As my four year old daughter and I left a department store yesterday, we were confronted by a giant electronic Easter Bunny that was rising out of a cracked egg. The bunny’s arms were outstretched and it had a silly grin on its face, and then it suddenly dropped back inside the egg, keeping my daughter spellbound. After a few seconds, the bunny rose again with that silly grin and floppy ears, and I hurried my daughter away, knowing that she loved it, but the problem for me is that this kind of thing reconfirms what she has been seeing for weeks now.
Everywhere we go there are bunnies, little chickens, colorful Easter eggs, and baskets overflowing with candy and toys. If she were to judge by just what she has seen, Easter would be about nothing but a bunny who inexplicably comes from an egg and then distributes more of them along with goodies to good little girls and boys. There is nothing there that is religious in nature, and that’s probably why it is appealingly safe for retailers, school teachers, and advertisers.
Let’s face it, Holy Week is a difficult concept when one looks at the reality of it. As palms were distributed for Palm Sunday in our church, my daughter watched silently and listened to the readings. When we went outside after Mass, she asked me if the palms were like flowers because Jesus had died. I went on to explain what they meant and also that we would talk more about how and why Jesus died later on. This little exchange reminded me of a time (I must have been around five) when I told my father that I liked the Baby Jesus much better than the older Jesus. Of course, Baby Jesus is soft, cuddly, and easy to like (and he comes at Christmas along with Santa and his toys), but the adult Jesus who dies on the cross is a tough thing for a child to understand let alone like.
Growing up as a Catholic here in New York City, I was probably more confused about Holy Week than anything else in the faith I was being taught. The good Dominican Sisters in my school did their best to instill the catechism and scripture in our hearts, but my mind wandered sometimes back to only a few months before when we were celebrating the birth of a little baby. When I was very young, I didn’t understand how that baby grew so fast between Christmas and Easter.
As I got older and grasped the timeline of events, I still had a hard time with the reality of Holy Week as something to celebrate. It is a rather grim moment in time when we reach what we call Holy Thursday because we know the Last Supper is going to be indeed Christ’s last meal, and yet we are taught to find this also glorious because here Jesus teaches his Apostles the sacrament of the Eucharist, celebrating what is ostensibly the first Mass and thereby displacing the tradition of the Seder.
At some point during this meal and before the actual breaking of the bread, Jesus turns to Judas and tells him to do what he must do. Thus, Judas leaves the room and does not have the opportunity to consume the bread made flesh or drink the wine made blood. No matter what grade level I was in, this always seemed to be an obvious punishment in and of itself for Judas, for he failed to receive the sacrament and then went on to betray Jesus and ultimately hung himself once he realized his sin.
Once the object of the transformed Seder was complete, Jesus and his followers went to the Garden of Gethsemane for prayer and reflection. While Peter and the rest were a bit drunk on the wine and fell off to sleep, Jesus had what I have always believed to be his most human moment (except for that time in the temple when he went ballistic on the vendors and money lenders). Here Jesus fell to his knees and begged for the cup to pass from his lips. His godhood was subsumed briefly by his humanity, and he wanted to keep his human life despite all its frailties and afflictions.
This brief time in the garden always frightened me the most, because whether or not it was Satan who was using this human frailty to advantage (the scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ takes us in this direction), this does show how afraid Jesus was about dying. I do understand now that this makes us aware of the duality of Christ’s nature and helps us understand better that he was given a soul with freedom of choice just like all of us. In the end Jesus acquiesced to his father’s will and prepared himself for the horror that awaited him the following day.
Judas brought the Temple Guard into the garden and betrayed his friend with a kiss. Jesus was taken away and brought before the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of elders for the Jews. Here he was questioned and eventually sentenced to death for saying that he was the Son of God. Since the Jews did not have the authority to put anyone to death under Roman occupation, Jesus was sent off to the procurator Pontius Pilate in hopes that he would see the danger Jesus posed and crucify him.
I know how this all turns out, but of course each time I read the scriptures or see a film, I wonder what it would have taken to change things. Surely Pilate, despite being a corrupt bureaucrat, would have seen that Jesus was just a poor itinerant preacher probably wanting to be some kind of prophet and was no danger to Rome. Yet, despite the reality of this, Jesus was dragged in front of the gathering crowd outside and put alongside a murderer and thief named Barabbas. Pilate asked the crowd which one should be released, and the multitudes (prompted by the Temple Guard under the direction of the High Priests) inexplicably screamed for Barabbas to be freed, thus condemning Jesus to death.
This part always puzzles me the most. Here was an odd crowd indeed, for many of them no doubt had lined the streets of Jerusalem only that previous Sunday to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem by waving palms and singing his praises vociferously with “Hosanna.” Now they screamed for a murderer and thief to be spared, knowing that Jesus would die because of it. I didn’t understand it as a kid, and now I believe it is just part of the fickle nature of human beings. Once Jesus had been taken into custody, was stripped of his dignity, and had been scourged, he appeared to them as frail and human as any one of them. They were right about that part but the ultimate spiritual message was lost on them.
I always thought calling the day Jesus was crucified “Good Friday” was a strange thing. I wanted to call it “Dark Friday” or “Solemn Friday” or whatever else, but the obvious compulsion toward solemnity is not required here. Yes, Jesus was brutally murdered on the cross, but the ensuing vigil always leads to a glorious moment on Easter Sunday when a victory over death is assured. So even in my darkest despair, I know that I will feel a little leap in my soul three days later, which is probably nothing compared to the overwhelming joy his followers must have felt when they first saw the risen Jesus.
I haven’t gone into details about the dying and resurrection with my daughter yet because she is just like I was when I was little, and I know she wants everything, not just endings, to be happy. So, for now, I will accept the bunnies, eggs, and little chicks associated with the holiday. This Sunday we will get up, have our Easter Egg hunt, get dressed for Mass, and enjoy the most lovely service of the liturgical year. I’ll do this knowing that one day, when she is old enough, I will sit her down and tell her about the real importance of the mystery and glory of Holy Week: the great gift of eternal life that came from the sacrifice of one man whom I believe happened to be the Son of God.