Easter is the cornerstone of my religious tradition. It’s the promise embedded in every prayer, doctrine, and creed: Christ died for our sins and defeated death for our eternal life. However, I’ve realized in this Easter season that the celebration never hits home for me in the way that Christmas does, and I’ve theorized that it’s because Easter is a transient season for many of us.
Christmas arrives reliably on December 25 every year and follows the same, reliable schedule: lighting a new candle each week, being a shepherd in the Christmas pageant again, gifts with the family in the morning, making the same pilgrimage between grandparents’ houses in the afternoon. Christmas is always the musk of dusty angel robes and glow of Christmas tree lights on the hardwood floor before bed and the heaviness of a glass plate piled high with Christmas goodies.
Easter, however, is rarely the same twice. It hops unpredictably around April—the 16th this year, the 1st next—and pops in and out of Spring Break, making reliable traditions difficult to maintain. However, it’s this very unpredictability that has precipitated many of my most memorable Easters:
Grand Rapids, 2008
Perhaps the closest I’ve come to an Easter tradition hasn’t commemorated Easter at all, but rather Good Friday. For a few years in high school, my church would join the nearby Sherman Street CRC for an annual Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows” and involved alternating between songs, Scripture readings, and extinguishings of another light until the whole sanctuary was silent and dark.
The service always bore the feeling of a gradual closing in, a step by step march to an inevitable fate but also a firm feeling of comfort and security, like being held. The smallness of those last lights seemed to pull everyone together and the final darkness felt like a relief.
Abby and I arrived at the final stop of our European tour, travel-weary and honestly a bit reayd for our once-in-a-lifetime trip to pass from exciting-yet-stressful reality into rosy memory. We dropped our bags at the shadiest hostel of our trip and roamed out into the city, nearly forgetting that it was Easter.
We toured a museum that I forgot before we even exited and snapped an iconic photo at Trevi fountain to convince future us of what a great day we’d had. But the day felt empty. We were in a city that Mary Kate and Ashley promised would be pulsing with life on a day that Matthew and Luke promised would be pulsing with life, but we felt too foreign there and too far from home to feel it.
Finally, we found a church with an evening Easter service and slipped inside. We sat for an hour, letting the Italian slide unrecognized past our ears and stumble unrecognizable off our tongues. Then we found a generic Italian restaurant and Abby tried to achieve a piece of home by ordering a hamburger. The patty came cold and on a bed of lettuce.
Santiago de Compostela, 2012
Another year, another semester abroad, another Easter mecca. This time, my friend Ali and I ended our sojourn across the Netherlands and Spain in Santiago de Compostela, the city to which thousands and thousands of golden shells point.
The reason for this is that Santiago de Compostela is said to enshrine the remains of Saint James the Great, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. The myths surrounding this involve angel boat captains, shipwrecks, grooms on horseback, and miraculous seashells, but were apparently convincing enough to secure the site as one of the three major Christian pilgrimage destinations (along with Rome and Jerusalem).
Since then, a network of trails has emerged around all of Spain marked by seashells that point the way to the cathedral and populated by a transient string of ragtag hikers that hasn’t died out since the Middle Ages. Thus, even though Ali and I endured a grueling, thirteen-hour, overnight bus ride to arrive in the city, the masses of haggard backpackers kind of made us feel like we had cheated our way there.
Santiago, for all its hype, was an eerily quiet city, as if the pavement were designed to soak up sound like carpet. All around were cascades of purple flowers and the hushed stomps of muddy hiking boots, with the dark, hulking cathedral presiding over it all.
Easter is actually so popular in Santiago that the cathedral runs a non-stop service all day long that repeats itself every hour. Ali and I shuffled in amongst the throngs of walking sticks and zip-off pants and peaked about others’ heads to watch the thurible swing silver and smoky through the great belly of the church.
I don’t remember much of the service, but I do remember sitting in the plaza beside Ali afterwards and wondering at the sense of accomplishment and finality that must be universal amongst the worn backpackers huddled around us.
I declared that I intended to go to church on Easter, and my friends Guillermo, Sully, and Matt declared that they’d accompany me. So, the next morning, we drove to the big, gay Methodist church, and I could not imagine a better way to spend this holy day.
The church was bursting with a great cloud of paisley shirts and pastel suits as if the aisles were fashion week runways. The usher looked overworked but managed to shoehorn us into a pew right near the front. It was one of the most beautiful church services I’ve ever attended, not because of its exceptionality but because of its normality.
We sang songs, Pastor Josh used his “magic bag of wonders” to deliver an adorable children’s message, and, when it came time for communion, the pastor reminded us that it was a gift extended to all of us, unconditionally. After receiving my communion, I marveled at the kaleidoscopic procession of parishioners and smiled to see a drag queen partake of the sacraments.
That afternoon, my friends brought me to an event called the Easter Drag Races organized by some local drag queens to raise money for AIDS research. The event consisted of a series of highly entertaining drag-related competitions. I still remember standing beside a little family of four—complete with an eight-year-old boy and five-year-old girl perched on her father’s shoulders—laughing together at people sprinting around in wigs and heels. I also remember a hefty, heavily bearded drag queen telling me that my floral print shirt was “very, very gay.” (That’s when you know, folks!)
Finally, we finished our non-traditional Easter Sunday at a popular Atlanta Bar called Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium or, colloquially, Church. I will admit that the décor of Church made me uncomfortable, particularly given the date. The walls were cluttered with religious artwork painted over with sacrilegious speech bubbles, a neon sign blaring “Fuck Fear” buzzed in the corner, and a mannequin dressed in a nun’s habit with a dildo strapped to her waist rotated from the ceiling above. It was unique.
However, for all of Church’s eccentricities, it somehow brought together people from all walks of life, and it felt good to finish the day dancing out in the warm Atlanta night air surrounded by such a God-wrought diversity of people.
Grand Rapids, 2017
I woke up this past Sunday to a text from Jerry about Lady Gaga’s new song, “The Cure.” I manically stabbed at my phone until I found it and laid in bed listening to the smooth vocals and gut-punching hook, sun wafting in through the windows. I thought to myself that it was an Easter miracle and immediately realized the sacrilege.
Later that morning I didn’t pay particular attention in church but admired the sea of familiar faces and joined in the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I had lunch with my cousins and grandparents then went home to grade. I went for a quiet, sunny run in the slowly awakening fields of Gainey and ate a leftover Chipotle burrito for dinner. I finished The Two Towers with Abby and listened to Lady Gaga again on the way home.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) graduated Calvin with degrees in secondary education, Spanish, English, and writing. He is currently teaching our nation’s youth how to say the colors in Spanish but hopes one day to relocate to York, England, where he will write poetry out of tea shops, go for lolloping runs through the British countryside, set the record for the most treacle cake consumed in a single sitting, and work part-time as a magical singing nanny with a knack for reminding families of the important things in life.