Funk on Faith

Easter’s meaning enriched by experiences, my own story

First Presbyterian Church’s alter gets adorned with lilies for Easter. Diane Maye helps distribute the flowers on April 3,2015.
First Presbyterian Church’s alter gets adorned with lilies for Easter. Diane Maye helps distribute the flowers on April 3,2015. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

The hunt for colored eggs, the taste of chocolate bunnies, the Kodak-ready look of a new suit and tie – growing up, I could hardly wait for Easter.

Even as I got older and the day’s symbols and rituals became more meaningful, I, as a Catholic, still delighted in the Easter Mass, with all its sights, sounds and smells: the altar lilies, the sweet incense, the priest’s white and gold vestments, the long lines for Communion, and the invitation, after a solemn Lent, to sing with the joy of angels.

“Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia! Our triumphant holy day. Alleluia!”

Easter, I’ll also tell you, is more personal for me than it might be for others. More about that later.

Easter, not Christmas, is the most important date on the Christian calendar, and it’s the reason 2 billion followers of Jesus Christ attend church on Sundays.

Other religions also have sacred days that define them. As a reporter who has written about faith for 11 years, I have been blessed to witness Jews celebrating Rosh Hashana, complete with the blowing of a shofar, or ram’s horn, to trumpet the coronation of God as King of the Universe and to wake his creations from their spiritual slumber.

And on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, I experienced the reverence of thousands of Muslims gathering for communal prayer to Allah and then, with joy, breaking their monthlong daytime fast by sharing a meal.

A day of reassurance

Over the years, in Catholic churches, I have participated in Easter’s rituals as an altar boy, a member of the choir, and a lector who reads Bible passages to the congregation.

It’s a day of reassurance that annually bolsters my faith in a God that asks us to let our old selves die so that our new lives can begin.

In my reporting on churches around Charlotte, I also have been touched, even changed, by how others embrace Jesus’ resurrection.

There was the Sunday I went to St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church, now in south Charlotte, to cover the last in a series of Pascha, or Easter, services that had started at midnight Saturday. Members heard John’s version of the Resurrection story read in English, Greek, Spanish, French, Latin, Arabic and German – a tradition symbolizing Jesus’ call to his disciples to spread the Good News.

The priest asked his flock which language God spoke. A child figured it out and shouted: The language of love.

Indeed, the priest said, “this is the language we should be striving to learn.”

Then there was my visit to the Holy Land two years ago with members of Myers Park Baptist Church and Temple Beth El.

Like many Protestants, Baptists hang an empty cross in their churches to accentuate the risen Christ. As a Catholic, I had always worshiped in churches displaying a crucifix – Christ on the cross. So I was surprised, during our tour of a Catholic church near the Sea of Galilee, when a Baptist in our party reacted with a flash of anger at seeing a crucifix.

“Why is my Jesus still hanging on that cross?” she asked. “My Jesus is risen!”

I was startled, then moved.

And I was there on Easter morn in 2001 when University Park Baptist – now The Park – opened what was then its big new church on Beatties Ford Road.

At that 8 a.m. service, this African-American church gave me a lesson in joy.

In the crowded pews, the congregation swayed and cried and shouted and sang – all with a passion that recalled the first Christians, whose faith was so fierce they died for it.

My first Easter

Let me end with my beginning.

I was born at 10 p.m. on April 9, 1955 – just two hours before Easter.

Catholics back then liked to name their children after saints, and St. Timothy was a first-century evangelist whose mentor and traveling companion was St. Paul. His letters, or epistles, to Timothy are part of the New Testament.

As devout Catholics – my dad had almost become a priest – my parents should have been doubly joyous on my first full day of life.

Bill and Mary Lee’s firstborn, an Easter baby.

But they and my grandparents were not celebrating. They were worrying. The doctors had told them that, without successful corrective surgery right away, I would soon die.

On that Easter, a Catholic priest at St. Elizabeth Hospital went ahead and baptized me – just in case.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t have been there to hold your and Bill’s hand on Easter Eve,” a friend of my mother’s wrote her then. “I have an inner feeling that little Timothy will make it.”

That was 60 years ago this week. My parents, then in their mid-20s, would go on to have three more sons.

In 1989, my dad died, a few months shy of 61.

And this year, it was my mom, now almost 85, who needed emergency surgery. As I stood at her bedside in the intensive care unit of a newer hospital named for St. Elizabeth, I couldn’t help thinking about how time had reversed our roles.

Now I was the anxious one, reciting “Hail Marys” and wishing I could do more to lessen her pain and fear.

But her story had a happy ending, too. Like me, she made it out of the hospital, and is recovering in rehab.

So Happy Easter! And I’ll leave you with this: On this day of light and joy and “Alleluia!” I find myself more grateful than ever for the gift of life – now and forevermore.

Funk: 704-358-5703; tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

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