An Easter ham was enjoyed today by those residents of St. Anthony’s who partake of meat.
The consumption of ham – a traditional American dish for Easter dinner – was arguably the only “normal” aspect of this Easter day.
First, there was the weather. On Saturday afternoon – the afternoon of the Great Vigil of Easter – I went for a bike ride, while Tracy and Marge took advantage of the sunshine and comfortable temperatures to tend to some yard work. Tomorrow – on Easter Monday – it’s quite likely that I’ll be able to go snowshoeing.
It is not, of course, unusual to get snow in Wisconsin in April. But the precipitous shift from “biking and yard work” weather to “this county is in a winter storm warning for 24 hours” was a bit unusual. It’s almost as if the Heavens knew we needed a reason to stay at home – to keep a safe distance from one another – on this day when most of us would have chosen to be with family, friends, and fellow parish members.
That brings us, of course, to the other less-than-“normal” aspect of this Easter day.
Easter marks the 26th day of social distancing for those of us at St. Anthony’s and the 19th day of adherence to the state-wide order to stay safer at home.
The magnitude of what it means to shelter in place, distancing ourselves safely from one another, did not strike me until the eve of Easter.
On the evening of the Great Vigil of Easter, I sat down with my laptop to watch the Easter Vigil Mass as it was live-streamed from the parish – happily named after St. Francis of Assisi – that I belonged to when I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The number of those present was just under the legal limit for gatherings, with four musicians, two lectors, an altar server, the pastor, and the associate pastor.
In the vast space of St. Francis church, the two celebrants and seven ministers were dwarfed almost into invisibility. There was something strange – almost eerie – about the image of these worshipers gathered against a backdrop that made them seem tiny and insignificant. The camera quickly rectified the image, zooming in on the sanctuary and restoring all those assembled to a more recognizably human scale.
The close-up view was better. Familiar. Comfortable. For all I knew, the pews were full of people, as they normally are at St. Francis.
The pastor blessed the candle, traced his finger over the images inscribed into the candle, and placed the incense nails around the points of the cross. As a former liturgist, I knew what the ritual entailed, but I had never before been able to watch it with such a front-row seat. The symbols and words captivated me, making me forget about the vast, empty church on the other side of the camera.
And then it was time for the proclamation of the Exsultet.
Before the parish music director had reached the end of the first line of this ancient prayer, I had unwittingly called to mind that image of the vast, empty church dwarfing those assembled almost into invisibility.
“…let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.”
The thought of it was all too strange. A building [an almost empty building] shaking with joy, filled [not even close to being filled] with the mighty voices of the peoples [peoples not gathered in this holy building, but scattered all over Washtenaw County, with at least one of their members even being several hundred miles away in a different time zone.] Where were the Christian believers “set apart … from the gloom of sin”? Who, exactly, was being joined to “his holy ones”? Among whom, exactly, was “concord” being fostered? Where were the “mourners” to whom joy is brought on this night?
And where were the tiny flickering points of light, the fire divided into many flames, “yet never dimmed by sharing of its light”?
It was all too strange the way that these exultant words of salvation for humankind fell solemnly into the vast empty silence of St. Francis church on Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the night of April 11th, 2020.
It was eerie.
At the same time, it was powerful.
It was eerie because it reminded all too bluntly of the harrowing and sorrowful circumstances that led to the church’s being almost empty on the Great Vigil of Easter
It was powerful because it reminded all too beautifully that ancient truths are unbounded by time and space. Salvation – and the profound, eternal Love out of which our salvation was born – are not locked into any specific here or any specific now. In their transcendence of space and time, salvation and Love are present in all places and for all time to all people – indeed to all of God’s good creation – in all ways.
This has been a strange Easter, indeed.
Or perhaps it has not been so strange, after all. Perhaps it has given us a chance to see what we often don’t see when surrounded by the familiar, comfortable, human scale of our human rituals. Perhaps it has given us a chance to see the Every-where-ness and For-all-time-ness of the Love that binds us together, no matter how circumstances may keep us physically apart.
Deo Gratias! Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!