Blogger’s Note: For those who may not know, the Easter season officially came to a close last Sunday, with the Feast of Pentecost. Oh, and sorry for the long hiatus.
I drove to Michigan the Monday after Easter to be with my folks and sister while my dad recovered from surgery. In the weeks leading up to that trip, I’d exchanged a few emails with my sister — it’s been a rocky year for her, and we had been talking a bit about God and faith, prayer and church. I knew she’d been checking out churches in her area, but didn’t know if she’d found one, or what denomination it might be. Even so, a question had been stirring in my heart: would she consider baptizing my niece and nephew. I didn’t know how to broach the subject, not knowing where she was with her own thoughts, or what their dad might think. So the week before Easter, I prayed.
Then on March 31, while at work, a close friend dropped me a line. She had been cast in a play very near and dear to her heart, but her childcare arrangements for her son had fallen through. She asked me to say a prayer for them that this problem would work out, and I agreed — but the workday being what it was, I didn’t feel I could do so immediately. I went about my business, drove home, ate supper with Jodi and the kids, and at 7:05 p.m., as I logged into my computer, remembered that I had yet to pray for her needs. I closed my eyes and offered a short but heartfelt petition on her behalf, then reiterated my prayers regarding my sister and her children.
At about 7:30, my friend emailed that she had found a replacement sitter. “I know it’s not yet Easter,” she said, “but Alleluia!”
I opened a chat window, and asked her when this had happened. About 20, 25 minutes ago…little after 7.
As I confessed I had not managed to say the requested prayer until 20, 25 minutes ago, a prickle ran up my neck.
The next morning at work, I received an email from my sister, informing me that she had found her church — St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Canton — and asked me about Holy Week services: what to expect Holy Thursday, or at Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, or at the Easter Vigil. She told me she was considering attending all three (which we had never done, even during the brief period my mom brought us to church as kids) and that she was setting up a meeting with her priest to see about getting the kids baptized.
This time the prickle was a full-on chill.
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On Holy Thursday, I was blessed to be one of 12 parishioners asked to allow the priests to wash my feet in the sanctuary, as Christ did for the Twelve. This is the work of household slaves, and is a gesture of profound humility and service.
The kids watched closely, smiling at me from the pew. Father Gregory made quiet, humorous small talk, and on either side were friends of mine, also absently making quiet small talk, also lost in their own thoughts.
My thoughts were these: It is nearly impossible to get previously worn socks back on damp feet in a graceful or quick manner, and I have never understood these words of John the Baptist until now: John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” — John 1:26-27
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At supper, we begin the obligatory annual discussion about what happens if a hunter accidentally shoots the Easter Bunny, or if a dog — Puck, for example — were to get hold of him by the neck and shake furiously.
Trevor takes a new angle, combining the best of the discussion thus far and the premise of the movie The Santa Clause: “What if,” he says, “Puck killed the Easter Bunny, then had to deliver all the candy and hide all the eggs!”
The Easter Schnauzer. Hilarity ensues. To borrow from my friend Jacqui, will someone please write me this book?
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On Good Friday, we attended the Living Stations of the Cross at the historic church in St. Michael. It was, as always, very well done, and if you’ve not gone, I will recommend it here and say little more about it, except that based on his experience last year, Trevor spent a good portion of the Stations with his hands clamped over his ears, anticipating the thunder peals that occur only when Christ dies upon the Cross. As a result, he watched the Passion in muffled near-silence.
Across the aisle from us sat a young woman and her parents. The young woman was not attending of her own accord — that much was plain — and spent the bulk of the time until the lights dimmed doing what appeared to be homework. She stood, she knelt, when others did, but neither said nor sang a word.
The procession wound around the sanctuary as the Passion unfolded, until it came to the front, near the altar: Calvary. I noticed as the end near, she was following the action, if only with her gaze. The hammer and nails. The cross is raised. He speaks, and breathes his last. Thunder (followed by Trevor’s loud rasping whisper: “That wasn’t as bad as I thought!”).
The reader announces a hymn. The girl across the aisle thumbs through the hymnal to the right page and opens it for her father. He smiles, perhaps surprised. She does not sing, but she is not unmoved. Her eyes follow the words.
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The little tablets for coloring eggs can’t touch good old-fashioned food coloring, vinegar, and hot water…and the smelly tie-dyed fingers that result.
