There was a big old full moon this week, April’s “Pink Moon,” and we went looking for a spot for watching the moonrise. But as luck would have it, it was cloudy and the moon was mostly obscured for a couple of hours after it rose.
As we were driving home, though, we saw it mostly emerge as we drove past Bismarck’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, partially obscured by clouds in kind of a ghostly look, flirting with the brightly lit bell tower, so we stopped and Lillian got out and took a photo.
So that was Tuesday, the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, which came on March 19 this year. That means this Sunday is Easter because Christians, since the sixth century days of Pope Gregory, have observed Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. (Although those who make these ecclesiastical decisions have determined for the purposes of setting the date for Easter that the equinox date will be fixed as March 21 — the “ecclesiastical equinox.”) And the moon has its own calendar, so Easter will always be between March 22 and April 25.
In no small twist of irony, the date for one of the most sacred of Christian holy days is based on a somewhat pagan observance of the arrival spring and the phases of the moon. It’s the only church holy day, I think, that moves on the calendar. Most, if not all, of the other Catholic (my faith) Holy Days of Obligation occur on fixed dates, although we’ve been cheating a little bit from time to time when one of them falls on a Saturday or Monday. There are some that take the “pagan conspiracy” much deeper, claiming that Easter really does have pagan roots. You can read about it here if you want to.
So that means today is Good Friday. There won’t be much good on this Good Friday. We’re all pretty much locked down and locked out, and the churches are holding online services, so we’ll participate from home. We Catholics will observe our last meatless Friday for the rest of the year, and normally schools would be closed today anyway because in North Dakota we have a state law that says we can’t hold school on Good Friday (in violation of everything I’ve ever heard about the separation of church and state).
It’s a good law, though, because when I wake up on Good Friday morning, I have memories of Good Fridays past. I lay in bed this morning for a good long while thinking about them.
When I was a kid growing up in Hettinger, N.D., we lived in a big house built by a pioneer doctor sometime prior to 1920. It sat on four lots, nearly half a block. The house was on one lot, beside it to the west was a lot with big cottonwood trees in which we built a treehouse and where we slept in our sleeping bags on summer nights. In back, one lot had an old wood barn in which my neighbors Donnie and Max and I built a fort. And behind that barn, there had at one time been either a manure pile or a haystack because the ground was very soft and fertile and full of earthworms — the bait we used to catch bluegills and sunfish in Mirror Lake on the south side of town.
The other back lot was a big open space where we played baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall and from time to time, shot marbles in a game called “Pots” into a hole behind home plate.
My earliest memory of Good Friday was that school got out for the day or maybe at noon, I’m not sure which, so we could attend Good Friday services, generally at 3 p.m. in churches all over town. I think it was before North Dakota passed the law about no school at all on Good Friday because I seem to remember going to school until noon that day. There’d generally be a baseball game going in our back yard in the early afternoon, which ended at 2, so we could all go home and put on church clothes. No jeans in church in those days (a rule I still hold to, but I’m in the minority).
I don’t remember much about the services held Good Friday in those days, except kneeling and kissing a cross. I was an altar boy and sometimes got called on for that service — we took turns, some serving Holy Thursday night services, some Good Friday, some Midnight Mass on Saturday night and some Sunday Mass on Easter. Holy Thursday was the least desirable because we had to wash Father Kovitch’s feet, and they stunk.
After I grew up, I went through a Catholic hiatus for some years after my divorce from an early “starter marriage,” but Father Cyprian Meyer at Spirit of Life Catholic Church in Mandan restored my faith with a Good Friday service about 20 years ago. My wife, Rita, was fighting cancer, and Father Cyprian, one of the kindest, most caring men I’ve ever met in my life, welcomed us into his church, even though we were both divorced Catholics. “I built a parish on people like you,” he told me.
Spirit of Life had a big old wooden cross hanging on the wall behind the altar, and on that first Good Friday service we attended, we were astonished and overwhelmed at what took place. The cross was big and heavy, about 8 feet tall, with a cross beam about 4 feet wide. When we arrived, the cross had been taken down from the wall and propped up beside the altar.
At the appointed time in the service for Veneration of the Cross, Father Cyprian and the Mass servers picked up the heavy cross and took it to the very back of the church. The church was very full Good Friday because parishioners who attended one of four Masses Father Cyprian normally held on the weekend (one on Saturday evening and three on Sunday) all came to the one Good Friday service, so a couple of hundred chairs were set up in the church entry to accommodate overflow crowds.
At the back, the cross was lifted over the heads of the people at the end of the very back row, and they began passing it down the row, over their heads. It was a heavy old thing, so people from two rows supported it as it moved down the row, and then at the end, they passed it up to the people in the next two rows and they passed it back down to the other end. That continued all the way to the front of the church, which is a pretty big place.
The process took probably 20 minutes, and for me, it was one of the most moving 20 minutes of my life. We all helped Jesus carry his cross that Friday afternoon in Mandan, N.D. I never saw that cross drop, or even slip, during the entire process, even though it looked dangerous. I think we had help making sure that didn’t happen.
We don’t do that at Spirit of Life anymore, and that’s sad. We have a new priest, and now we’re back to the traditional veneration, coming forward one by one, kneeling and kissing or just touching the cross. This year, of course, we won’t do any of that. I’ll sit in my recliner and watch some kind of a Good Friday service on the TV, plugged into the church’s Facebook page on my computer at 3 o’clock this afternoon. But at least I won’t have to go through the painful ritual, for an old man with a bad back, of “Let us kneel” and “Let us stand.”
And Easter will be sadly different this year. It’s generally such a joyful day in the church, and I’m not sure that joy will translate well on the two live-streamed Masses at 8 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday.
But the weather service says the skies will be clear Saturday night, and that big old moon will be shining brightly as we celebrate the Resurrection. That’s something.
DINA BUTCHER April 10, 2020 at 10:28 am
Bearing the cross communally is quite a metaphor. Lively story.Reply
Ed Maixner April 13, 2020 at 7:40 am
This was an immensely enjoyable column, sort of a reward for sitting through my Easter liturgy in front of a computer screen instead of in my hometown church.Reply
But enjoyable especially with my Catholic childhood in a parish in New England, not far from Hettinger, in the same era. Thanks, Jim!