Keeping the Christ in Easter
– Essay by Olivia Fitzpatrick, “The Light at La Morada” by Mary Kimber –
My mother is too good at Christmas. Our tree is bursting with ornaments, all originals, glittering mementos of childhood. When I was a little girl, each Christmas morning, beyond the magical landscape of presents, dollhouses and stockings, furniture from my basement had been transformed in the living room as an elaborate tea party. The cups were full of candy. She’d read us The Polar Express and produce a real silver bell. We’d shake it in her ear, and she’d feign confusion, unable to hear it. And then there was the cumbersome laying out of robes and slippers and coats, just in case the legendary train came to pick us up. I’d close my eyes and pray it wouldn’t. My house at Christmas was better than the North Pole.
To this day, a fire is always going, Frank Sinatra is always crooning and George Bailey continues to wish he were never born. Even the television set, showing scenes unfolding in Bedford Falls, is outlined in white lights. There is hot chocolate and chocolate covered pretzels, every kind of cookie, board games and charcuterie boards and no less than five trees. The mashed potatoes are the best mashed potatoes, and there is a cork board in the kitchen with a collage of holiday cards so expansive and varied, it looks like a mood board at Vogue. For years, she hosted two parties for both sets of cousins: one for her family who arrives early and another for my dad’s who never leaves.
Sure, we have Christmas Eve Mass, novenas, Advent wreaths and Nativity sets. But to me and my siblings, Christmas is not Bethlehem. It’s just Beth.
And so it’s all on Easter.
Beth is as fixated on making Easter miserable as she is on making Christmas magical.
If Christmas is Versailles, Easter is Sparta. There is one basket. Its contents is candy. If you spend more than $10 on your child’s Easter basket, you to my mother are a Roman casting lots for Christ’s robe.
The crucifixion is pretty ghastly, and a lot of parents gloss over it so their children aren’t afraid to go to sleep at night. My teachers at St. Andrew’s, for instance, would approach the whole thing less violently. I remember a cartoon we watched in the fourth grade from the tree’s perspective in the forest. He was going to grow up to be the cross. It was very cute and aspirational.
But that was at school. At home, my scary mother blasted the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar for the entirety of holy week. It’s a rock opera of epic proportions, epitomizing the tradition of the power ballad and 70s glam rock, all androgyny and angst. It’s awesome. But as a child, the opening chords of the overture, deeply foreboding, filled me with dread.
Here is a lyrical excerpt: we need him crucified! It’s all you have to do! And then Pilate questions Jesus in a very shrill, Romany voice, he’s whipped repeatedly and right before he dies an agonizing death, Judas hangs himself. “Can we turn it off?” I’d ask, in the back seat of her car.
Still, my mother, who is romantic in spite of herself, couldn’t help but release her magic on Holy Thursday.
A lot of Catholics go to Holy Thursday Mass, which in scripture was Jesus’ last Passover and where the tradition of the Eucharist originates. In a display of humility, Jesus got down on his knees and washed his apostles’ feet. Priests offer the same service during mass.
Beth doesn’t like people touching her feet, so we’ve never participated.
Instead, at around nine or ten o’clock at night, long after the last mass let out, my mother would gather us in the car, bundled in sweatshirts, to keep vigil at St. Andrew Church. On the drive over, she’d set the scene, always the storyteller.
“We’re going to Church to sit with Jesus because all the apostles fell asleep, and he’s so scared that he’s sweating blood. He knows what’s ahead of him. We’re going to stay up with him.”
She’d describe the twilight that fell over Gethsemane, the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus made desperate pleas to God and waited for the authorities to take him. It was cold.
The church would be dim, lit mainly in candlelight. The altar had been stripped bare, and the tabernacle was left open. People were spread throughout the church, praying silently on kneelers, but it wasn’t crowded, and we were probably the largest group. It didn’t seem to be whole families, but a mother I recognized, or a classmate and his dad, someone’s grandparents. No priest presided. It was like my parish unplugged, the Jesus loyalists praying in secret.
My mother was in love with Christ’s humanity. She wasn’t just telling us the Easter story, she was saying something larger about friendship, reminding us to offer it to the lonely, the anxious. She was saying something about solidarity.
Looking back on my childhood, I think she didn’t water down the scariness because she foresaw Gethsemanes for us all. She wasn’t out to make them seem less scary; she just wanted us to know that we wouldn’t be alone.
Best of all, in a faith of spectacular pomp, she was giving us the very quietest tradition.
