In Texas, I got a new Easter dress every year. Or almost every year. I’d pick out something pastel and short-sleeved, and I’d look forward to wearing it for weeks. My first outfit for spring. Invariably, it would be cold and rainy, and I would have a big fight with my mom about whether I had to cover up my pretty new dress with a big jacket that Did Not Match. We’d go back and forth until she’d yell, “Kristina María ¡te me pones la chamarra en este instante!” Game over.
I’d put on my jacket and sulk in the car, vowing to myself that when I grew up, I would never make important style choices based on something as unimportant as the weather. And I would never ruin my kids’ outfits either!
But Easter Mass was the most spectacular service of the year, and as soon as we got to church, all would be forgiven. We’d walk in, and the sanctuary would be dark to represent the tomb where Jesus’s body lay. And then a drum would start beating like a heartbeat while a woman named Sharon Castleberry would sing, “Roll! Roll! Roll that stone away!” in a booming voice that took everyone’s breath away.
As she sang, the lights came up slowly, like a sunrise, symbolizing the miracle of the Resurrection.
The church was festooned with gold and pastel fabrics. The pews were two or three times as full as usual. And everyone wore their “Easter best” to contemplate the miracle at the center of our faith.
As an adult, I no longer go to Catholic Mass. I go to a Unitarian Universalist church, where Easter is still one of the biggest holidays (along with Christmas), but my fellow parishioners and I don’t usually wear our “Easter best,” unless that definition includes someone’s best protest t-shirt (SAVE THE PLANET) or an Easter hat with a button pinned to it that says something like I’M ALREADY AGAINST THE NEXT WAR. It’s possible we’ll hear a Mary Oliver poem about nature as part of the service, and nothing is likely to be as magnificent as the Easter Masses I remember from my childhood.
I don’t think The Resurrection is the miracle at the center of our faith, though we do talk about Jesus a lot.
It’s just that we tend to focus on miracles that might be considered less spectacular. You know those people who say things like “Jesus was a radical socialist feminist”? That’s us.
We talk about how he said, “Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Comfort the sick. Visit the imprisoned.”
And to me, it feels absolutely miraculous that he convinced other people to believe the same. I mean, have you ever convinced people that everyone is equal in the eyes of God and that they should drop everything they are doing –– their jobs, their quests for social status and success, their mundane challenges and distractions to preach the gospel of love? The older I get, the bigger that miracle seems. It knocks me over and makes me cry. It takes my breath away.
Once Reverend Ana Levy-Lyons, our minister in Brooklyn, preached a sermon about the miracle of the loaves and fishes. She said that often this is interpreted as a magic-trick miracle in which Jesus asks people for some fish and loaves of bread and “Ta-dah!” he makes a feast to feed the masses. What’s the moral of this story? God will provide.
It is a comforting moral, but Reverend Ana doesn’t read the story that way. Instead, she considers that story to be about a group of people afraid that they don’t have enough to eat. Some people have bread. Others have fish. And lots of people have no food at all.
The people who have food are clinging to it desperately. They are afraid that if they share, they will starve. They are willing to eat nothing but bread for the rest of their lives, instead of taking the chance to trade a morsel of bread for a morsel of fish from their neighbors. And vice versa the people who have fish. They are willing to watch people in their community die from hunger. They shake their heads and say, “At least it’s not us.”
And then comes Jesus who says, “Bring whatever food you have, and let’s use it to feed everyone. Don’t squirrel it away for you and your family. Share.”
Can you imagine how people responded?
I can. I think just like them.
“What is Jesus thinking? I’m not giving up my food! There’s not enough to go around! We are in a food crisis, and I have to look out for me and mine even if that means that others will suffer. Those people are not my responsibility.”
Yet somehow, Jesus doesn’t get laughed out of town. He convinces the crowd. They go to their houses and bring back all of their food, and they wait while Jesus makes fish sandwiches. And lo and behold, there are enough fishwiches to go around! Everybody eats. Nobody starves. They are saved by generosity and compassion and trust in each other.
These are the miracles I like to contemplate because they have the lessons I need to learn.
I used to ask God to make miracles happen in my life. “Please, God, do this for me!” “Please, God, help me get this.” “If you do this for me, I’ll never ask you for anything ever again.” (That kind of thing.)
Now I ask God to help me want less. I ask God to help me do more. I ask God to help me give to others even when I want to keep everything I have for myself.
I pray for things that seem smaller and less majestic than the parting of the Red Sea. But in my life, these small miracles are monumental.
I think if I were pitching my current religion to my younger self, she would not be impressed. She’d want to bask in the magic of Easter, to think about Jesus and wonder “How did he do that?”
At the very least, she’d like a big drum booming in a darkened sanctuary. The lights coming up as the music swelled.
I can imagine telling her about the less-magical interpretation of the loaves and fishes story and seeing her face draw a blank. “That’s it? You think it was just people sharing? You call that a miracle?”
I don’t know if I could explain my faith in a way that would make sense to her, but I hope that maybe it makes sense to you.
P.S. Unitarian Universalists are notoriously bad at evangelizing, but I’m trying to get better at it because it really is one of the best, happiest parts of my life. If you’re curious about my church in Brooklyn, here’s a link to check it out: https://www.fuub.org/home/ The service is at 11 ET/10 CT every Sunday on Zoom, and I can send you a link if you’re interested!