Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!

Celebrated: By Christians for approximately 1,980 years

Humans would not be human if we were perfect, because that would make us no different from God. In creating us as separate creatures, God had to make us flawed, and the instrument of our difference is free will. We are born with free will, and what we trade for that free will is exile from Paradise. But that would be too lonely, and too sad, and too permanent. There had to be a way for us to get back home, and Easter is the revelation and the promise of that road home.

It's also the first holiday I have any conscious memory of: April 14, 1968, in our new home in Norfolk, Virginia. I had a blue coat and a white hat with a black ribbon woven into it, black patent leather shoes and my own tiny handbag. My twin sister, Kathy, had a spring green coat (to go with her red hair) and a yellow hat I envied, although in retrospect I see that it would not have gone with my coat, as Mom told me at the time.

We were not quite two and a half, and Mom was newly pregnant with what would turn out to be our sisters Peggy and Susan, born two days before Thanksgiving that year. Dad was home that weekend between training exercises on the USS Austin, an amphibious ship that was in and out of port but at least wasn't going to Vietnam. That Easter, Dad gave us a German Shepherd-Alaskan Husky puppy, a ball of white fur my mother called Boyfriend. Boyfriend, Kathy and I were toddlers together, and he was the gentlest, sweetest dog imaginable, though he grew to be enormous. (Enormous to a three-year-old, at least; I have no idea how big he actually was, because I've never seen a picture of him as a grown dog.)

I don't take pictures and I'm not good about keeping pictures, but somewhere there's a photo of Kathy and me and Boyfriend that Easter, and I wish I had it. We had to give Boyfriend away when Dad got transferred a year later, and the thought of that still makes me cry, more than 40 years later.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Happy Holi!

Celebrated: By Hindus around the world, but especially in places associated with Lord Krishna

Celebrated on the day after the March full moon, Holi is also called the Festival of Colors and the Spring Festival. It commemorates the death of Holika, a female demon whose brother, Hiranyakashipu, was king of demons and burned her to death, and the immortality of Hiranyakashipu's son Prahlada, who was burned but did not die because of his devotion to Vishnu. Holika's sacrifice and Prahlada's survival demonstrate the power of good over evil, and the triumph of spring over winter.

Holi also celebrates the romance between Lord Krishna and his lover, Radha. Krishna and his friends traveled to Radha's house to tease her and her friends, and Krishna painted Radha's face so that she would be dark, as he was. Holi is thus a festival of pranks and painting people with bright colors, through a combination of colored powders and water.

It would be a gross oversimplification to say that Holi is the Hindu version of Mardi Gras, but parallels exist. During Holi, traditional rules don't apply. "Bura na mano, Holi hai," is what people say: "Never mind, it's Holi!" Castes mix, people eat and drink too much, and bhang — Indian marijuana — is smoked, eaten and drunk. The festival usually lasts two days, but can last for weeks before and after in the Braj region, the land of Krishna.

Central Maine feels very far from any celebration of Holi, and I could use a little color in my life right now. But the last of the snow is melting, and the sky is more blue than gray, and it helps to know that spring has arrived in some parts of the world.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Happy Passover

Celebrated: For more than 3,000 years, by Jews and followers of successor faiths (including Christianity), from the 15th day of Nisan to the 22nd day of Nisan

Chag sameach, everybody. Passover and Holy Week don't always fall during the same week, but they should, and this week they do. From a theological standpoint, it's critically important that Jesus died during the Passover festival; he was the firstborn who sacrificed himself so that everyone else could be saved. But that's a longer discussion than I'm up for this morning, so we'll move along.

The God of the Old Testament is an angry, scary God — usually just, but not always. I was five or six when I first understood the Passover story, and what caught my imagination was not the promise of redemption but all the blood and guts that preceded it. God wanted Pharoah to liberate the Jewish people who were held in slavery, and when Pharoah rejected Moses's message, God sent ten successive plagues to show the futility of human opposition to God's will.

The tenth plague was the death of every firstborn son of Egypt, but God told Moses he would spare the Israelites — as long as they marked their doors with the blood of a lamb. After Pharoah saw this devastation, he ordered the Israelites out of Egypt, setting things up for the next 3,000+ years of wars over real estate.

Even when I was five or six, though, it did not escape me that the Jews weren't spared the first nine plagues, and those were horrible enough:
  1. The plague of blood - the water of the Nile turned to blood, killing all the fish and leaving everyone with nothing to drink.
  2. The plague of frogs - the Nile teemed with frogs, which invaded every room of every house in Egypt. This plague was so terrible that Pharoah actually agreed to liberate the slaves, though he changed his mind as soon as the frogs died.
  3. The plague of fleas (or lice, or gnats) - Egypt became infested with small insects. If you've ever suffered a flea infestation, you know they don't care about their targets' religion.
  4. The plague of flies - God sent swarms of flies to attack the Egyptians' livestock. According to the Torah, this plague did not affect the Land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, but everyone would have suffered from the death of livestock.
  5. The plague of disease - After the flies, a mysterious disease killed all the Egyptians' livestock, though the Israelites' cattle were spared. Even if this were true, Israelite slaves in Egyptian homes would have suffered from this, wouldn't they? 
  6. The plague of boils - Moses and Aaron threw soot into the sky, and every person or animal touched by it was infected with boils. Presumably Moses and Aaron weren't.
  7. The plague of hail - Thunder, hail and lightning fell on the entire land of Egypt, the worst storm in recorded history. Again, according to Exodus, the Land of Goshen, in the northeastern Nile delta, was spared.
  8. The plague of locusts - Before the eighth plague, God actually told Moses that he would harden Pharoah's heart just so Egypt would have to suffer through the last three plagues. That bothered me in first grade, and it bothers me still. Why? And locusts are gross. 1972 was a cicada year in northern Virginia, where we were living, and I still remember the horror of stepping on a cicada shell with bare feet. They look like prehistoric monsters. They are prehistoric monsters. I don't care that they're edible, or even kosher.
  9. The plague of darkness - Moses stretched out his hands and caused the sun to disappear from Egypt from three days, and the Land of Goshen was not exempt. 
My 1972 summer of locusts was also the summer of a total solar eclipse. The connection was not lost on my six-year-old brain. I was an anxious child to begin with, and for the first time in my life I was grateful to be the second twin, and a girl. If anyone was going to be killed, it would be my (older) twin sister, Kathy, or better yet, my two-year-old brother, Ed, who was no use to anyone, as far as I could tell. (Sorry, Ed.)

The lesson I took from all of this — which I still think is the lesson we're supposed to take from all of this — is that the universe, also known as God, is a random, angry place, and even the righteous can't count on being spared.

But sometimes we are spared. And when we are, we should celebrate and be glad, and thank the Power that Is, and feast while the food's available. Which is the point of the Passover festival. Where's the afikomen?

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Happy Susan and Mike's Wedding Day!

Celebrated: Today and for many years to come

My sister Susan and her fiance, Mike, are getting married in Richmond today. Most of our extended family has gathered, glad to have a reason to get together that isn't a funeral. The weather is perfect, presumably arranged by our mother from wherever she's watching.

I like weddings. I believe in marriage, in a way that may be possible only for the congenitally unmarried. I believe in it as both a social construct and a sacrament, the only sacrament that two people bestow upon each other. In standing up and making that promise before the community, two people create something that is separate from them and more than they could ever hope to be alone. A new family forms from two old ones, and humanity's story continues.

It's a lovely thing to be asked to witness, and I am glad and grateful to be here. Best wishes to Susan and Mike as they start this next phase of their life together.