Good Friday

I joke about death marches. These days they are mainly the slogs between one school holiday break and the next. Just the wastelands of early rising and chauffeuring the youngest from one place she has to be to another place she wants to be.

But the first real death marches I participated in took place during the Lenten seasons of my youth when I was finally deemed old enough to participate in the Stations of the Cross.

In every Catholic Church I have ever been in, the journey Christ made to his crucifixion is depicted in pictures or sculpture along the outer walls of the church. There are 12, and Lent is the only time I can recall that they are referenced as anything other than decor.

As a little kid, I found them quite fascinating. Aside from the fact that they were a lovely distraction from the deadly dull mass, they also appeared to tell a complete story, which was in contrast to the painted scenes of angels and saints that adorned the ceilings.

I rather likde biblical stories when I was young. I had a children’s bible that I read from cover to cover, so I had a vague idea of the story on the church walls and was certain that whatever ceremony that went along with them had to be better than rest of Easter, which was dreary and dreadful by turns.

I knew Holy Week by heart and loathed every minute of it from the longest mass of the year on Palm Sunday, which even the crisp green palm fronds couldn’t make better, to through to the blessed relief of Easter Sunday, marking the return of 30 minute services.

Yes. 30 minutes. The pastor and associate of my childhood parish were old school and could rattle off a mass that you could set your watch by. And they were slow. I had an great-uncle who could say a mass in 20 minutes. My dad also thought it had something to do with Father John having been in North Africa during WWII. I’ve always suspected it was because the old goat was too lazy to write a sermon longer than a paragraph.

When I was in grades one and two, Lent was not the arduous, guilt and penance-fest that it would become. I think the sisters may have even indulged the bunny aspect of it a bit. So there were no stations of the cross for us though we were made to sit through the numerous all school masses, and in grade two, when we were instructed in confession and prepped for our first communions, I vaguely recall sitting in the pews as Father Schmidt explained the stations to us. I was sure walking them had to be more interesting.

Imagine my disappointment then when in grade three, I was introduced to the mystery of a ritualized tale that would torture the rest of my school days for 40 days every spring.

Sr. Theresa, a wizened little thing with fingernails like talons, spent a week getting us ready for our first trip around the outer ring of the pews following Jesus’s death march.

We learned each station – I was and still am fond of Veronica wiping Jesus’s face because I like to imagine a brave girl defying the Roman guards to do it – and we created a little prayer-book with a page for each station. We wrote our own prayers and drew lovely pictures of torture and death to go along with them.

I have to admit that I was quite excited the first time.

The excitement was over by the fourth station and the realization that this was an awful lot of standing, praying and then walking tiny distances to stand some more and pray some more.

And we did this every week of Lent.

The next Lent, Sister Annette had us trudging those same steps every damn day and for extra measure, she made our pastor lead us around as a disgruntled, fidgety group at least twice (though in my memory it seems like it happened more often than that). I know she forced him too because Father Powers loathed us children. He never willingly stepped foot in the school, and I have vivid memories of him nearly choking us with those damned candles on whatever the hell saints day when they would bless our necks for some inexplicable reason.

Once I was deemed old enough to endure the stations, my father decided that I should attend Good Friday stations.

When I was small, my mother never took us to the Good Friday service and I don’t blame her. Four children with barely five years separating the oldest – me – from the youngest, no one should have to do that. Dad was seldom off work but when he did manage it – we went to the stations – and I was grateful that this didn’t occur too many years in a row. Because it literally took the better part of an entire afternoon. I am pretty sure Jesus dragged that cross faster than the stations took.

As it was,even when we escaped Good Friday, we’d already been to mass on Thursday evening – where we were forced again to read the Passion that we’d just read the Sunday before.

And good god, I hate the fucking Passion.

All the good speaking parts went to the priests and lectors with the rest of us left with voicing the idiot mobs screaming “Crucify him!” and “We want Barabas!”

By the time I hit junior high, I’d had enough, and I refused to do anything but stand and kneel.

My father was not understanding when I explained to him that I would not have yelled either of those things, had I been there, but he couldn’t make me read aloud with the crowd, so he settled for making sure I was following along (generally, I read ahead).

