The first Easter I celebrated away from my family was during my undergraduate years at McGill. Lent and its culmination, Holy Week, had always been important features of my faith, but that first year that I was unable to be home for Holy Week was surprisingly devastating. I had started attending an on-campus church whose priest was an eccentric Quebecois with a penchant for exaggerated facial expressions, and while he could be entertaining and poignant at the same time, I was feeling homesick for the comforts of my home parish. Would — could — a student-run church let me feel at home during this holiest of seasons?
The Newman Centre was, like many McGill organizations, located in a creaky old house in downtown Montreal. Unlike any other Catholic church I had ever attended in any part of the world, parishioners had to climb a narrow flight of stairs to reach the church hall- a living room of sorts- and sat not in wooden pews, but folding chairs. The room could barely hold thirty people. It made for a surprisingly intimate setting, and when a person didn’t know the words — as I discovered when Father Joe led us in the unfamiliar Confiteor every Mass — it could be painfully obvious. Other traditions were new to me as well, such as the use of bells during the Eucharistic rites, and all too often I would leave Mass feeling as though I had walked through a vaguely familiar dream. Many things were “right,” but many others were wrong.
I went through that Holy Week — Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday — feeling relatively sane. The unfamiliar elements of the local Mass were slowly becoming less bizarre to me, and these holy Masses are so ritualized that they carry fairly well from parish to parish. I was, however, a little worried about the Easter Vigil on Saturday night; because that Mass is particularly long and often involves the baptism and confirmation of adults, I was particularly defensive about how things “should” be done. More than anything, I wanted to feel at home during a Mass that was bound to be very culturally specific.
The Vigil Mass that I grew up with begins in the dark, with minimal candles used to help musicians and lectors see their pages. As the Mass begins, specific readings from the Judeo-Christian canon — including the story of Creation and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt — are read to the congregation, interspersed with community prayers and brief songs. When the readings reach the general time of Jesus, the Gospel story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection is read with the lights a-blaze. It’s a beautiful metaphor for those of us who practice Catholicism, and I was so focused on worrying about whether or not the Newman Centre would do something similar that I forgot to wonder about the traditions I could learn from them.
I wasn’t distracted for long, fortunately. As the reading lamp was turned on and the first lector began telling the story of Genesis, I realized that there were multiple people standing in line behind him, each clutching a piece of paper or a Bible. The first lector gave the introduction and told the story of the first day (God creates day and night), and then stepped aside to allow the next person access to the lectern. In English she told us, “The second day: God creates the sky,” and then began to read in fluent Korean. When she had finished, the third person did the same, only she read in Spanish. On and on this went, through the seventh day when God rested, each person reading in a language that wasn’t English or French. I was overwhelmed. As tiny as our parish was, we had found a way to give voice to the uniquely international populations that we represented. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak any of the languages used; the sounds washing over me were a reminder that all of us were together because we believed the same things and followed the same rituals.
For the next two years that I was in Montreal, I volunteered to be part of the group reading Genesis. I found a wonderful Irish translation of the third day of the creation story and loved being part of the line of people bringing their own pieces of home- their languages- to our tiny university community. I still missed my home parish during the Easter season, but that was more than compensated for by the new tradition of which I had become a part. Every Easter now, even when I’m home, I think back on those Genesis readings with nostalgia.
Easter has a whole bunch of meanings, depending on your religion and cultural background. For some, it’s a chance to eat chick-shaped marshmallows and stuff Cadbury Creme Eggs in our faces, or an exploitation of ancient fertility rituals. For others, it’s a holy time to be spent engaging in tradition and ritual that allows us to celebrate the life all around us- the blossoms of spring, the belief in eternal life, the expansion of our horizons. However you spend the holiday, however you mark it (if at all), I hope there are things you can enjoy about it. If you’re far from home, take the chance to add new traditions to your repertoire. You never know how wonderful they could be.
Oh, and please save a Cadbury egg (or five) for me.