Holy Week

April 1, 1999
Maundy Thursday

I used to hate Easter. Through high school, when I felt a vague emptiness that I was afraid to label “doubt,” it wasn’t too bad. School, where I was happiest, was closed but I still had the telephone. In college, when the label had become “atheism,” it was worse, because it meant a week at home out of the milieu where I was thriving, going through the motions of religious observance with a family I couldn’t confide in. In the years before I had my spiritual awakening, the vacation was welcome because I was worn out from three-fourths of a school year gone. But for a lot of those years, a pervasive depression that left me with no way to relate to symbols of rebirth and renewal meant I experienced idleness instead of rest.

I remember the Easter I knew I had no faith, when every idea and moment and practice seemed as hollow as a chocolate bunny. I was a freshman in college (college freshmen, of course, are the smartest people in the world), and I’d been dating a Jewish boy for about two months, hanging out with his Jewish friends, absorbing his culture (with which I was already familiar, having spent many happy summer days at the home of my friend Malka, an Orthodox rabbi’s daughter).

On Good Friday that year I found myself, along with my parents and sister, assembled at Good Shepherd Catholic Church for the afternoon service, Triorae, (a Latin word meaning “all the live-long day”). We were lined up in the center aisle as if for Communion, but on this day it was to Venerate the Cross, a huge crucifix as big as a kitchen table, hung with a sculpted, life-size, full-color painted Corpus.

The line moved slowly. As you approached the priest, he said something, maybe sprinkled you with holy water or dabbed your forehead with oil, and you’d bend and kiss the feet of the Corpus. The altar boy, an eighth grader in a lace-trimmed cassock, would wipe with a handkerchief the place where the lips all touched, until the feet were hot and shiny.

And when my turn came that day I knew I couldn’t do it, couldn’t feel it, it meant nothing to me, I couldn’t pray for the conversion of the Jews because I didn’t believe there was anything to convert to, so I bent as I was supposed to and covered the feet with my hand and pretended to kiss the statue as one pretends to kiss an in-law, an air kiss, and when I rose my eyes met the eyes of the altar boy, whose eyes were as hollow as my own, who wiped anyway the place where I had not laid my lips.

It would be fifteen years before I would again attend any Easter service voluntarily, and even then I did it with a reserve, a holding back. It would be another fifteen years before I would be able to feel into the joy of Easter, to feel in my bones that Jesus Christ lived and died for me.


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