Good Friday, in addition to the stations if I was unlucky, also meant that for sure Dad would decide to do all five of the sorrowful mysteries when we said the nightly rosary.

Saturday was some half-mass and a holy water ritual that even today I am uncertain of the origins or point, and sometimes, there would be grown-ups, who for reasons that baffled me, were hell-bent on converting to Catholicism, which meant a longer service for the rest of us.

Sunday – there was the Easter Bunny – before a mercifully short Passion-free mass and followed by donuts.

Donuts continue to be my favorite Sunday memory of childhood.

Earlier this week, I noted on Twitter that Easter was my least favorite Catholic holiday. Unlike the Protestants (and admittedly I knew but a handful in my youth), Catholics – at least where I grew up – didn’t kick off Lent with pancakes. It was an ashes, guilt and penance-fest. With meatless Fridays, fasting and watchful adults to make sure that you gave something up for the duration.

Lent was a joyless death march where at some point, you would recreate an actual death march.

Easter is the most important holiday of the Catholic calendar. Literally the foundation of the church. And more than anything else, it set me on my path to rejecting the whole implausible thing.

Someone noted that Easter has improved since the dark old days of my youth in yore.

I can’t imagine how, but I will take them at their word and remember what a good friend always reminds me, Easter is just a zombie story, celebrated with pancakes and chocolate eggs and immortalized by a rock opera.

Ary Scheffer: The Temptation of Christ, 1854

Image via Wikipedia

A friend’s Facebook status reminded me that today is Easter’s infamous vigil. It’s the Christian equvilant of the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva”, which is the mourning period for the dead. Instead of a person, however, Christians today mourn/anticipatory celebrate Jesus’s death and descent into hell.

I am not versed in how this day goes in any other religion except my natal one, Catholicism. My friend is of the Eastern persuasion, and her recollections on Easter differ from my own as they spin Holy Week in a more positive way than the gore, guilt and unworthiness focus of my Catholic youth.

But as I remember the lesson from my Catholic schoolgirl days, Jesus died on Good Friday and descended into hell. There, he rallied the souls of the faithful departed and led them to heaven. It’s a zombie version of The Rapture. The gates of heaven were locked against humanity after some snit God had in the Old Testament. Christianity, as a whole, makes a lot less sense when the Old Testament is examined too closely, and the nonsensical idea that God is anything other than capricious and scary as … um … hell, can be found all over the bible’s earliest books.

I bring this up because of a conversation I overheard Dee having with a friend who stayed over the other night.

Her little friend is Catholic and Dee herself was baptized in the faith back when I still entertained ideas of leaving her belief system up to the tutelage of others. I didn’t catch the opener but as I walked by her bedroom, I heard an audible gasp and then,

“But you have to believe in Jesus!”

I cracked the door a bit and observed Dee’s friend staring at her as though she was possessed and spewing green bile.

“I don’t believe in Jesus,” Dee assured her with a calm and determination that made me proud and a bit awestruck.

Later as we were driving the friend home, I caught a whispered conversation as the little girl tried to convince Dee of the consequences of not believing.

“If you don’t believe in Jesus, there is this place you go to after you die that’s not nice,” she said, quite earnest and clearly concerned for Dee’s afterlife.

“I don’t believe in this,” Dee said, again with an assurance that seemed a bit too large for her tiny 8 year old self. “I believe that when we die, we go to the underworld and our souls are weighed with the feather of truth.” (she did not add the part about the hippodoodel that eats the wicked who wasted their lives and then try to lie about it – and it’s interesting to note the Egyptian that has crept into her Greek mythology).

“How does she square this with her idea that her grandfather and Daddy Will are in heaven?” Rob asked me as I related the story to him later.

“I have no clue,” I said, “but it’s not any worse spin than most Christians employ trying to reconcile the inconsistencies in their beliefs.”

There is a tiny residual bit of Catholic in me that worries about what I have wrought, but mostly, I was really proud of her. She wasn’t the least bit worried about what her friend would think of her beliefs. They were her beliefs and she held fast.

Rob and I are doing a far more awesome job than I realized with this raising a kid thing.

Jesus resurrected and Mary Magdalene

Image via Wikipedia

Driving Miss Dee home from Brownie’s this evening, she cheerily brought me up to speed on the “culture” badge they’d earned via the meeting’s activities.

