Easter Sunday has been a special day in my life for literally as long as I can remember. A few years back we converted our family's grainy, old, Kodak movie films from the 1950s and 1960s into a more modern format; those early films showed us all dressed up in our finery, either getting ready to go to church or just after getting home. And there were the Easter baskets and egg hunts and the family get-togethers that attended the day.
Decades later, as my wife and I raised our own children, we continued family traditions. Our more modern videotapes, shot with the early-model cameras that weighed almost as much as the Sousaphone I marched with in high school and college, show our kids by the azaleas in the front yard in the morning, just before setting off to church. Then the videos cut to Easter Sunday afternoon, with the kids roaming the yard at their grandparent's Lake Jackson home, hunting for the Easter eggs.
Perhaps it's true that the more things change, the more they remain the same. I don't know. But for sure, those videos bring back fond memories of good times, all on an Easter Sunday.
As a boy growing up in little Greensboro, Georgia, I served as an acolyte in our Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. The church was built in 1868. When I was a kid it had no air conditioning, and was heated in the winter with a pot-belly, wood-burning stove located right there in the sanctuary.
One interesting side effect from this unique arrangement was that the congregation had to deal with wasps for nearly the entire year. The stinging beasts built their nests in the highest reaches of the little vaulted, Anglican-style building, and during the services often dive-bombed the communicants. When I was very young, in the middle of a sermon one day, some wasps managed to get inside my long, flowing acolyte vestments and proceeded to sting me at will. When I ran down from the altar, yelling at the top of my lungs and trying to get out of those robes, the usually staid and stoic Episcopalians were quite taken aback, for here was a young acolyte hollering and dancing wildly like he'd just gotten saved at a traveling tent revival on the outskirts of town.
I understand that nowadays there's a branch of the Episcopal Church that calls itself "charismatic." But, back in the early 1960s, the term "charismatic Episcopalian" would pretty much have qualified as Webster's definition of an oxymoron.
Thus, for me, a seeming eternity passed before anyone in the stunned congregation finally realized what was going on and came to help me get the wasps out of my clothes. They didn't want to interfere if God was infusing the Holy Spirit into the lad.
Well, you can imagine that from that day forward, whenever I was serving as an acolyte I kept a wary and watchful eye on the wasp nests way up in the ceiling. And for the longest time, even one day when the Bishop visited, many folks who were unaware of my wasp experience thought I was a most prayerful and devout acolyte, always looking Heaven-ward during the worship service.
It was in the little Church of the Redeemer that I heard perhaps the greatest Easter sermon, ever. Our congregation was so tiny that we shared a minister with a larger companion church in Washington. He'd drive over for our early morning services before returning to Washington for that congregation's regular 11 a.m. service. Meanwhile, the way it worked for me in little Greensboro, after our church service I'd head for the Methodist Sunday school, and then would sing in their choir at the 11 a.m. service.
One Easter morning, when I was about 12, after completion of the special Easter ritual in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, our Washington vicar strode to the lectern to preach the homily, or sermon. I was already looking upward, mindful of the wasps, and thinking of how I had to rush three blocks to the Methodist Church for my next service. The full complement of Episcopalian faithful usually turned out for Easter, so all two dozen of us were hushed and focused as the preacher approached the podium.
He raised his arms outward, as a shepherd ministering to his flock might do, and said, simply: "Jesus Christ is risen! Alleluia!"
And that was it. He returned to the altar and commenced finishing the ritual, and we were done.
I made it to the Methodist Church with plenty of time to spare. On the way I remember thinking how great it was that the Episcopal vicar had been so brief, because it gave everybody time to get to other important Easter Sunday things, like egg hunts.
A quarter-century later, in the summer of 1989, I found myself studying the Pensees - "thoughts" - of French philosopher Blaise Pascal at the University of Notre Dame. For four weeks that summer, thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities, I was immersed in study, meditation and the kinds of conversations late into the night that change your life.
One fine day, walking across the Quad at Notre Dame, I remembered the Easter Sunday sermon from my boyhood. It hit me like a ton of bricks that the sermon was exactly right for Easter, following along the lines of something Pascal said. He said that there's enough light to illumine the path for those who truly seek, and enough darkness to obscure it from the insincere. And Pascal also said that a believer, or theist, should not try to convince a non-believer, or atheist, by giving examples of God's existence. That's because the believer, Pascal said, can see God in everything, but the non-believer cannot see God in anything.
So my boyhood pastor's sermon that morning had been much, much more than just a clever device to get him back to Washington - and me to the Methodist Church - in a timely manner. Twenty-five years or so later, I realized the brilliance of what the vicar had done: he'd conveyed every nuance of truth to every true Christian on Easter Sunday, a truth for which any additional explanation would have been, simply, superfluous.
This Easter Sunday is something pretty special, too. The folks who study calendars say it's the earliest Easter in something like 75 years, and that Easter won't fall this early again in the calendar year for some 200-plus years. Normally azaleas are in bloom while the dogwoods blossom, and it's time for the "flat-bellies" - a term Tommy Aaron once used to describe younger professional golfers - to tee it up over at Augusta National. For sure, Easter and the Masters tournament usually coincide, but not this year.
Yeah, Easter Sunday has been special to me for as long as I can remember. To be sure, the reasons I love it so have changed as I've grown older, as the discoveries along the path I've traveled in this lifetime have wrought epiphany after epiphany.
Nowadays pretty much every nation on the planet, and pretty much every person in the civilized world for that matter, knows that today is Easter Sunday. Most folks know what it is that the Christian community believes and celebrates today.
That being the case, the thing I love about Easter is that it absolutely makes every last person on earth stop and think about what it is that they truly believe about the existence of God.
God either is, or is not. And answering that question is a matter of faith, for you can't go to the hardware store and buy a pound of God, nor to the grocery store to pick up a gallon of God.
Easter Sunday is the one day of the year - whether it falls early or late - when everyone with a brain recognizes that the way you live your life depends on how you answer the question of what you believe about God's existence.
Cursory study in probability theory - or a casual reading of Richard Feynman's short novels, for that matter - show to even the staunchest critic that there's virtually no chance that life on earth happened by chance, or by some cosmic accident.
And once the inquisitive make that discovery, folks like Pascal are waiting in the wings - even today - to show how what appears to be a great leap of faith is actually just a simple step.
The winter constellations of Orion, Taurus, Pleiades and Cassiopeia are fast fading in the night sky, and as I see them off I wonder if I'll be here when they come around again next fall. And, just as their arrival is special in my life, so is today, this Easter Sunday. For Easter Sunday cries out to each and every person to examine what they truly believe, and to make a choice.
So, tell me, what do you believe?
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.