that was as good a sign as any that the clocks had already completed their shuddering jump.
Images via Morguefile