“We made an egg holder shaped like a bunny and Browny Owl had some culture bread, which we ate while she talked to us about culture and then we wrote about our own culture in our books, which we got to make up.”

“You ate culture?”

“It was good too,” she chirped.

“Was this about Easter?” I asked, needing to nail down the cultural aspect of the evening.

“Yep,” she replied.

“Well, Mick and her old friend/new boyfriend are coming this Saturday for Easter,” I told her, having only just found out during a conversation I had with Rob before picking her up. She’d called to update him on her new job, confirm for dinner and remind him that Dare is deathly allergic to nuts. He’d recently had an incident at the restaurant where the older girls work because he was too polite to mention it to Mick’s co-workers.

“Easter is Saturday?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “it’s Sunday. Remember? You wanted to call it Easter Eve instead of Holy Saturday.”

“But I thought it was Friday,” she said.

“Friday is Good Friday.”

“According to the Catholics,” she said, using a tone that sounded a lot like her dad’s when he talks about organized religion. A cross between “how quaintly foolish and we must put this evil down – hand me the hammer and sharpen the stakes”.

At this very moment, we drove by the Separate school in Ardrossan. Separate schools are Catholic but operate under the banner of the public school system and are funded by the province.

“Look, Mom,” she waves her finger at the building. “There it is! What is it?”

We’ve had this conversation and it’s never ended satisfactorily. There is something on the building that catches her eye every time and she describes it in such vague terms that I have never been able to tell her what it was.

But this time, I think I know what it is.

“The cross?” I ask.

“Yes! What does it mean?”

Oh, how to explain this unique symbol of death. Eureka, I decide to use Easter.

“Well, you know Easter? And Jesus?”

Affirmative to both.

“Jesus was nailed to the cross on Good Friday. Died. And then on Easter, he was brought back to life,” no sugar-coating is the best way to split this knot.

And I hear the chirping of crickets from the back seat as Dee tries to make sense of this news.

How to relate it?

“You remember Osirus?” I ask.

Of course she does. She’s an excellent pagan.

“Remember how he was chopped up and Isis pieced him back together? He came back to life as the Lord of the Dead?”

More silence.

“That’s like Jesus,” I am feeling confident about having related a story I can’t even remember being told, that’s how etched it is in my psyche, to my daughter who knows next to nothing about anything that isn’t polytheistic in nature.

“Except, for the chopped up part,” she points out.

“Right, there’s that difference.”

“And Jesus is not the God of the Underworld. He is in heaven.”

Give me points for her knowing his geographical location at least.

“Yes, God raised him up to heaven,” I agreed.

“What’s God’s name?”

I flip quickly back and forth between Yahweh and Jehovah in my mind before offering them both.

“Why is he called that?” her tone clearly indicates that she is not impressed with his moniker.

“He called himself that.”

“And is he the god of?”

“Hmm, well, he’s just God.”

“And what did he do?”

Because Gods “do” things and have “jobs”.

“He created the world, they say, and humans.”

“But Zeus did that,” she said.

“Well, that’s what Catholics believe about him,” I said.

“Catholics,” she said, in that tone. “I’m baptized like a Catholic, right? So I am Catholic.”

Knowing, as I do, that it’s not really that simple – though many of my fellow cradlers aren’t that well-versed – I try to explain the “choice” thing.

“It’s not like being half-German or Irish, sweets,” I tell her. “Being Catholic is a choice.”

“Is Brookie a Catholic?”

Brookie is the neighbor girl who goes to the Christian school in town. I sigh inwardly. I really don’t want to branch off into the schism and confuse her with the splinter groups.

“She’s a Christian, which has many groups and Catholics are one of those groups.”

I can hear her eyes glazing over before she mercifully takes the conversation along another track.

“N2 was baptized like me. Is he a Catholic?”

“Yes, but he and DNOS and Uncle don’t practice it much anymore.”

“Because they are too busy with hockey?” she asks.

“Yes, hockey is time-consuming.”

“Like being Catholic?”

I am not sure that counts as a light-bulb moment, but I take it and steer the conversation away from religion, and it occurs to me that I bit off far more than I realized when I decided to teach her about religion rather than simply handing off to the church via Catholic school and catechism as my parents did.