Friday, 30 March 2018

A Quaker Easter Part 1: Communities

Colourful eggs in and around a nest seemingly made of feathers, with buttercups and spring foliage.
In the western liturgical calendar, this weekend is Easter. Orthodox (eastern) Easter is next weekend, in case you were curious. As such, this is a good time to continue my series of posts on “times and seasons”.
Quakers traditionally reject liturgical calendars, but increasingly, Friends observe the various holidays and festivals, whether sacred or secular, at least on a cultural basis. As I have observed before, however, the rejection of times and seasons is not a rejection of the idea of the holidays themselves, not a rejection of the stories and ideas behind them, but a rejection of the basic idea of “holy days”. No day is more sacred than any other; for Christian Friends, or for any who draw inspiration from Christian stories, no day is more appropriate than another for the remembrance of the story of Holy Week, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion on Resurrection, just the same as no day is more appropriate than any other for the remembrance of the Nativity, nor indeed for the remembrance of those lost in war or the struggle to achieve rights and equality for women.
There are, however, two things we can draw from these specified days. One is a reminder; we are generally rather inadequate at remembering and following the harder part of the testimony concerning times and seasons – that is, about thinking of these things all year 'round, the idea that we should think of them at all. That is, in a sense, a question of making up for our own failings, and if we focus on the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection at Easter, we should do so with an honest commitment to try to remember it the rest of the year as well, albeit necessarily with less focus. The other is a matter of community, of connection with the communities in which our Quaker communities are situated. If we wish to have the greatest impact we can in our endeavours in the world, and if we wish that people who would benefit from the Quaker Way will be able to find it, we must be part of the wider community, and fostering connections are an important part of that.
I will tackle the second of these points first, with the very rich matter of the meaning of Easter, the stories behind it, and how it can be part of our whole life, to follow in a separate post tomorrow. That post will, I anticipate, be noticeably longer.
The opportunities for Easter to allow us to build and strengthen connections with the communities in which we are situated are rich and various. The most obvious, of course, is engagement with ecumenical activities. It is not unusual for there to be collaborations between Christian denominations in an area around major holidays, as well as those marking important history in the development of the Christian Church. Here in Britain, local and regional Churches Together groups often have Quaker Meetings as members, some such Meetings being more active in these groups than others. I would hope that similar ecumenical efforts go on elsewhere in the world.
So your Meeting can get involved in local ecumenical activities for Easter – public prayers or services might stick in the craw of unprogrammed Quakers, but you could offer to lead a short (but not trivial) silent element of an ecumenical service. And of course, there are much less liturgical events that might happen, like a multi-church organised Easter fair, or community meal, or many other possibilities.
But community at Easter goes far beyond the churches. Like many of the pervasive Christian holidays of European-derived culture, particularly in the English-speaking world, there are elements to the celebration of dubious connection to the religious basis of the festival. People come up with arguments for eggs, bunnies and baskets being somehow related to the bible stories, but it's not hard to see why many consider them explanations after the fact – especially given the argued parallels with pre-Christian spring festivals. I'll be delving into that argument more in my next post, but for now let us simply acknowledge that there is a debate, without getting into the arguments on either side, nor taking any side in it.
While many Quakers eschew the crass commercialism that has penetrated so many holidays, including Easter, these do stem from traditions that predate such commercialism. Egg-rolls and egg-hunts certainly predate the gigantic, over-priced chocolate eggs, or indeed any chocolate eggs. Decorated hens' eggs or wooden eggs are actually a far more long-standing tradition; they certainly work better than chocolate ones for egg-rolls. Both of these activities can be fantastic for community, especially with younger children. While wider society might condition them to expect chocolate eggs during the egg-hunt, purely symbolic eggs made of wood or other suitable materials can be re-used, and allow a fun spirit of competition without it affecting any sort of material reward. It can still be associated with a sense of springtime plenty with a meal afterwards, or by scheduling it during a party before most of the food is served.
On the subject of springtime plenty, you can align any gustatory element of festivities with the season by celebrating those things that are most plentiful at this time of year, or indeed those things that a lower technology society would only begin to consume again at this point in the year. This is, indeed, the likely origin of the association with eggs – and with lamb, and most likely also with rabbits. The year's first milk would have come in the spring, and with it all of the non-preserved derivatives or components of milk. As well as lamb for the meat eaters, salmon is at the beginning of its seasonal peak, as is the somewhat less widely celebrated halibut. If you are vegan, you need not be left out, as there are many seasonal fruits and vegetables coming in at this time, or recently reached their peak. Here in the UK, we can enjoy the start of the best potatoes; while they may be in shops all year 'round, spring new potatoes are commonly regarded as some of the best examples. A lot of green vegetables are coming into season or are at their best already: watercress, sorrel, spinach and spring greens are some of the examples. Lettuces are on their way, and peppers are beginning their optimum season. We see the end of the peak of the classic winter vegetables, like the various roots such as parsnip and beetroot. Why not say farewell to the old and welcome the new with community meals that highlight the change of the season?
Children can also have fun making bonnets or baskets, activities I remember fondly from primary school. They can also have fun decorating eggs, be they hard-boiled, blown, or wooden; perhaps you can help the children in your communities decorate eggs before they are used in an egg-roll or egg-hunt. If you want, you can include some religious elements in these activities as well, but they are not essential to the idea of finding benefit for a community in the broader traditions of the season.
These are just the beginning of ideas for things you can do as a community to celebrate – or take advantage of – the traditions and natural changes around Easter. You can do them within your Quaker community, of course, but why not invite the wider community to join you, or join in with other community groups to put on bigger events – together. That is the true opportunity of these holidays that are widely observed, even in secular fashion. They are an opportunity to engage. If there's one thing that many Friends and Meetings could do with, it's taking more opportunities to engage.
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