Forgive me for the absence of education-y things this week; I’ve been on the road, so Internet has been spotty and thoughts muddled. However. I come to you today with a tale of epic proportions involving transformation, community building, and chocolate bunnies. That’s right, it’s Easter.
Easter is one of my favorite holidays (though not for particularly religious reasons; I couldn’t articulately tell you where I stand in terms of religion right now, and even though this story is technically about church…it’s not really about the churchy part). Like any other person, I’m all for massive consumption of jellybeans and the requisite confusion over how rabbits can produce multicolored eggs. But mainly, there’s nothing I enjoy more than dragging myself out of bed at 4 AM to drink champagne and play with fire. (Yeah, you wish you were an Episcopalian.)
This morning, as I’ve done for the past six years, I begrudgingly crawl to my car and go to church, where I serve as an acolyte (basically an altar boy, but gender neutral–I get to carry a torch and fun things like that). The morning is beyond just brisk; it’s bitingly, bitterly cold. This makes standing outside for the first half of the service a bit challenging, to say the least (I’m also wearing three layers under my robes, so I look like a giant marshmallow masquerading as a monk). Luckily, it’s also clear enough for us to see the bright gibbous moon as we listen to the service’s opening chant. The Easter vigil starts obscenely early with the lighting of a good old-fashioned bowl full of alcohol-soaked cotton balls, which is meant to represent the light of Christ. From this, we light the cumbersome-but-pretty Paschal candle, and the two regular torches from that. Everyone in the clergy and parish has a candle (seeing as it’s totally dark outside), and we pass the flame along from the Paschal candle to one another’s. (Oh, and by the way, the Easter vigil involves something truly spectacular: the thurifer. This is the guy who gets to swing around a metal container full of lit charcoal and incense. I’ve aspired to be this since I was 10.)
Once we go inside, we gather in a room of the church that is normally used for socializing rather than worship, and we’re in an intimate little circle of chairs rather than separated into the usual elevated clergy and deferential parish. This completely changes the quality of the service, especially since only a handful of people can stomach the start time anyway. Though the events that occur as we sit cradling our candles are nominally the same as those on any given Sunday—we hear readings, we sing psalms, we pray—it feels radically different. For one thing, the four readings used on Easter are probably some of the most striking and archaic: The Story of Creation. The Binding of Isaac. The Deliverance of the Israelites in the Red Sea. The Valley of the Dry Bones. Each of the cantors brings her own tone to the stories, and unlike usual readings, they treat the reading truly as storytelling. Yeah, there are props involved. Voices. Overly dramatic gesticulation. Lots of eye contact. As campy as it can feel sometimes, this tradition always makes me feel far more connected to the other members of my church community, especially those in authority (because seeing the associate rector sing “Dem Bones” while telling the story of The Valley of the Dry Bones reminds everyone that she’s human).
The next step involves baptism. Parents have to be incredibly brave to get their kid baptized in my church; the only way of going about it is coming to this morning vigil (and dealing with cranky, wet babies after the ceremony itself). This is always kind of a cool moment, even if you don’t know the parents and child, because it places a lot of emphasis on the role of the community in supporting the child. Everything we do up to this point is very much about strengthening the bonds between everyone in the church, which is made especially easy because even our priest doesn’t perform his duties perfectly before sunup.
After this, we go into the normal part of the church and carry out the Gospel, sermon, and Eucharist as usual. Well, almost. Our priest is pretty liberal, really well educated (on many types of science in addition to the usual theology, history, and philosophy), and prone to making thought-provoking sermons. His usual Easter one is all about the distinction between viewing the world and God through purely rational eyes and viewing them with the awareness of other types of knowledge. He likes to connect everything to the concept of I-thou (that is, seeing your actions in the world as creating relationships to other people and things rather than just acquiring objects), and thinks that unadulterated empiricism fails to recognize the thinker’s relationship to the resurrection of Christ, since he says it merely accumulates data on it. Most of us know that the resuscitation of a three-day-old corpse is impossible. But acknowledging the idea of transformation and hope that the resurrection is meant to represent? That’s the more relationship-oriented approach, as I understand it.
So I guess part of where this is going is the differentiation between myth and error. Obviously, the Christian story of creation isn’t accurate. But telling it every year isn’t an attempt to perpetuate ignorance, or argue against science. It’s about relating to the world from a different point of view, and reminding ourselves of the different ways that people have made sense of things. This is myth’s purpose, after all: giving people a way of relating to their world even if they don’t understand it.