This past Sunday marked the beginning of Catholicism’s “high holy days” with Palm Sunday, a day that commemorates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and eventual showdown with Pontius Pilate. It is one of the six Holy Days of Obligation in the Catholic Church. These mark important events that merit participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. On Holy Days, much like Sundays, Catholics are supposed to refrain from unnecessary work and attend church services. As a child, Palm Sunday meant three things: we got the brand new parish calendars (with the dates of all the upcoming parish league basketball games), we received our palm fronds (plastic-like, yellow-green leaves that we formed into crosses and put over our beds), and finally, that Easter Sunday was only a week away! For Catholic children who’d been forced to give up something meaningful for the 40-day Lenten season that culminates on Easter morning, this was the light at the end of the tunnel.
I grew up believing that the Easter season was chock-o-block with Holy Days and the dreaded weekday masses they entailed. My mom pulled us off playgrounds for masses on Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent which finds Catholics receiving ashes on our foreheads while praying for strength in preparation for Jesus’ death and resurrection), Holy Thursday (the day on which Jesus and his disciples have the Last Supper), and Good Friday (the day on which Jesus was killed). It was only while looking into joining the seminary after college that I learned that none of these days required us to go to mass. With seven rowdy kids on her hands, my mom kept up the ruse in a desperate attempt to save our souls through overexposure.
She also “suggested” the items we give up for Lent each year, and inevitably that meant no sweets at all. By the time Easter Sunday rolled around, the Walsh kids were irritable and jumpy in the throes of sugar withdrawal; we counted down the hours like addicts outside a methadone clinic and dreamed of the baskets of candy that waited for us upon our return home. Because my mom forbade us to touch them until after mass, we spent our morning trying not to hate the children snacking on chocolate bunnies in the pews around us.
How the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has been marketed into a festival of marshmallow chicks and egg-shaped chocolate lorded over by a giant rabbit is beyond me. Even as a child with a harelip who should have seen this animal as a role model, I saw little value in the Easter Bunny. He doesn’t even have an opposable thumb! Easter celebrates our victory–through the death and resurrection of Jesus–over eternal death, but all the Easter Bunny does is hop around and hide eggs. I was never even clear on whether the bunny was the one leaving us the candy baskets in the first place, so weak was his connection to the holiday. Still, you don’t look a gift-bunny in the mouth, especially if it means free candy.
The Lenten season culminates with the Holy Day of Ascension, commemorating the bodily elevation of Jesus up to Heaven of His own will forty days after rising from the dead. As a child, this was always the most pertinent symbol of the power of Christ, mostly because of a picture in my Junior Bible. It showed Jesus flying straight up into Heaven as his disciples watched, amazed, from the ground. Organized religion needs more pictures of their figureheads flying into space or lifting heavy objects, especially when competing with bunnies carrying baskets of peanut butter eggs.
To this day my mom can’t quite remember all the days she arbitrarily assigned to Holy Day status without Papal knowledge. More likely than not, she probably took our moral inventory and made it up as she went along if she began to fear for our eternal souls. In later years I learned the term for how my mom took us on these unannounced trips to the church for confession or extra masses: intermittent reinforcement. Because we lived in fear that we could be dragged in front of an altar at any moment, we had to make sure we kept our sinning in check.
Whether you are celebrating Easter (Christian), Mahavir Jayanti (Jain), the Theravadin New Year (Buddhist), the Lord’s Evening Meal (Jehovah’s Witness), Hanuman Jayanti (Hindu), Passover (Jewish), the First Day of Ridvan (Baha’i), or any other religious holiday during these two weeks, I wish you and yours a wonderful observance. And, if permitted, maybe a few of those peanut butter eggs…