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Grandma’s rituals: Holy Week & Easter 2013

Photo credit: Flickr user londonne.

Photo credit: Flickr user londonne.

I approach the assignment of writing a reflection for Easter with more than a little trepidation. The resurrection of Jesus is the key mystery of our faith; it is the lynchpin from which all other teachings and living of our Catholic faith derive. I am no theologian; I am simply a person who, like most believers, wrestles with the meaning of Jesus’ rising from the dead.

Perhaps because we have recently lost several of our sisters in death, because I just returned from a funeral in my extended family, I am most aware of the comfort brought to us by our faith in that life that never ends. We know, in the very deepest part of ourselves, that “life is changed, not ended.” That conviction, that belief, that gut-knowing defies words, explanations. We just know.

As stream of consciousness thinking does, these thoughts led to remembering the celebration of the Triduum (not that I called it that as a kid) in my home. As with most of my childhood memories, that led me to my grandmother — a definite presence in our growing up.

I realized via this remembering how Grandma’s “rituals” of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday have shaped my current “knowing.”

Grandma was a believer in visiting churches on Holy Thursday. Chicagoans will get this: we visited the French Church, the Irish Church, the Cathedral downtown and — my personal favorite — the chapel of the Felician sisters. This chapel had “a scaffold” erected to the side of the sanctuary. On the top of the scaffold was a cross. The message was clear — even to a kid. This was no ordinary time of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. The crucifixion of Jesus was near.

Good Friday, between noon and three, Grandma would sit my sister, brother and me on three chairs in our living room. We could not talk to one another; we were to be quiet and think about Jesus’ journey to the cross and his crucifixion. Grandma did allow books — so I’m sure my sister and I spent our three hours reading Nancy Drew mysteries. Who knows what my brother did with his time. I suspect Grandma’s motivation for this devotional time was practical; but I think it was mainly an attempt to keep us quiet and out of her hair while she did her Easter cooking.

My Holy Saturday memory centers around Grandma breaking her fast at noon. Without fail she had a glass of bock beer and pickled pigs’ feet. I can still see those ugly things in their jar! She never offered us a sip of beer but she offered to share the pigs’ feet. She knew she’d be perfectly safe in offering since none of us accepted — ever.

Another Holy Saturday tradition was the lamb cake baking and decorating. This was an all-day affair, and a process that intrigued me. She made delicious lamb cakes and decorated them beautifully and artistically.

What do these memories have to do with the reflection on the Easter mystery? Well, let me briefly explain my lifelong learnings gleaned through the home rituals.

Holy Thursday’s visits to the Churches created a sense in me of holy times and holy spaces. Our trek from parish to parish taught me that our Catholic Church was a big church of many people but of one mind and heart. I certainly didn’t know that then, but I know it now. Our visits on the one day that (I was convinced) all Catholics everywhere were visiting their churches made me feel part of a very large family, united in prayer and action around a common mystery.

As for Good Friday, I never get to noon on this day and don’t want to just go and be by myself to ponder the mystery of Jesus’ life and how that life of inclusive love brought him to his death. I journal; I read; I probably cat nap; but I spend the time in quiet if at all possible. It simply feels “right” — much as it feels “right” that we have sisters who stay with one of our sisters who is dying. The sister sitters give the gifts of their presence and their prayer to the one who is about to make her Passover from death to new life. Quiet presence is a profound gift — to anyone and at any time.

Grandma’s tradition of breaking her fast has given me a sense of quiet celebrations, simple gestures to mark passing from one “time” to another — in this case from a time of penance and self-denial to a time of rejoicing and abundance.

The lamb cake’s significance I learned the hard way. One time, Grandma asked me if I knew why she baked this particular cake at Eastertime. Since my brother’s birthday often fell very close to Easter, I guessed that Grandma baked the lamb cake as a special treat for Johnny — who loved yellow cake and coconut. Wrong! And really wrong! Grandma was genuinely amazed that I had so thoroughly missed the point. “Have you never heard of the Lamb of God?” she exclaimed. Can’t remember if I had or hadn’t; but, like any self-respecting kid, I said something like “oh yeah.” And I’ve never again seen a lamb cake, a real lamb, a cuddly stuffed animal lamb that I haven’t thought of “the Lamb of God.”

So, those of you who interact with children in any way — never doubt the power of home ritual to shape a believer. It seems to me no home activities around any of our holy days is without its power to influence a lifetime. Rituals shape us; bend us toward the Mystery who is God, who is Love, who is Life.

Happy ritualizing! Happy Easter!

You and those you love are in the prayer of all the Sisters of Providence!

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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