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It was a small church in the country, about five miles from where we lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This is where my mother took us every Sunday—my brother, sister and me. It was an Episcopal church built with brick and wood like so many buildings in that part of southeastern Virginia, marked and influenced by the colonial past. We went reluctantly, my brother and I, especially in the summer, when baseball and barefooted freedom called to us. But there was no question of not going.
I knew some of the people who came and some my mother knew and some we only knew from those Sundays in church. I might have whined about going, but there were moments when I sat there where the words and stories from the Bible entered me and became fixed and I think determined, at least somewhat, the course of my life as a writer.
In this little Virginia church there were two days that were the mightiest, the most significant. They were Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Though they were two days apart, the two days could not have been more different.
We usually went to church on Good Friday. This was the day Jesus was crucified. We had been taught the story in Sunday school, and the minister had led us up to this day each Sunday. We knew what was going to happen. We knew that Jesus was going to be crucified. But part of me didn’t want to believe that. Part of me didn’t want to believe that his father—that God—was going let his son die. It couldn’t be! As the time went by in the church, and the sad words from the Bible were read by the minister, I kept hoping that God would save his son from dying. Maybe this time it would be different.
But they did nail him to the cross. And he did die.
And when the minister read those lines that Jesus said as he died, “It is finished,” a great sadness came over me, and I felt a great sadness sweep through the church, as dark as the clouds that the Bible says covered the sky the afternoon Jesus was crucified. I went home with my mother sad and gloomy. It was a dark day in every way. Saturday was as well.
Then, at last, Easter Sunday. We dressed in our finest. My mother wore a wide-brimmed hat, a lovely dress, and white gloves that inched up her forearms.
When we walked into the church, it was festooned with flowers everywhere. Sprawling, exorbitant arrangements by the altar, and along the sides of the church. Easter came at the same time as our Virginia spring, so the windows of the church we thrown open and the smells from the flowers from outdoors entered and flowed about. Everything was saying rebirth. The women and girls were dressed in beautiful bright colors, yellows I remember, chiefly. All the women wore Easter hats. They looked like queens. Joy filled the room. Jesus had risen from the dead! He was not dead. He had come back from the dead and walked the earth and then ascended into heaven to be with his father.
Everyone was smiling.
After the service we shook each other’s hand and wished each other a Happy Easter. The Lord Had Risen! Praise the Lord! Everyone was happy—joyous. Yes, joyous. From great despair to great joy in one weekend.
We rode back home in my mother’s car. If the day was warm, and it often was, the windows we would be down and the sweet breeze came into the car.
In a few years I would stop feeling these things as if they actually happened to a man who walked the earth. I would still go to church on Easter, still love the words and the music and the flowers and love seeing the women in their finest. But I would never again feel as I did as a boy in 1953 that everything was wrong with the world and then, just a few days later, suddenly, in a burst of communal joy, everything was right with the world.