Because Easter has never been about consumerism in my home, I’ve never been distracted by its trappings. I find something new in the Passion every year.
The year my cousin died, I thought about the Blessed Mother, what it means, how it might feel to bury your own child. In college, I thought about the apostles, who drank too much and fell asleep after the Seder. How does alcohol bond friends and how does it separate them? I’ve always been drawn to Pontius Pilate, who I think sometimes has been unfairly condemned to villany. Jesus didn’t do much to help him, with his rhetorical “if you say so”s. What does Pilate teach? That we’re called to something bigger than not doing anything wrong perhaps, that we’re called to courage. There’s an uncomfortable heaviness in that.
There are wonderful side characters in the Passion who take the story further: Herod’s sultry stepdaughter Salome, who wants John the Baptist’s head on a platter and the devout, Veronica, who wipes the blood and sweat from Christ’s face; Barabas, the freed murderer, and the criminals hung on Jesus’ right and left; the angry mob who calls for his death; Simon of Cyrene, who helps him carry his cross.
The Harlem Renaissance-era poet Countée Cullen thought about Simon in the context of race, Cyrene being part of modern-day Libya. The poem he wrote is as follows:
“He never spoke a word to me,
And yet He called my name;
He never gave a sign to me,
And yet I knew and came.
At first I said, “I will not bear
His cross upon my back;
He only seeks to place it there
Because my skin is black.”
But He was dying for a dream,
And He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam
Men journey far to seek.
It was Himself my pity bought;
I did for Christ alone
What all of Rome could not have wrought
With bruise of lash or stone.”
How do we comfort others when we ourselves are oppressed? How does empathy bind all who share in the human experience?
Last year, I read The Robe (fun fact: it was legendary coach John Wooden’s favorite book). It’s a novel that unfolds across Holy Land vineyards and the domus and forums of Rome. It centers on an affluent tribune, Marcellus. He is transformed by witnessing Christ’s crucifixion, and subsequently winning his mystical Robe. He is martyred by Caligula. It is an account of the ancient world that feels hauntingly modern, Putin’s own egotistical siege of Ukraine threatening the world order, condemning innocent people to death.
I’ve recently been drawn to the servant whose ear is cut off in the violence of Jesus’ arrest. The past few years have re-revealed all the tragedy that can ensue when an arrest is unwarranted, violent, hasty. Jesus heals the servant’s ear, but is taken into custody anyway. Every year I am shocked to find the miracle changes nothing. But then I think of the miracles of life I encounter every day and how little they affect my comings and goings, my decisions. How often do I pause to feel gratitude and awe? To reconsider and reroute?
These are the questions ever-simmering, meditations brought forth in the silence of Holy Thursday. They keep me up at night.
My family goes to Easter Sunday Mass in the morning, and in recent years, it’s been down the shore. It’s a show, everyone in pastel dresses and blazers, and I miss the coziness of Holy Thursday, the unpretentiousness of people just sitting up with their friend. Some of those same people are here, but they’re like summer friends you see at a football game in the fall. You smile at each other, but things have changed.
The Easter Gospel is so well-known that it’s easy to zone out. My mother never does.
I’ll be checking out a well-dressed family three pews over, when the priest says, “the word of the lord,” and she’ll sort of nudge me.
“He showed himself to Mary Magdalene first.”
Because Beth never fails to acknowledge what too few do: Jesus was a feminist.
Even in the most supernatural, far-fetched, “crazy if true” mystery, she is in love with His humanity. It transcends everything. It’s better than Christmas.
Olivia Fitzpatrick is an MFA candidate at New York University. Her essays have appeared in Zibby Mag (most recently), 34th Street Magazine, Twenty2 Media and Constitution Daily Blog. She is working on a novel. Originally from Philadelphia, Olivia graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. She currently lives in Manhattan. Follow her on Instagram: @oliviafitzpatrickauthor
Mary Kimber has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, where she also studied film and photography. After a long career in the legal industry, Mary returned to painting in 2014, first from her home in Forbes Park, CO, and now from her new residence in Taos, NM. Mary is a member of the Taos Watercolor Society and participates in various community art shows. She is a regular exhibitor at the Narrow Gauge Bookstore Cooperative, in Alamosa, CO, and has been published in the Conejos Writer’s Circle Anthology from 2018-2022. She primarily works in watercolor, but also does printmaking and occasionally uses charcoal, pastels, pen and ink.