About a week ago I was at a barbecue. An early spring Friday night, there were beers in hand, coals kicking out heat, and a general sense of calm- another week’s labors laid to rest. It was a good crowd- friends and friends of friends. Conversation was flowing and eventually it turned to the matter of getting the grilling underway. One who was present mentioned that he’d step out to get a bite to eat as this was a barbecue and he could not eat meat as it was a Friday during Lent.
I was a little puzzled because earlier in the conversation he had discussed being Syrian and I just never thought of Catholicism being practiced in Syria. I was brought up Catholic. The nuns at my church were mostly from Ireland and we’d get visiting priests and deacons from all over the place- the Philippines, Mexico, Germany, even Boise in the distant land of Idaho! Now I consider myself an atheist, but I do enjoy reading about various religions and while I get that there are probably Catholics in every country it just seemed a little -I don’t know- improbable that I would meet a Syrian Catholic. So having a couple beers in me and enjoying the warm night air, I went ahead and asked him: Are you Catholic or is this just some kind of spiritual exercise you’re doing?
And then I was introduced to the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Again, growing up Catholic, I was dimly aware of various schisms in the past. All Christians were at one time just Christian. Then there were some schisms where groups broke off because they really disagreed about various things and then it was just the Catholics and then Martin Luther with his memoranda and then there were like a hundred little Protestant churches and that’s it in a nutshell. I had heard of the Coptics years before. They’re an Egyptian strain of Christianity. I’ve been in a couple Greek Orthodox churches. Viewed from Catholic eyes, they’re odd. Lots of familiar symbolism, but lots of other going on as well. I knew that there were other Orthodox churches, but I never really looked into them much.
So I chatted with this guy for awhile about his faith and it didn’t take long to realize that on a nice Friday night with beers and nice weather and -what’s this?- grilled shrimp (thus allowing him to partake of the goods sans dietary violations) and we really just didn’t need to get bogged down in a theological conversation. But it got me thinking.
Catholic upbringing or no, I was pretty much born rejecting religion. As soon as I learned what the sacrament of Confirmation meant I started coming up with my reasons for declining the opportunity to promise my eternal soul to anyone at the all-knowing age of 13. If the nuns and priests were wrong (as I suspected), it sounded like a whole lot of churchy stuff for nothing. If the nuns and priests were right, this was a serious commitment and my classmates were selling their souls for Nintendo Entertainment Systems. I wanted an NES, but I had heard an awful lot about those who sold their souls and the lesson I came away with was that it was not the customer but the commerce that made the whole enterprise wrong. Besides, a video game console was most definitely in the most hallowed realm of Christmas Gifts– maybe even Christmas/Birthday Gifts. Definitely not Religious Milestone Gift material. So no Confirmation for this one.
Having rejected Catholicism, I thought I was done with going to Mass. Having been proven wrong on that count, I got pretty surly about the whole religion thing. Easter quickly became a hated affair. Not only did I have to go to church just like every other week, but I had to make a special effort to wear special clothes to go sit in a much longer Mass with way more people than usual. And it wasn’t just one Mass that week. There was church on Friday as well! And there was only one week off of school compared to the two weeks that accompanied Christmas. And it was spring, so the humidity was really kicking in compared to winter. Christmas brought candy and presents! Real presents like bicycles or Transformers or Legos and whatever you asked the probably-not-real-but-keep-pretending-and-the-gifts-keep-coming Santa Claus. Easter brought candy and candy and perhaps a little gift or two that you never got to ask for from the definitely-so-ridiculous-that-it-was-kind-of-insulting Easter Bunny.
When I moved out of my parents’ house, Easter became incredibly easy to ignore.
I’ve calmed down a lot since then. I know every religion, every culture enshrines the change of seasons with festivities. It’s especially important after the dark, cold times of Winter to come together when Spring arrives and be thankful that the cycle of growing and living is beginning again. I’m not some Richard Dawkins or Ricky Gervais atheist who openly mocks and derides believers. People need a framework that allows life and its complex goings on to make sense. And if it can’t make sense, at least give it a context where all those assholes out there will get punished after death and all the good people like us will get their true reward because it sure doesn’t feel like a fair shake sometimes. I completely get that.
But Easter? I’m really impressed.
Most atheists will gladly point out that there’s not much in the way of historical record of an actual guy named Jesus walking around and having a beard and doing miracles and stuff. And hey, they’ve got a point. Correct or not, we’ve got a birth date for Confucius and Muhammad (pbuh). The historical record may be hazy about Julius Caesar, but stories provide a firm date for when he died. Then there are stories of a man whose influence has been so broad that the dominant calendaring system on this planet points to the time of his birth and says, “That is Year One. From cowering in fear of nature to spears and tribes. From villages to empires, rising and falling. Forgotten, nameless kings and gods and languages. All of that was prelude to the existence of this one man. And then that man was executed for… disturbing the peace?
2000 years later and his name and face are recognized the world over. Well, the name that’s stuck. Maybe there was a Joshua Bar Joseph. Maybe not. But let’s just agree on that and move on. And speaking of agreeing, we’re probably wrong , but if we can generally agree about the long blond hair and blue eyes… yes, it’s unlikely. But if we’re consistent about that we can move on to other things and not get caught up debating about one of the least important details of the story, though.
2000 years! The following that this man (or at least the set of stories about this man) maintains is impressive. It has survived contact with countless cultures. It resonates with people from every socioeconomic strata. People tell stories for many reasons. They tell stories to entertain. They tell them to educate. They tell them to foster bonds. They tell them to provide moral guidance. People do not tell stories that serve no purpose. And if they do, those stories do not get retold.
So these stories matter to someone.
This Easter I offer genuine love and greetings to all who keep alive the tradition of Easter. Through careful maintenance, you have made sure that a set of memes has survived a rather impressive amount of time. Knowing Nikola Tesla’s birthday does little to expand our understanding of the man or his work. And there is little of value of knowing that the night he was killed, “Our American Cousin” was the play Abraham Lincoln was attending. What matters are the words and the works. And with the aid of various host cults and sects along the way who graciously accepted having Christianity’s fruits grafted onto their limbs, despite fractious disagreements about the meanings and implications of the massing canon, people all over the world mark the time that his life on earth came to an end.
That is beyond impressive.