Every year, Easter is a different experience.
As a child, I loved the Easter Triduum. Those days between Lent and Easter were unlike any others. They were filled with incense and action, a quiet interlude filled with drama and reverence as we moved toward the joy of Easter. There was reverence embedded in the atmosphere. The congregation moved about the church differently, making liturgy at once both arresting and enchanting.
Memories of this time abound. I recall, as an altar server in high school, watching as my parish priest kissed the feet he washed on Holy Thursday before inviting the whole congregation to wash each other’s feet. Or as a college sophomore, I remember watching as the flames of each individual’s candle reflected in the windows of the church as we processed in from the lighting of the new fire at the Vigil Mass.
The lessons of these days were bold: Faith is what we carry with us through the darkness; it burns brightly when we cannot see. The feet we wash lead us out to serve, making the days of Triduum stretch far beyond the three days they occupy on the calendar.
Even last year, as I studied with other Sister of Saint Joseph novices from around the country in Chicago, I remember driving in silence on Holy Thursday night through the city’s streets looking for churches to visit, to offer prayers with my sisters in the darkness, for the needs of the world.
These are memories I hold dear. They take me to special times and places in my life. They speak to the grace and new life found in these Easter days, the joys and hopes of faith revealed.
This year was not like that. This year, my Triduum celebration, liturgically speaking at least, was a bust.
Holy Thursday, I watched as a woman, who seemed to have missed her cue to come forward to have her feet washed, was left to quietly return to her pew under the gaze of the entire congregation. Good Friday rain showers forced a bilingual portrayal of the Passion that traditionally travels through the violence-riddled streets of the city of Camden inside for the afternoon. And, visiting family for the Easter Vigil, I listened to the verbal gymnastics of a pastor with dyslexia as we, together as a congregation, navigated the intricate prayers of the evening’s Mass.
Nothing was as I expected or desired. I wanted what I had already had and I realized, as the days rolled on, that that was exactly what I wasn’t going to get. This Triduum would be different.
As the week began, I came across the words of the short poem “Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver, written as he teetered on the edge of death:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Carver’s words returned to me over and over throughout the week. For all my hopes and all my desires, all my disappointments and all that felt empty, could I still say I’d gotten what I wanted, even so?
God seemed to be inviting me beyond the constraints of my own knowing, beyond the bounds of the four walls of the church. All I needed to do was be free enough to receive the grace being given – to relinquish control and let God, in God’s time, lead me through the mystery of these days.
In this first week of Easter, I wonder how the disciples processed all that was going on. Could they say they had gotten all they wanted? That first morning when they arrived at the tomb, what did they believe? That the body had been taken or that Jesus had risen? What they faced was the unknown, the unbelievable transformed by belief.
That transformation is made by grace, one small movement at a time. Even when we awake to one grand truth, it is the many tiny glimpses of truth, tiny resurrections that make our faith clearer. These brief moments eclipse what might be seen as a bust. By grace we believe. We see in the act of foot washing a call to love in new ways, to wash the unclean, to face our own uncertainty and confront our own prejudices, to see God in the one before us. We realize that we will have to die more times than we would like or think possible – dying to self, to stubbornness, to anger, to deceptions, to anxiety, to fear. By grace, we endure trial and tribulation with the promise of new life ever in the back of our minds.
With each death, we trust we will rise again. Beyond the pain of sacrifice and surrender there is joy. We become more willing, more open, and more alive. In the process, we become more attentive to the work of God, attuned to the signs around us and so, Christ rises in us.
It is these tiny resurrections that bolster our faith and call us to more. They strengthen us and stretch us. In the moment, they can be painful. They can force our hand; they can make us feel like we want to recant all that we believe. And yet, it is because we believe that we push forward.
Our God does not disappoint. Resurrection, be it big or small, comes.
Reflecting on my own situation, I see the grace now – the tiny resurrections.
As I sat on a bench next to an outdoor Labyrinth late Holy Thursday night, a note from a priest friend came through on my phone. He wrote to affirm my own call as a writer, about the journey we are all on to becoming ourselves, and spoke to the gift of seeing an old prayer in a new light. Beneath an almost full moon, I had to smile. He was reflecting back to me a grace, the gift of friendship. Journeying together, we’d come to this point, and in his words, I sensed that same feeling of Christ looking up at his friends as he kissed their freshly cleaned feet, as if to say go out and do the same with love and grace.
I got up from that bench renewed. New life in curious forms; love poured out and grace received.
The next day I sat in a crowded church to watch a reenactment of the Passion, a flurry of activity and languages all around me. Here cultures collided and faith overflowed. The actors did their best to translate the action of a march through the streets of Camden to the inside of a church, but it was in the mother beside me, two children in tow and still in her work clothes, that grabbed my attention. For hours we sat together in the damp church watching the Passion unfold. These were hours she gave to be there. When the crowd thinned out between the Passion and the veneration of the cross, she stayed. As the collection basket was passed, she did something that struck me deeply, something that I’d never seen before: She made change.
In that action, she gave what she could and unknowingly showed me what more there is to be given. I left that church with the wood of the cross upon me, venerated in a gift of everything but bus fare.
By Saturday, I hoped for a vision familiar – something like the memories I hold dear. As we made our way through the Vigil, I waited. Surely, whatever grace I was anticipating would come then and there. It didn’t.
Instead came a gift more familial than familiar. Begrudging another liturgical let down, I gave thanks for the chance to be with family nonetheless. Leaving Mass, my family went to my grandmother’s house. Around the dining room table, we shared a late night snack and there we found grace.
My grandmother, the model of strength and faith for me, leaned in over ice cream. She pointed to a book on the table. “That book,” she said, pointing to its binding emblazoned with the words The Grace to Grieve. “That book has given me so much, so many days.”
And suddenly I saw it – a tiny resurrection. A widow who arises each day, still in love and bound by belief in new life, walking forth from the tomb so that death might not have the final word; my grandmother shining like the Son.
As I was getting into the car Easter Sunday, my grandmother leaned in to give me a kiss goodbye. “I’m glad you came home,” she whispered in my ear. I kissed her gently on the cheek. “I am too, Grandma,” I whispered back, feeling tears well up in my eyes. “I am too.”
For all that I wanted from the high holy days of Easter, I got what I needed and am still processing what all of that is. Grace was in the little moments. Without incense or fanfare, simple statements and hidden actions revealed God.
“Do not be amazed!” The angel in Mark’s Gospel says to the women at the tomb, “Go and tell his disciples.”
Jesus was already out and about. Easter gives us the joy of encountering him in the here and now. Those encounters bring new life like tiny resurrections. These days are filled with them. If we take the time to look beyond our memories and expectations, we might just be amazed by the God in our midst.
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]
In case you missed it: Partnerships strengthen sisters' clean water projects worldwide