Sunday, April 24, 2011

Heart of the Matter: Easter 2011

I celebrated Easter long before I married a nice Catholic girl, which is why I labored so hard this year, as the sole and Jewish parent, to offer Miguel and Maya something substantive about the holiday.

See, as a kid my parents took us to Filley Pond in Bloomfield, CT, where I grew up, for the annual Easter egg hunt. Colored eggs, chocolate shaped bunnies, jelly beans, Easter bunnies in costume--all very cute and safe in a homogenized way for children of any and all religious backgrounds. But not what Easter is truly about, I think, any more than Christmas is just presents galore and a jolly fat man in a red suit.

The first thing I wanted to do was bring Miguel and Maya to church, to honor Verna and her mother. Almost every Easter that is what we did: attended Mass, usually at Mission San Rafael (where we held Verna's funeral), with Verna's mother while her father waited for us at Starbuck's.

"Miguel," I announced the other day, "we are going to church on Easter."

"But the Heat (Miami's professional basketball team) are on (TV)," he said. He is an uber fan of the Heat.

"Miguel, we are going to church to honor your mother and grandmother," I shot back.

"But, Dad, it's the Heat."

I've got a lot of work to do.

So we went to Church, and it was packed, with people lined up in the lobby and tucked into the small altars on the perimeter of the sanctuary. I had been hoping that Father Paul would be the officiant. I knew him and respected his theological worldview (as I understood it), plus he delivered the Last Rites to Verna as we were huddled around her and several weeks later did her funeral.

But we got Father Dave, the assistant clergy, as he is listed in the Church program. Father Dave sounds exactly like a sincere version of Steve Carrell's character, Michael, on The Office. Father Dave was high energy. Father Dave was perfect for a Jewish guy like me who finds most synagogue and church services interminably boring.

At one point soon after the Mass began, Father Dave exhorted the crowd to repeat after him, "Indeed he has risen," but the response was tepid at best, so he charged forth and basically said, "You can do better than that." God's cheerleading squad has no better representative than Father Dave.

I closed my eyes during the service, not because I was about to nod off, but because I wanted to listen and let Father Dave's words wash over me. I was hoping for some insight into Easter that I could share with Miguel and Maya beyond Christ died for our sins. I just don't think two kids who have had little if any religious instructions will find the words "Christ died for our sins" or "Christ was resurrected to guarantee us all life everlasting" very meaningful right now.

During his sermon or homily, Father Dave said a few things that I quietly and quickly jotted down on the back of a business card. He said, "Easter is the time to be bound up in the rapture of joy." And, "God raised Jesus from the dead for us, in order for us to see the way to lead our lives."

He spent a lot of time talking about God's bountiful love, which certainly resonated with me as I sat in the pew next to Maya and Miguel. I thought about all the love we've been surrounded by since Verna was first diagnosed with cancer in 2006. How our neighborhood, Miguel's school, and my synagogue prepared us meals and delivered them to our home. How Johann Smit, an apple farmer and friend, brought us 10-15 lbs of apples each week and refused payment. How so many friends and family wrapped up Miguel and Maya in play dates and overnights and kept them safe and fed and warm and dry, and happy.

The love that blessed our lives, and continues to do so each and every day, seemed and seems unconditional, a gift, a miracle, a true, true blessing. But is that the core message of Easter? Unconditional love as a manifestation of God or the Divine Spark?

Speaking of love, our dear friends, the Steins, invited us over for Easter lunch. As I sat with John and Liz, each 33 and married for 14 years, with their three girls (one of whom is almost 13 and a friend of Miguel's) bounding in and out of the house, I asked them how they explain Easter to their kids.

"We tell them the story," said John. "We tailor it for each kid."

So Liz and John do get into the Last Supper and Pontius Pilate and how Jesus died and was resurrected. And they are not worried about whether or not the girls understand the Biblical version of those events. They hope that repeated tellings of the story with seep through to them just as water dripping onto a stone eventually makes its mark.

John, Liz, and I also talked about sin, which John (thankfully) defined as "missing the mark," which I found fascinating because that is the definition of the word "sin" in Hebrew.

John and Liz attend a non-denominational Christian church that has grown in popularity in Marin County over the past dozen years. I actually think Liz has larger and Christian plans for me even though I am firmly Jewish and a somewhat shaky agnostic. But they are both loving and kind and funny and fun to be around. So our friendship will deepen even if I don't take a plunge in the same waters that comfort them.

Their youngest daughter has never spoken to me no matter how hard I've tried to coax a simple greeting or a mild high-five from this 3-1/2-year old cutie. But today, as I was discussing Christian theology and the meaning of the Easter story with her parents over macaroni and cheese, marinated asparagus, and Faro salad, she popped out from underneath the kitchen table and uttered her first (and I hope not last) words to me, "Jesus died on the cross."

Quite possibly a minor Easter miracle.

Before Maya bounded out the front door this morning for the 4th annual neighborhood Easter egg hunt, I said to her, "Maya what is Easter about? What did they tell you about Easter in preschool?"

"Candy and Jesus," she answered.

"What about Jesus?" I asked, hoping for an insight from my little princess that would sustain my ability to better communicate the holiday to her and her brother, who'd just helped hide dozens of candy-filled plastic eggs on the two-acre park lawn outside our home.

"Jesus is going to come down and have candy with me," she said.

Yes, I have a lot of work to do. Hallelujah.

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