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A Yankee Notebook

March 25, 2013


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – It’s Holy Week, observed and celebrated by billions of people all over the world. The Jews celebrate with seder meals the night the Angel of the Lord passed over them, killing all the firstborn sons of Egypt and triggering the Hebrews’ exodus into a 40-year search for their Promised Land. Christians begin the week with recreations of Christ’s much later triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Many churches stage public processions, donkey and all, to commemorate the event. There’s a strong sense of dramatic irony in the celebrations, as the original celebrants were the same people who, five days later, were howling for Jesus’ execution.

The next three days are pretty quiet. Presumably, during this time Jesus was preaching his radical ideas in the temple and the streets, distracting from the celebration of the Passover, and rapidly becoming persona non grata to the Jewish authorities.

On Thursday things begin to heat up as the plots against the upstart preacher thicken, the disciple Judas is persuaded to betray his master, and the master himself washes the disciples’ feet as an example of the unselfish behavior he hopes to inspire in his followers. From this comes the Anglican church’s “Maundy Thursday,” derived, it is supposed, from the Latin mandatum, for the commandment Jesus gives the disciples at this point – “Love one another as I have loved you.” Later, as he prays in a nearby garden, he asks his friends to stay awake and watch with him. They fall asleep, of course, despite his rousing them a couple of times. I used to think this a major moral failing of theirs, until I signed up once for an hour in the middle of the night during the so-called Maundy Thursday Vigil, and fell asleep after twenty minutes.

During the early-morning hours of Friday, Christ is taken prisoner and, with sunrise, is taunted and abused by his captors. Brought before the prefect, Pontius Pilate, for trial, he is found innocent of the charges against him; but a popular uproar persuades Pilate to release him for execution. He is crucified – by nailing, not binding – suffers for three hours on the cross, and dies. Many Christian churches, during those hours, hold a solemn, silent service punctuated by readings from the story of that afternoon. Others perform the Stations of the Cross, a solemn progression around the nave, stopping at plaques commemorating the dolorous events of the first Good Friday. Mother and I attended it in the great cathedral at Chartres one year, where it’s done in Gregorian chant. The crosses on the altars are shrouded and veiled in anticipation of the Great Vigil of Saturday night and the ceremony of New Light at midnight, when someone pounds on the church door, rushes in, and cries, “The Lord is risen!” The congregation: “The Lord is risen indeed!”

No other church does Easter better than the Moravians. Also called Unitas Fratrum, or the United Brethren (my mother was one), they originated in Czechoslovakia, migrated to Saxony in the early 1700s, and were ever thereafter German in language, habits, and temperament. Founded by the dissident cleric Jan Hus, they were rebels against Rome some fifty years before Martin Luther (Hus was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415). They were inclined to piety and evangelism, and founded missions from Greenland to South America. Many of their huge buildings on the treeless coast of Labrador were built in Germany, shipped across the Atlantic in pieces, and reassembled.

Mother and I visited Old Salem, North Carolina, one Easter morning. Moravians in period costume were everywhere. Moravian cemeteries face eastward, anticipating the rising sun; and as the sun touched the slope, heraldic trumpeters let loose a blast that, could the dead have been awakened, would have done the trick. Those folks really do Christmas, too, but most of all, Easter.

Some years ago Mother and I were in France during Holy Week. Our flight home from Paris to Boston was scheduled for the morning of Easter Monday, the day after Easter. (Traveler’s tip: This is a terrible day to fly out of Paris. Half of Great Britain has been in France the preceding week and flies home on Monday. The traffic jams at the airport are incredible.) So we worked our way daily north from Provence, planning on Easter services at the Anglican Cathedral in Paris.

My customary brilliant navigation resulted in our being washed up on the wrong side of the boulevard, with two leafy islands and six lanes of traffic between us and the cathedral. Then we saw, right beside us, a sign on another stone church: American Church in Paris. Impressive stone facade and steeple. For a port in a storm, it was pretty nice. We went in.

The church was full, as many churches are on Easter. Nonsectarian liturgy; Presbyterian, unless I missed my guess, and quite pleasant. But at the end of the service, a great surprise. “At our Easter morning service,” the pastor announced, “we invite members of the congregation to join the choir in the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’” I looked at Mother; she looked at me with a you-gonna-do-it? look. I was. The choir fitted us volunteers in among them by vocal part; somebody handed us scores; the organ launched into it, and off we went, rockin’ Händel.

Right at the end, there’s a series of hallelujahs – four, I think – followed by a sudden and pregnant pause before the final one. If anybody’s going to screw up, it’s there. But we stopped on a dime, and in the dramatic silence that ensued, the director lifted his eyes heavenward and mouthed a fervent Hallelujah! of his own. Then his arms went up, and we shook the floor of Heaven.

We won’t be there this week, or maybe ever again. But that’s just fine. For just a few moments there all of us, skeptics and believers alike, were certain that the Lord was risen indeed!

Photo by Willem lange