Easter

Divine guidance from a mutt

IMG_9776As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 21, 2019.

It was an unusual conclusion to an Easter Sunday sermon: Last April, Father Tim handed everyone at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church a crisp dollar bill and asked that we give it to a stranger. We might also wish them a Happy Easter, the rector said, as we passed along “the surprise of grace.”

Half an hour later, with the bill neatly folded in the pocket of my button-down shirt, I did what I usually do after church: I took my dog, Rhody, for a walk.

Rhody’s a two-year-old rescue dog from Georgia, part black lab and part mystery. But more than anything, Rhody is super social. She wants to say hi to everyone, which usually means jumping up on people to give them a lick.

She’s kind of like my older brother, Rob, in that way (well, not the jumping and licking part). Rob has an outgoing warmth about him that I envy. When the two of us walk into a busy room, he gravitates to the crowd while I sidle to a wall.

I’ve discovered that being an introvert presents challenges when your dog is a social butterfly. Rhody’s always pulling me toward people and I’m usually pulling away, partly because I don’t want her to maul them but also because, honestly, that’s my comfort zone. So on Easter Sunday morning, when a middle-aged guy in workout gear approached us, I veered to the side of the road to give him a wide berth.

And then I remembered the dollar bill in my pocket – I’m supposed to give it to someone. Father Tim, you’re killing me.

I shortened up Rhody’s leash and moved back into the middle of the street. When the guy was within 10 feet of us, I said, “Good morning!”

Now Rhody’s tail was going like mad as she strained against her harness, eager to give this guy her two-paw greeting. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had quickened his pace and just given us a polite nod. But instead he stopped and asked, “What’s up?”

“I just came from church,” I said, keeping Rhody at bay. “The priest gave us all a dollar bill and asked that we pass it on to someone. So I want to give mine to you.” I handed him the bill. “Happy Easter.”

His face softened, and he smiled. “Wow,” he said. “Thank you!”

We went our separate ways, and as the guy walked on, I’m pretty sure he had a skip in his step that I hadn’t detected before. I noticed the same thing about mine.

My faith, at best, is a work in progress. I sit in the pews at St. Luke’s each week with my questions about God, even as I am comforted by the liturgy, lifted by hymns, and challenged by the words of a gifted rector.

When I shared my Easter Sunday story with my brother, it wasn’t lost on us that Father Tim and Rhody seemed to be on the same page. Love thy neighbor, right?

“You know what they say,” Rob joked. “Dog is God spelled backwards.”

That prompted me to investigate the connection between dogs and the Divine. What little the Bible says about man’s best friend isn’t very flattering.

But listen to Mark Twain: “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

And Robert Louis Stevenson: “You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before us.”

And Will Rogers: “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

As I said, I’m not so sure about the afterlife. But at least I have Rhody in the here and now. And as long as I do, I’ll keep trying, to paraphrase C.J. Frick, to be the person my dog thinks I am.

 

Easter eggs full of lore

red_eggAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 21, 2019.

Candy eggs were always awaiting my brothers and me on Easter morning but, as kids, we missed the symbolism.

Rob, James, and I would thunder down the carpeted stairway to the living room in our house on River Avenue in Providence to confirm an annual visitation even more outlandish than that of Santa Claus: a rabbit had somehow hopped into our home the night before and left us all kinds of goodies.

The origin of the Easter Bunny is a mystery. One explanation points to the springtime pagan celebration of Eostre, named for a Germanic fertility goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare, although the historical proof for such a connection is thin.

Stronger evidence exists concerning the Easter Bunny’s arrival here in America. According to Time magazine, German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s introduced the folkloric tradition of an egg-delivering hare to the colony. The custom eventually spread throughout the United States.

My brothers and I were oblivious to all this as we scoured our house in search of foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. We found them perched on picture frames, tucked inside bookcases, and set on windowsills behind drawn drapes. Sometimes a hidden egg would elude us for days or even longer; once, in the middle of summer, Rob found one nestled in a plant urn. Score one for the Easter Bunny (and Mom)!

Our mother ran a tight ship as a single parent, but on Easter morning, house rules were suspended. Breakfast included colored jellybeans and sickeningly sweet yellow marshmallow Peeps.

“Just make sure you brush your teeth before church,” she told us.

Ah, church. On ordinary Sunday mornings, sitting still in the pews for an hour-long Mass at St. Pius was a challenge; on Easter, when the length of the sermon seemed to double, as did the lines for Communion, I longed to hear those seven heavenly words: “The Mass is ended, go in peace.”

