By tradition, the Good Friday service is held at noon, the hour of Jesus’s death by crucifixion. The service is somber, and lengthy. The saddest hymns are sung, the Passion is recalled in all its details, the choir and clergy come and go with a silence that is abnormal and spooky.
Images of Jesus above the altar are shrouded in lengths of purple or deep red, symbolic of a dramatic absence.
At St James Episcopal, a large empty wooden cross was brought forward to be venerated. Individuals lined up to kneel and kiss the cross or pray silently, ritually recalling an event whose significance has endured across the millennia, creating a faith that has been contested even as it has reshaped human society.
After a service of two hours, the church began to empty of worshippers, though some remained to pray. Others stepped in off the street, silent observers of one of Christianity’s most holy days.
This is the year that Charlotte died. Strange that in the end I should find her death so significant, so haunting, because, in fact, I hardly knew her. Yes, over the years I had spoken with her on the phone a number of times and read the cards she sent to the house, but I had never met her in the flesh. Charlotte was for me never more than a voice, a spirit, a hand-writing, vestiges embedded in memory, in the history of our home.
Charlotte was important to my husband, and hence to me, a crucial link in what can aptly be called a tale of two cities. She was a de facto ambassador, an exceptional figure persistently shuttling back and forth to us, calling to us, and testifying to us, across a racial divide.
Her long personal connection with my husband, maintained variously through a complex blend of friendship and spiritual and financial generosity, stretched back several decades, connecting our white, affluent, north-side household to the realities of African-American life on Chicago’s tougher south side.
A matriarch as well as an experienced housekeeper and nanny, Charlotte came to work in Bob’s household when his only child (now twenty-something) was a small boy. Charlotte was, in that long period, a powerful daily presence, providing practical care, encouragement, and spiritual inspiration to a family that, while materially fortunate, was ultimately riven by its own complex difficulties. Regardless of the day’s proclivities, or those of history, Charlotte was invariably a full embodiment of Christian belief, frankly and enthusiastically spreading the gospel of God’s love.
She was long retired and gone from the scene by the time my husband and I met and married. But Bob’s appreciation of Charlotte, now elderly, and the needs of her family, was enduring. He sent her a fixed sum monthly to ease her retirement, a ritual occasioning their monthly exchange of notes and calls. Charlotte always sent cards with a religious theme, her copious thanks scribbled in notes full of enthusiasm and affirmation, seasoned with scraps of apt Biblical quotation.
Besides several adult children, some of whom lived with her, Charlotte’s family included a woman a decade younger than herself named Muriel, a once-homeless friend whom Charlotte had adopted. Bob sent food to Charlotte’s family every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Almost always it reached them, though the massive package of food was once stolen from their porch.
When Charlotte was ill, her daughter Felicia, an ordained minister who led a small church, would call with the news. One day Felicia called to say her mother had fallen and broken her hip. It proved to be an injury that would not heal. Charlotte, suffering from some sort of infection, spent many months in a rehab facility; after that, she never returned home for very long.
The last time I spoke with her, she sounded composed, still fervently faithful but frail, filled with a hope that, no matter what came, God’s joy would come, too. In the end, her heart gave out, a death sudden-seeming to those of us accustomed to thinking of her as only ill, perhaps even recovering.
Her affectionate soul, transcending the differences of a benighted urban society, is gone, leaving us only with abstractions, and the recollection of an unmatched example of confidence and faith.
These days, like this rendering of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, are a bit of a blur. There are crowds, there is slush, there are lists, there are trips to the post office, there are a few extra drinks. We will forage our storage for cherished decorations; we will go to Gethsemane for the tree. We will try valiantly to get our cards out in time.
Whatever we do, the Fourth Presbyterian Church has seen it all, sitting on the corner of Michigan and Delaware for well over a hundred years. It has watched the crowds grow bigger, the buildings get higher, the Avenue change. It has watched fashion trend and couples fight. It has watched tourists pass from all over; families with excited children; homeless people begging. It has seen decades of brides and grooms, old people gingerly climbing its steps, many funerals, too.
Meanwhile, we see it change, reflecting the day’s light, the blue hours, the sunrises, the lights of man that illuminate the city. We see its ivy change with the season, growing more sinewy with winter, creeping every year closer to the roof, slowly greening and gladdening with all earth in spring.
We stand at the bus, clutching our bags, waiting; we look at the church, and it looks at us.
The culmination of Holy Week is Easter, a celebration of new life and new beginnings. The Jesus story is a shattering of the normal rules of nature, a story of dramatic and revelatory transformation, a once-and-for-all event altering human history. Observances run the gamut: zealots get nailed to the cross, schoolkids break out of school, new-bought hats and dresses make their debut.
Easter is a celebration of newness. There is something forced about its drama, just as there is about the season itself. Everything is changed in a second, and nothing is as it was before. We buy potted lilies or sheaves of cut flowers, their forced blossoms ephemeral and artificial but apt, given the prevailing theme of unnatural and dramatic change. We do strange things with eggs, dipping them in dyes, or parading them to churches for a priest’s annointing. Children hunt for eggs, or roll them down the White House lawn.
All the emphasis is on the pretties.
As we get older, we form a more guarded appreciation of spring, and with it a more cautious appraisal of our jumping ahead, of the likelihood of radical alteration. Looking out on the true spring landscape, we may be struck by the old and used-up look of things: the cornstalks left over from last season, the gnarly reluctant look of the trees, some stubbornly refusing to come to bud. The prostrate soil looks as though it would rather sleep late. And what about those evergreens? Aren’t they . . . stuck?
Yet these aged elements are spring’s sine qua non. The woodland flowers, aptly named ephemerals, depend on the trees, just as, in all things, change is vicariously related to continuity. Christ’s resurrection derives its joy from the fact that his presence will be continuing.
The landscape too has its gospel, its lesson of truth, which it mutely spells. It checks our idealism, asserting what is viable and real. Subtle and gradual are the changes of the season. New life arrives, a scant veil draping what is enduring and familiar in a gaudy canopy of blossoms and leaves. The spring spurt will give way to summer’s glaring ennui, in the meantime quickening all with the bear-hug of change.
Yesterday being the Jewish new year, we went for a walk. I’m not Jewish, but my husband’s father was, so we celebrate the Jewish holidays without observing them exactly. Since I don’t know the Jewish traditions (raised Episcopal myself), I go along with what my husband suggests. So the night before last we had a really fine dinner, and yesterday we spent at home, except for our excursion to the park. Taking a walk is something my husband remembers often doing on New Year’s when he was a kid. More