My great-grandmother was born in 1890, and she just missed living in three centuries, dying in 1997. I have fond childhood memories of walking a few blocks south from my grandparents’ house along the Wisconsin River to visit her. She always asked about our education, what did we like to study in school? Occasionally, she would tell us stories from her childhood. From my perspective now, I wish I had asked her more about what it was like to grow up at the turn of the twentieth century. One of her most-told stories involved her being lost in a snowstorm and the horses knowing the way home. When she was a child, there was no church where her family lived. As the story goes, the German settlers there wanted a church very badly, but in those days, with no telephone and limited transportation options, it was difficult to get an audience with the bishop to secure proper permission. So they went ahead and built the church, then sent a note to the bishop saying that the church was ready to be consecrated. The bishop was not at all pleased that this project had gone forward without his knowledge, and as he rode the train into town, he was rehearsing the rebuke he would give these impertinent townsfolk.
But when he stepped out, he was greeted by all the townspeople standing on wooden planks laid over the cranberry marshes. They were singing and playing musical instruments. The children were dressed up in their first communion dresses and suits. They were there to greet the risen Christ present in their bishop.
He was so moved by their faith and warm welcome that instead of scolding them, he went with them to the church and consecrated it.
Not only was there a lack of church buildings in those days, there were also very few priests. My great-grandmother only got to Mass several times a year, and, one imagines, Easter Masses were themselves rare occurrences. Among the many questions I wish I had thought to ask her is, “How did you celebrate Easter when you couldn’t go to Mass?”
It must have called for creativity among the simple faithful, as did their sly plan for even getting a church in the first place. I’ve been in contact with many Catholics this past week. I’ve seen all kinds of creative responses to our stay-at-home orders. This has gotten me thinking about the many odd ways that Christians have had to observe Easter throughout the Church’s history. Someone who is a friend of our community, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, tells the story of the Christian prisoners secretly saying to one another, “Christ is risen.” “He is risen indeed!” to remind each other that it was Easter Sunday.
One of the strangest stories is that of our Holy Father Saint Benedict. When he was still a very young man, he secluded himself in a cave in a mountainous area about fifty miles west of Rome. His biographer, Saint Gregory the Great, tells us that a nearby priest was just sitting down to a sumptuous Easter dinner, no doubt fatigued from his own liturgical duties, when our Lord visited him in a vision. Jesus told him to bring some of the food to his servant Benedict. Our Lord didn’t tell him where Benedict was, so this anonymous priest had to climb around the mountains of Subiaco to find his cave. When he found young Benedict, he greeted him, saying, “Come, let us eat, for today is Easter!” Benedict didn’t realize that it was Easter, and he thought that the priest was using a figure of speech. So he responded, “I know that it is Easter because you have graced me with your presence.” So Saint Benedict sees the risen Christ in this otherwise unknown priest who brings him food, and he has achieved this kind of mystical vision without the benefit of attending the liturgy with any regularity in the preceding years.
I don’t recommend Benedict as a pattern, any more than I would recommend that we celebrate Easter every year the way we are today. But it is another indication that our faith in the resurrection, and the joy that is ours in this faith, can remain in us and even grow stronger when we encounter obstacles.
Perhaps the strangest Easter was the very first. The Apostles were practicing their own stay-at home strategy, fearfully hiding. The women of the group dared to go out to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, but the body is gone. The result is a mixture of confusion, fear, sadness, indignation, and, some glimmer of belief. It is quite remarkable that the gospel of this morning’s Mass is one of the few in the Church’s liturgical year in which Jesus makes no appearance whatsoever. Even after Jesus does appear to the disciples, they continue to experience fear, disbelief and confusion. It is not until Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit that the full meaning and effect of the Resurrection is felt. Traditionally, the first forty days after Easter were a time when Jesus continued to visit and teach his disciples the mysteries of the faith, which were fully inaugurated in the church’s liturgical life beginning with the Ascension of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps we are being called this year to stay in the upper room with the Apostles and Mary, listening to the teachings of the risen Lord, to stay in the city waiting to receive the power of God from on high, to renew our hearts with saving doctrine, and then to implore God our Father to set our hearts ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit’s love. The risen Christ is among us, and we can learn to recognize him as Benedict recognized Him in the priest who brought him food, and as the townspeople did in their bishop. We can learn to recognize Christ in all we meet, in all those who are sick and caring for the sick. And perhaps this year our Easter celebration can break out from a single day, from which we would typically return to life as normal, and be a living reality at all times. Our creative celebration of the resurrection can become a habit of mind and action in which our faith becomes more and more alive in all that we do, and in all that we say, taking every thought captive for Christ, to whom be glory, honor, and praise forever. Amen.