Christian fasting traditions contribute to the prevalence of eggs at Easter time. On the day before Lent, known as Fat Tuesday or Pancake Day, it was customary for the faithful to use up all the eggs and dairy in their household and then abstain from them for 40 days. There was a catch, however: no one told the hens. By the end of Lent, a family’s store of eggs would be larger than usual, necessitating quick consumption before they spoiled. Easter eggs to the rescue!

Since ancient times, eggs had been a symbol of rebirth and renewal in cultures around the world. Through a Christian lens, they came to represent the Jesus Resurrection story. And what a striking totem they could be.

Among Orthodox Christians, eggs are dyed red as a reminder of the blood Christ shed on the Cross. The hard shell is thought to represent Jesus’ sealed tomb, while cracking the egg open on Easter morning symbolizes his rising from the dead.

This tradition ties to the legend of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar after Jesus’ death. Holding an egg out to him, she announced “Christ is risen.” Tiberius replied that Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red – at which point, the shell turned crimson.

Eggs of a more temporal nature appeared in Russia between 1885 and 1917. Crafted by Peter Carl Faberge, these lavish, bejeweled orbs were commissioned by the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers. In 2007, one Faberge egg sold for $18.5 million.

Back on River Avenue, house rules were reinstated on the Monday after Easter.

“No candy until you get home from school,” Mom announced to my brothers and me in the kitchen at breakfast.

So to the pantry we trudged and reached for our favorite cereal: Sugar Pops.

Sunday best, especially for Easter

vincents002_rw2The author’s grandfather, mother (front), and aunts in the backyard of their house in Providence in the late 1930s. As published in the Providence Journal, April 16, 2017. 

Pilgrims came for 73 years, thanks in large part to the retail Holy Trinity of Christmas, Easter, and Back to School. Those were the biggest selling seasons at the children’s clothing store on Federal Hill that bore my grandfather’s name: Vincent’s.

During the run-up to Easter, the store’s showcase windows displayed finely knit shawls, classic blue blazers, and delicate cotton baby bonnets, while racks inside catered to another beloved rite of spring: first holy Communions. Young girls in silky white dresses twirled in front of full-length mirrors, eliciting oohs and aahs from adoring mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

As an entrepreneur, Papa’s eureka moment came in the mid-1920s when he recognized that most of the Hill’s Italian immigrant families, his included, always dressed up their children for church regardless of how tight money was. He also saw that parents and godparents would spare no expense in purchasing elegant christening sets to baptize their babies at one of the three Catholic churches that dotted a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue – Holy Ghost, St. John’s, and Mount Carmel. If he could provide such merchandise, along with a healthy dose of service and charm, my grandfather believed he was destined for success in good times and bad.

He was right. Two years after Vincent’s opened, the stock market crashed, unleashing the Great Depression. Meanwhile, though unemployment soared, holy water kept flowing at baptismal fonts, second-graders still made their first Communion, and families continued to go to Mass. Papa’s store thrived, especially around the holidays.

The tradition of donning new clothes on Easter has roots in pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Dressing up for church every Sunday, however, didn’t become customary until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when advances in textile manufacturing made finer wardrobe options available to the emerging middle class.

Despite the fashion dispensation inferred by the Old Testament words of 1 Samuel 16:7 – “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” – wearing one’s “Sunday best” became increasingly de rigueur for the faithful. God may not raise an eyebrow at a rumpled coat or scruffy pants, but what about fellow parishioners?

Not surprisingly, clothes were a form of religion in my family. Papa had the sleeves of his crisp white dress shirts hemmed a half-inch at the elbow so his cuffs peeked out perfectly from his suit jackets. And while the colors and patterns of his ties grew increasingly flamboyant as he got older, he had the self-confidence to make such bold sartorial statements with ease.

My mother’s sense of style was equally assured; no one could carry off a fancy Easter hat like she did. Later in life, her recollection of certain outfits, prompted by old photographs, was encyclopedic. In addition to reminiscing about the people and events in the photos, she would note a polka-dot raincoat that had been special-ordered for a niece or a satin christening set that had been passed down for generations.

My grandfather’s silver bullet for retail success would miss the mark today. Church attendance has fallen, and those who do slip into the pews often wear casual attire – jeans, sneakers, even Patriots and Red Sox jerseys. I confess that on occasion during the summer, I’ve recited the Nicene Creed in shorts and a pair of sandals. Papa would be aghast.

Still, on most Sundays, I reach into my closet and reflexively pull out a button-down shirt, creased black or gray pants, and polished shoes. On Easter, I’ll add a sport coat or opt for a tailored suit and stand in front of my bedroom mirror threading a half-Windsor knot two or three times until it’s perfect.

Invariably, the tie will be exuberant – a pink one with stripes or maybe a wide floral number with an explosion of color.

Of these particular choices, Papa would certainly approve.

Happy Easter!

 

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