A first-time mom sees Easter anew through the eyes of her infant son.
For Lent last year, I gave up Easter. To be more precise, I gave up the Easter and Holy Week services that I love.
I wish I could say that this was a voluntary sacrifice, but it wasn't. It was the inevitable outcome of becoming a mom and realizing that your child's needs trump your own wishes. Mid-Lent, it occurred to me that my 6-month-old son, Matthew, would not take to my beloved Holy Week events with the same enthusiasm that I do.
It was a painful realization. I'm a Holy Week junkie, and these services for me are the Miracle-Gro of prayer. No matter how stunted my spiritual life may seem, our parish celebration of the Triduum makes me burst forth into faith. This is entirely due to the delicious drama of these services, which go right to the heart of a romantic like me.
The highlight is the Easter Vigil, when the Gothic church is lit only by the paschal candle in the center of the nave and by the wavering flames that are passed along the pews. The Exsultet and the readings are proclaimed solemnly in the gloom; the high ceiling seems more cavernous than ever. Then the lights are thrown on as the organ crashes out, and the Dominican friars at the altar flip off their dark hoods as the entire congregation sings the Gloria. It's always a thrill to hear the choir end the Mass with "Jesus Christ is Ris'n Today," a tour de force for the trumpeter.
The entire service touches a chord in me, fulfilling my need for a spiritual display that is grave and exuberant, spare and sensual all at once. It's a cherished tradition that always makes me encounter my faith anew.
It's also long. Between Mass and the RCIA reception afterwards, my husband and I invariably return home after midnight. It's great for an adult who loves the grand gesture, but not for a baby who is no longer content to doze in his stroller. My husband, who heads RCIA, has to attend the Vigil-and, in fact, all of the services-so a month before Easter I suddenly realized that I will be spending the week at home, on baby duty. "It'll be my Lenten sacrifice," I told Scott, only half-joking. "I'll have to find some other way to celebrate Holy Week."
On Holy Thursday evening, Scott goes to Mass, where 12 RCIA members will be having their feet washed. I put Matthew in the high chair for his dinner; his legs kick furiously in anticipation. Gobs of food end up on his chin and all around his mouth, like a Gerber beard. His little hands reach for whatever they can find, often intercepting the spoon before it gets to his mouth. He's a mess when I'm done. I get a warm washcloth and apply it to his face, which turns from side to side to evade me. It's not feet I wash but hands, sticky, pudgy hands with splayed fingers.
Before he goes to bed, I nurse him and he drinks sleepily. The next day I remember Sue Monk Kidd's book The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. Women who breastfeed, she says, have a unique understanding of the Eucharist and of Christ's words: This is my body, which will be given up for you.
In my pre-mommy days, I spent Good Friday at the Seven Last Words, a solemn ceremony in which seven parishioners meditate on Christ's dying words. The church is always cold and echoing; the choir sings Latin motets that hang in the air like incense. It's sober, grave, and centering. Every year it pulls me into the very heart of Christ's suffering.
But this year I'm taking Matthew for a walk. It's sunny, with a breeze. I try to think about Christ's Passion, but everything around me is Easter. Colorful bunny banners whip in front of houses; roses and pansies bloom in flowerbeds. I tell Matthew about Good Friday, and he looks at me from underneath his tiny blue baseball cap. "This is a sad day, because Jesus died," I tell him. "But then he came alive again three days later." I think of something. "You know who was happier than anybody when he came to life again? His mommy." That's the gospel truth, and I know it now like I never did before. For the first time, I can truly understand the depth of Mary's joy. "She loved her Jesus like I love you," I tell him.
Back home I put him down for a nap, but he's full of energy, rolling around his crib. I decide to read the Passion narrative from John, but the minute I settle into the armchair, his squalling becomes urgent and distressed. I go into his room, and he's trapped; one foot is stuck through the slats of his crib. When I pull him free, he's all smiles again. It reminds me that there's no more basic parental duty than to help the child who needs you, nor is there a more primal sense of satisfaction than doing so. My heart aches for Mary as she stands at the foot of the cross. I can feel her there, helpless in her grief and grieving at her helplessness.
On the evening of Holy Saturday, I barely have time to mourn the music and drama I'm missing. It takes me hours to feed Matthew, do laundry, and to pack up the gear to see him through the family celebration on Easter Sunday. But at 8 the next morning, Matthew and I are on the road to meet my parents at church. As I drive along the nearly deserted freeway, it occurs to me that it's been years since I was out this early on Easter morning; normally I'm still in bed, sleeping off the Easter Vigil. It's lovely to see the light coming through the huge irregular packs of clouds.
The church is bursting with families. Little boys wear diminutive suits and girls twirl the full skirts of their pastel dresses. There's no dramatic darkness as there is at the Vigil. Morning light comes through the modern stained glass windows, with their hunks of color in jagged shapes. Everything is bright and cheerful.
The music is not from a robed choir of adults but a group of children lifting their voices with great earnestness. They begin the Mass with "Jesus Christ is Ris'n Today," but I miss it because I'm in the kitchen of the parish hall running hot water over a baby bottle. I do get back in time for the sprinkling rite. The exuberant drops fall all over me.
As the service goes on, it hits me: I'm celebrating Easter just as I did when I was a child, sitting in church on a bright morning with sunlight the color of lilies spilling onto the floor. When I was young I loved Easter Mass. There was always a sense of excitement that had nothing to do with the promise of chocolate bunnies and everything to do with the day itself. With the bright church as a backdrop, Easter always felt like exactly what it is: a happy new beginning. Years later it still feels that way.
As Matthew and I sway to the music, he looks about, wide-eyed. It's his first Easter outside the darkness of the womb. I wonder if he's feeling what I'm feeling, the sense of freshness and promise that only the morning light can bring. I realize that I'm very happy to be there.
This is a parent's life, I'm learning. You sacrifice things: sleep and time and even your cherished Easter practices, the things you've always counted on to reawaken your faith. But when you do, you learn that the lessons of this holiest of weeks are all around you, knit into the simple and undramatic stuff of life. Thanks to Matthew, I'm seeing the world through the eyes of a child again. Thanks to him, I'm finding beauty in places I'd forgotten-or perhaps never knew-it could be.
The Mass continues. The children's choir sings with unabashed enthusiasm, the priest cracks gentle jokes during the homily, and we all laugh. And as I sit in the sunlit church with my little boy, it doesn't feel like a sacrifice at all. It feels like a gift, because for the first time ever, I'm holding the Easter miracle in my arms. Cuddling my boy, feeling the warmth of his body against mine, I'm holding a squirmy, sweet-smelling testament to the drama and glory of new life.
And when I go up for Communion, my arms full of Matthew, the priest holds the host to my lips. "Body of Christ, Mother," he says.
This article appeared in the March 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 3, pages 34-36).