Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easter this year.


On Thursday, we stand in the church and they strip the altar of stoles, Bible, bread and wine, cover the golden cross with darkness, the silence is full and cleansing, makes noise that is not noise. And in my mind I see - again - my cousins and my brother carry my grandfather's casket down a muddy slant of frosty cemetery grass.

On Friday, we sit in the sanctuary and the gray rainy dusk slides down the windows and my grandmother steps up the stairs to the lectern to read in her Southern lilt, solid and practiced. "And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself." She wears a black turtleneck and her silvery hair is pulled back from her face. She is the same as she has always been, strong, and yet different; it is just her now, and somehow that makes her strength different. She watches the acolyte extinguish the candle, and darkness falls deeper.

On Sunday, I walk with her down the aisle and we hold azalea bunches in our hands and thread them through the cross while trumpets play behind us.

The cross nearly topples during the prelude and we gasp and then clap when folks hurry to right it.

I see the little boy who always accompanies our world class organist, sitting on the bench next to him, pulling out all the stops, so comfortable in front of so many people.

The familiar chords of "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" begin - it feels like I must hear them every day, I know them so well, but I know I don't - and my heart flutters with anticipation, when the words erupt from my mouth, hearing the loud chorus behind and in front and around me. I always wish it had more than the five or six verses it has. My mother and I put our arms around each other because towards the middle of the hymn we are always sobbing - where, o death, is now thy sting? In those moments when I can't sing I let the tears come and let the many other voices sing for me.

Looking down the pew, my grandfather isn't there.

Winston Churchill planned his own funeral, our pastor says at the end of her sermon, and he made it so that a bugler played "Taps," followed immediately by "Reveille": wake up! This is the beginning! And as she takes her seat and our organist begins to play, the distinct strains of "Reveille" fill the church; he picks them up so nimbly, we suddenly start to murmur, to realize, and laugh, and applaud, and so gracefully he moves into the next hymn. But it was there, that beginning, and we noticed.

We are moving, fluid, flowing in worship today; we are open to babies' coos and shrieks, to the wake ups of the organ, to the moments that make us human, not laced up or staid. We can let ourselves laugh together and know that we are pleasing God. And I think of my chuckling grandfather, and I think he might be helping to orchestrate these flutterings of laugh and song.

Half of us go up to the front to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of the service, it's something we do every year, the chancel is crammed tighter than Christmas Eve and it doesn't matter if you know the words or the harmonies or what your voice is like. You add your particular voice, your self to this celebration, and its beauty will be all the stronger. I love the chaos, the hugging, the rustling of sheet music and slipping between bodies to find a place. The congregation stands because you always stand for the Hallelujah Chorus. And you always stand in the face of life.

I am situated between two of my mentors, girls who raised me and now raise their own children. My second-grade choir director stands in front of me with her 4-year-old granddaughter. And then the music starts and we straighten up and look to the front, we humans in our humanness, messy, scared, sad, hopeful, joyous. As the familiar introduction begins, before we open our mouths to sing, my friend is wiping away tears. "Every year!" she whispers, laughing and shaking her head, but I know what she means and why, because there is power here. And it is not power like we so often think, not power that means weakness and threats and fear and death. It is the power of this truth: We always come back and sing. And if we ourselves cannot come back, we know there will always be others singing for us. Sometimes I think there is no greater gesture of hope than the Hallelujah Chorus on Easter Sunday in our marble sanctuary at one small point on this large globe.

Outside, we take pictures, all different combinations of family. My mother hugs a little girl from her class, blonde and cherry-cheeked, and when she sets her back down, the child immediately opens her arms again with a grin. Another embrace, another reminder of trust and love, no question, just open arms.

Later in the evening, after we've filled our bellies and watched the sun settle down, my grandmother comes over bearing gifts. She's found two envelopes, addressed to my brother and me, each scribbled in our grandfather's hand. He hadn't written whatever he was going to write when suddenly he couldn't write anymore, couldn't speak, when suddenly everything changed and he drifted far away; and yet even our names, addresses etched in his hand, on this day, speak volumes of his still-abiding love.

Risen indeed!

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