My Back Pages: This is the Night

(Note: This column originally appeared in The Daily on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012. It is no longer extant, so I have reproduced it here.)

This morning the smoke of incense is still dissipating from thousands of churches around the country and the world where, last night, the Great Vigil of Easter was celebrated. This service — which begins with a bonfire and continues with readings, psalms, prayers, baptisms and the first mass of the Easter season, all ending (typically) with a big late-night meal to break the fast of Lent — was, in the first centuries of Christian history, the central event in the worshiping life of the Church. Today it’s an observance that appeals primarily to liturgy geeks (myself very much included), an unwieldy and time-consuming festival that dramatically complicates one’s plans for baked hams and Easter baskets.

Strange as the Easter Vigil may seem today, it hasn’t lost its original purpose: welcoming new believers into the body of the faithful. What is so powerful about the Easter Vigil, apart from the sheer sensory experience of it, is the way it intertwines the whole story of the Bible with the passing over of Jesus from death on Good Friday to resurrection on Easter. And the men and women who have been preparing for baptism (called “catechumens,” or hearers) step into these entwined stories on Saturday night, just as men and women did back when Christianity was a minor cult of the Roman world.

Last year, Vivien was one of these people. She had happened upon the church in Chicago I was serving one Sunday when the congregation was at a joint service elsewhere in the neighborhood. My 2-year-old son helped me give her a tour of the building, and I invited her back to worship there.

Vivien grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. Her Buddhist grandparents kept a traditional shrine to their ancestors and her Catholic mother went to Mass. While studying at a prestigious Christian boarding school, Vivien went to church a few times to hang out with friends and meet boys, but the required religion classes bored her, literally, to sleep. The Catholic college she attended in America made no greater impact. “If someone had asked me what my religion was, I would have said I had no religion,” she said.

Interestingly enough, she was convinced of the existence of God from her earliest memories. “Nobody had to tell me,” she said. “Whenever I got frustrated, I got angry at him.” Yet only later, after some encouragement from her recently-baptized brother, did she start peeking into the city’s churches.

“I actually felt something,” she said of coming to church. She would weep during the hymns and at communion (it helped, she added, that the church’s senior pastor is a woman). “My life was pretty fulfilling” before getting involved in a religious community. She had a good career and a happy marriage and wasn’t looking to solve her problems through faith. “I was just really into the sermons.” Before long, she began feeling a strong desire to be baptized. She met regularly with a mentor and was baptized a year ago at the vigil.

Modern Christian converts rarely arrive by an obvious path. American popular culture does not promote familiarity with the basics of Christian life and thought (not that it necessarily should). Spiritual seekers can find countless ways to experience awe, or feel accepted, or embrace a challenge without making the kind of leap involved in a symbolic drowning. Formal membership in a community of Christians does not confer much in the way of prestige.

A colleague of mine, writing about the process whereby adults are received into the Catholic Church, reports that most people go through it for their spouse or spouse-to-be. But she has met others who have started inquiring about the church out of their battle with an addiction, or because they read a novel by Graham Greene at an impressionable age. People discover yearnings that they never learned a vocabulary to express; or they might need a new beginning, or a way to identify with something outside of themselves. Whatever you may think of those motives, they are perennial. Whatever you may think of the church, it has a ritual in which they can be given a place.

Vivien looked back, at the anniversary of her baptism, and told me that she doesn’t worry as much as she used to. “I feel very strongly that God is with me,” she said. “I don’t need anybody to tell me that.”

Near the beginning of the service, a cantor sings the “Easter Proclamation.” “This is the night,” the night of Easter, that “puts to flight the deeds of wickedness; washes away sin; restores innocence to the fallen and joy to those who mourn; casts out hate; brings peace; and humbles earthly pride.” Now that’s poetry, not journalism–by all accounts, deeds of wickedness, hate and earthly pride are doing just fine today after almost 2,000 celebrations of the Resurrection. But I take it very seriously all the same. It’s humbling to imagine that something as fantastical as the resurrection of Jesus could, just possibly, be true (the people nearest in time and place believed it was, anyway). And it’s especially humbling to meet someone who comes to share that hope through her own utterly unique journey. “A few years ago, people who knew me knew that I did not agree with religion,” Vivien told me. “I’m glad I opened my heart.”

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