From Itchy Dresses to Funeral Homes: Growing up with Easter
I have incredibly vivid memories of Easter from when I was a kid. My church didn’t observe Holy Week in the traditional or liturgical sense—it was all pretty much about Easter. Building up to Easter, I recall my mother busily tending to her many responsibilities. There was Easter service, of course, for which she often sang a solo or sang with a worship team. But there were also the outfits (for my many brothers and I, complete with a hideous mash-up of pastels and itchy frills), Easter lunch, and a particularly outlandish and cringe-worthy Easter party that we always attended. My dad, being the preacher of our congregation, was busy working and reworking his Easter sermon. I remember feeling trapped in uncomfortable Easter dresses that were clearly not designed for the cold early mornings of spring, and I remember the heaviness of my eyes and the goosebumps on my arms as we embarked for Easter morning sunrise service before the sun came up. I remember sitting outside in the grass at the sunrise service, annoyed at the dew seeping into my dress and pantyhose. None of this made sense to me as a child, and it was not particularly enjoyable. Someone recently asked me about my favorite memories of Easter from my childhood, and I struggled to pinpoint a fond memory. Easter was stressful, cold, uncomfortable, and well, frankly it was a hassle. I had missed out on the beauty of it entirely.
That’s not to say that my mom and dad had not tried to teach me the beauty of Easter! My mom, particularly, is the most spiritually conscientious person I know. However, her attempts were lost on my selfish immaturity. It would not be until many years later that Easter would begin to truly mean something to me.
In fact, the significance of Easter would not awaken in me until I had experienced true grief for the first time. I would need to know something of death before I could appreciate a sunrise service.
Fast forward to today. I teach Bible at Abilene Christian University, and today my classes were studying Hebrews. We read Hebrews 2:14-15 together which says,
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
As we talked about death, and the sense in which we might be enslaved by our fear of it, my eyes scanned the room. I began to notice a difference in expressions; I could tell that my students had disparate experiences with death. As we talked about it, some of them looked down, retreating to painful memories while fighting back tears. Others looked at me wide-eyed and curious, quickly throwing out haphazardly measured theories about death and dying. I could tell in that moment which of them had understood—I could see which of my students knew something about the enslavement Hebrews speaks of.
But eventually even my wide-eyed students will come to know it. My heart sank as I quietly considered how none of us will be spared from the pain of losing a loved one. Eventually death will be the great equalizer, bringing our disparate levels of grief together. Someday, we will all meet death.
And yet, isn’t this where the story begins? Isn’t it here in this hopeless and depressing observation that Easter sprouts up in celebration? Somehow, curiously, yes.
By the time I was 22, I had attended roughly 55 funerals. Young and naïve Amy came to know death in unexpected ways, and by way of knowing death, she also came to know life. I remember sitting in the home of an elderly widow who had just lost the love of her life. Her wrinkled, shaking hands gripped an old tarnished brass picture frame, as she told me stories of their life together, and she smiled. I remember sitting with the mother of one of my dearest childhood friends, as we grieved her unexpected and unjust death. We alternated between laughter and tears as we sorted through our memories. I remember sitting between two of my best friends from childhood, as they wept on my shoulders after their grandmother died of cancer. And I remember how we spoke the next day in tender, hoarse voices, somewhat amazed that the sun had risen.
In these moments, death had its way with us. The sting of death was more than we could bear. And yet, it would not defeat us.
This is how I learned about Easter. I learned about Easter as I watched people emerge from the shadows of the darkest nights of their lives, into another day. I learned about Easter when, in my complete despair, I imagined myself as Mary in the garden—searching for her teacher, her friend—desperately searching for his body in order to tend to the wounds of death.
But then, when all was lost, to hear the risen Christ say her name, or perhaps my name, or your name—in a single moment our anguish was exchanged for uncontainable joy.
What a tremendous mystery Easter is! To me, it can hardly be captured by pastels and bunnies or even perfectly-executed Sunday services. I would much rather opt for the smile on an elderly woman’s face, who believes she will see her husband again. I would much rather know Easter in the darkest night—nights that I will surely face, but no longer bound by the same fear I once knew. No—indeed that fear has been disarmed, and death will not have the final word. The sun will rise, and so will we.