The plan was to have a fairly traditional (for me) observance of the Easter Triduum, the three day period between Maundy Thursday and Easter that recalls the passion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as recorded in the canonical gospels. Nothing too disruptive. . .
Nevertheless, true to form, I didn’t exactly stick to plan.
In the past, I’ve gone in to Boston on Wednesday of Holy Week for an old-school service of Tenebrae. Latin for “darkness,” the ancient ceremony involves slowly extinguishing candles until the church is completely dark at which point a book is slammed shut symbolizing the earthquake that followed Christ’s death, and alerting the assembled to depart.
This year, Wednesday of Holy Week fell on the night my experimental contemplation group was scheduled to meet, so we decided to organize a service of Tenebrae for ourselves.
We gathered in the upper room of one of our own, surrounded by candles, and supported by a YouTube playlist of sacred music featuring performers as diverse as Mahalia Jackson and The St. Olaf College choir.
We each took turns reading. Together we entered into darkness and welcomed the stillness, until I dropped a big, heavy book shattering our calm and shocking our bodies and souls, in anticipation of the journey before us.
Maundy Thursday has most recently been for me the most powerful of these highly symbolic Holy Week ceremonies.
While there’s much debate about what the word Maundy actually means and where it comes from, the ritual generally reanimates the Last Supper, where Jesus broke bread with his disciples, washed their feet, and gave a new commandment: “to love one another, as I have loved you.”
After touring the digital imaging studios of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I joined the Maundy Thursday service I’m accustomed to attending.
All was as it has been – beautiful and studied and appropriate – but I couldn’t help desiring a little disruption, especially considering the events being recounted are among the most disruptive in history.
Perhaps those at a different place in their journey would feel differently?
Since facilitating a Passover seder for a hundred or so Southern Baptists in Florida some years ago, I’ve cultivated a tradition of hosting a Good Friday seder for a dozen or so adventurous seekers in Salem each year.
My version is more humanistic and overtly queer than that first “Jews for Jesus” version. While the Baptists took pains to locate the radical rabbi of Nazareth as the meaning and purpose of each symbol of the seder, we look instead to the order established to commemorate the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as an opportunity to explore stories of liberation and exile in our own lives and time.
While we acknowledge that there’s virtually no historical evidence to suggest the Hebrews were ever in Egypt, we can’t escape the reality that just as the Jewish people have throughout their history been called out from oppression under prophetic leadership, we too find ourselves in various cycles of bondage, exile and liberation.
We remember the atrocities of the holocaust, and assent that never again will we allow fear of each other to give rise to despotic leadership. We recognize the wandering of the Rohingya as a modern analog of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert and take responsibility for giving voice to their movement and existence. We remember that many American slaves had to cross the Ohio River to find their freedom in the North, just as Moses led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea to their promised land. And we put an orange on our seder plate, because legend suggests a prominent rabbi once proclaimed “a woman has much of a place in Jewish leadership as an orange on the seder plate.”
We find spitting out the seeds of homophobia, racism and misogyny to be very appropriate indeed to our observance of Passover. Thanks for the suggestion, Rabbi!
For Easter, I had kindly been invited to join a fancy lunch reservation, but it didn’t feel quite right to me. . .
I understood why, when I got an email from Vinland, the controversial, hyper-local restaurant in Portland, Maine, I’d been wanting to try (check out their manifesto), advertising a seder on the third day of Passover (coincidentally Easter Sunday).
My plan was to head in to Cambridge on Holy Saturday for a Soulelujah! dance party and then wander through the night until arriving at the 4:30 am Easter Vigil at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist just outside Harvard Square.
(Un)fortunately, I thought it would be smart to take a nap Saturday evening and didn’t wake up until after the last train had departed Salem. . . so, no Easter for me this year. . .
Instead, Easter morning, I was on a Greyhound to Portland where I ate and drank my way through that foodie haven until Seder time.
Vinland uses only locally sourced ingredients – meaning no olive oil, no citrus, no pepper. . .
Our matzah was made in-house. We dipped our karpas (local mache) into vinegar instead of salt water (a sephardic tradition). There was one seating and a flat fee including table wine.
The Vinland Haggadah used much of the same source material my own did. I sat next to a young Thai family who had simply made dinner reservations not knowing what a seder was and a couple of siblings fairly new to the area, one Jewish, one not really.
Our table of fourteen was communal and friendly, despite being comprised of strangers who had vastly different relationships with the tradition.
We laughed and we sang. We lessened our joy by removing wine from our glasses for each of the ten plagues and we opened more bottles of wine as more plates of food came from the kitchen.
We exchanged cards, with intent to come back soon. . . if not Jerusalem, Vinland?
But what of resurrection? Of new life and light? Would all my ritualized darkness and wandering have opportunity to be miraculously transformed?
Thank God for schism!
A quirk in church history means there are at least two Easters. Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a different calendar than many western Christians and this year Orthodox Easter would follow the week after my own tradition.
I’m blessed with a Russian Orthodox church in the neighborhood, complete with blue onion domes, but am embarrassed to admit that in the decade or so I’ve lived nearby I’ve only been inside once, to a lecture.
This year would be different.
On Holy-Saturday-Take-Two, I organized a house reading of the play “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” depicting what’s reported to be the first act of American civil disobedience. Then, had a long, leisurely dinner, and post-dinner coffee, before wandering over to St. Nicholas’s for the 11:30 pm Easter Vigil.
The church was dark and full. There were babies and babushkas. Chanting and prostrating.
We stood and we sang and sang and stood and stood. Soon people started putting their coats on. . . but we hadn’t even lit our candles! We were still in darkness. . . it couldn’t be over yet?
Little did I know the service would continue until 3 in the morning (and we’d stand the whole time). We’d light our candles and process around the block chanting ancient hymns, accompanied by icons. Back at the church, the priest would knock on the closed doors, and they’d be opened to us, revealing a resplendent sanctuary bathed in light and incense.
I was amazed that I’d been oblivious to all this glory for as long as I’d lived in the neighborhood, and then realized I’d been oblivious to it for as long as I’d been alive.
Easter at St. Nicholas reminded me that there is a promised land just on the other side, if I get up and go.
There is a light to illumine the darkness, if I stand at the door and knock.
That there is glory all around, if I’m not too oblivious to notice.