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I was also privileged to read at the Easter Vigil Mass this year. For those who have never been, the Easter candle is blessed and lit from a wood fire outdoors, then all those in attendance light their own small candles from the Easter flame and process into a dark church. The Mass itself begins with numerous Old Testament readings by flickering candlelight—readings that trace salvation history from Genesis forward.
I read Exodus 14:15-31 — Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. All readers in our church receive a workbook of sorts, which provides the year’s worth of readings for each Sunday and Holy Day, with pronunciations, commentary, and context, as well as tips for how to proclaim the readings. In my case, the book suggested that I imagine myself relating an ancient tale over a crackling fire — and I did. The lighting was perfect; you could almost perceive the stars in the high dome of the sanctuary. It is a wondrous and terrible story to hear and to tell.
* * * * *
Crafty Bunny hid the eggs, the baskets, all of it. The kids loved the looking and the finding. Lots of good food on Easter Sunday — a big brunch and a big supper, too, just the six of us. Could’ve widened the net and invited others, but I was heading to Michigan in the wee hours, and I find I no longer enjoy being alone away from home. Family time was the goal, and it was achieved with gusto.
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I took the northern route to Michigan — a long solo drive through beautiful stretches of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Stopped twice, I think — my little Deezeldub, Nadia, (a 2000 VW Golf TDI) hovered right around 50 mpg for the trip. Hawks and eagles. Lakes, rocks, and trees. Two outstanding audio books (The Lincoln biography Team of Rivals and a first-time fantasy outing The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss). And scotch waiting for me at the log house on 11-Mile.
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Dad’s surgery went perfectly on every level. More prayers answered.
* * * * *
Headed to my sister’s place on Thursday. I’ve never really spent time with just her (or just her and the kids and the dogs, cats, and guinea pig).I was torn the whole way between wanting to hang with the three of them, and itching for time to talk, just to Jill, about rejoining the church.
I don’t remember the exact order of things. I know Chipotle was eaten. I know we drove around the Domino’s Pizza corporate campus looking for a Catholic bookstore; Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan is a devout Catholic who has started a number of Catholic organizations and businesses. We found it, and all four of us bought books.
Then we drove to the University of Michigan Museum of Art. On the way, my nephew began to read his new Bible, illustrated in comic fashion, and to ask fairly deep questions about creation and violence, humanity and eternity — the perfect set-up to a tour of art history that included the intricate handiwork of samurai armor, obscure (to our eyes) minimalist modern drawings, and several paintings of the Annunciation.
Later, my nephew asked me about the story of Abraham and Isaac (“Was he really going to kill his own son?”), then asked about my favorite Bible stories. I told him that Abraham and Isaac had always been a favorite, but so was the story of the Apostle Thomas and his believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude toward the Resurrection. This began a long-running discussion about favorite books and authors — when I was little, when I was in middle school, now — and recommendations and summaries of all of his favorites. I had never seen him this animated about books before. Neither had my sister.
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The meeting with my sister’s priest that day went exceptionally well. He met with the four of us briefly to talk about the Baptisms, then Reconciliation and First Communion for the kids (my sister and I made ours circa 1985 or so, during our brief stint in the church) and Confirmation for my sister and niece in the coming year. Then I took the kids out and answered questions about the artwork in the gathering space (primarily the Stations of the Cross) while my sister confessed to a priest for the first time in years and years.
When they emerged from Father’s office, he reassured her and the kids that he would have only older children baptized on the Sunday that they were — no babies, so they wouldn’t feel out of place. The date was to be in just a few weeks.
As we walked to the parking lot, I smiled to myself — how quickly this was coming together. My sister had mentioned earlier that morning that she wanted Jodi and I to be the kids’ godparents, and as we climbed into her truck, she said, “I hadn’t expected it to be this soon. It’s great, but I had hoped you could be here for it. I’m sure you won’t be back that soon.”
“Actually,” I said, “it’s amazing…we have a First Communion in Grand Rapids the Saturday before. We were going to be here that weekend no matter what.”
Joy and wonder lit her eyes—sparked, perhaps, from mine.
* * * * *
We went to Mass that Saturday, the four of us. My sister looked at home, the kids sang out, and the gospel was that of doubting Thomas, which I mentioned coincidentally the day before. My nephew nodded off briefly and was mortified; already he seemed so serious about the Mass. My sister and I walked to receive Communion together. Decades ago we had done this. It felt like the first time again.
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A few weeks later I was back in Michigan, with the entire family this time. We stayed first with dear friends whose son was marking his First Communion — they had actually put me up overnight while Dad was in the hospital just after Easter, then come to Minnesota for Emma’s First Communion. They are like family, and we love them.
I watched Emma playing with their girls (the youngest, our darling goddaughter), and the three were angels. She talked with their son a bit about First Communion, mostly to affirm she had lived through the experience, and saw that it was good. I remember following her with Jodi to receive the Eucharist a couple weeks ago, and the swell of pride I felt. The anticipation of multiple sacraments struck me again and again, and I realized I’ve become what I long rejected, a church guy.
The readings the weekend centered on The Golden Rule, which Christ took to a new level with, “Love thy enemy.” Thinking about my sister, and more specifically, her ex, I prayed for the grace to forgive and to love. Our friends’ son did a wonderful job, both during and after the Mass: he was graceful and grateful, and after opening a number of gifts, began almost at once to study his new Bible and the lyrics to a Christian rock CD he had received. Kids absorb the faith like sponges; it’s no wonder Christ said we should come to him as a little child.
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The very next day — Sunday — we met my sister, mother, niece, and nephew at my sister’s house. We arrived just as my sister’s ex and his fiancée dropped off the kids. I said hello, but realized with a sudden ache in my chest that I had not sufficiently prepared to love them both. I took Puck around back to relieve himself and settle my nerves.
We took two vehicles to the church, and met my sister’s ex and his fiancée in the gathering space. I was much more settled this time, and we sat in back-to-back rows, with the two of them and my niece tucked behind the rest of us. The readings for Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning are the same, so the priest again reminded me to love my enemies — and I said another silent prayer against the whispering behind me.
The baptism was after Mass, our two, and one other tween girl and her mom. Parents and godparents up front proved a bit awkward when it came to renewing our baptismal vows: my former brother-in-law was silent, and my nephew was quiet. Father insisted upon hearing the kids’ response, since they were old enough to understand (at least on some level) what was occurring, so he pushed a bit to be sure.
The water and the words, then the chrism. I love the smell of that sacred oil, and took more than opportunity to hug my niece (who is nearly nose-high to me) and smell her blessed hair.
She’s something special, that girl. The days I spent with just my sister and her kids, my niece’s presence was like a constant hug we both needed — does that make sense? I wonder if others sense it, too. I love her. I love them all. Even without the chrism.
* * * * *
Jill and I did steal an evening while I was there, alone, talking long and late about faith and marriage and forgiveness. I shared things with her I’ve shared with few others save Jodi. So glad we didn’t kill each other as kids; this thing we have now is special.
* * * * *
Our former priest, Fr. Michael, caused a stir when he met me at the President’s Office to go to lunch with me. We don’t get many callers with collars, and when we do, it’s usually to protest something anti-Catholic occurring on one of the U’s campuses. Social calls are virtually unheard of.
We walked to Kafe 421 and back, and asked about the kids (“There’s something about Gabe; he’s gonna be a priest.) and our parish and even my sister. When we came back to the office, the U police officer assigned to our office and the Board of Regents was talking with our receptionist. Father and I stepped in, and the officer’s eyes widened. He had just lost his dad, and was discussing a point of Catholic teaching that a family member was giving him grief about before the funeral. He confided a bit in Father, who reassured him that his view on the subject is correct.
When Father Michael left, two or three co-workers — including one who is a professed non-believer — remarked how cool it was to be in the presence of someone who has given themselves to service and the Spirit. I can’t help but think that, like me, they can sense Truth when they hear it. Love of this sort is a universal tongue.
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After the baptism of my niece and nephew, my sister and I, Jodi and Gabe were sitting around the kitchen table. My sister had said before that Jodi and I were a part of drawing her back to the Catholic Church, but in this moment, she credited Gabe, as well. Friends had suggested it might be easier to re-enter the faith by another church. “I thought, ‘If my 9-year-old nephew knows enough already to think he wants to devote his life to it, who am I to choose another church?” she said. Gabe’s eyes widened in awe, his skinny limbs falling heavily along his narrow frame. He smiled in wonder. Whatever his vocation, his good work has begun already.
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Our associate pastor, Father Gregory, is leaving for a new assignment; he has grown so dear to us all, and his grounded presence and sincerity of heart will be sorely missed. We will have a newly ordained associate shortly.
I’m pretty sure there was more to this Easter season, but perhaps that’s enough. I think this may have been the best Easter I’ve ever witnessed. I know we’ve been immensely blessed.
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