After living 15 years in Mexico and almost 17 years in the United States, I have determined that there are two things that are unequivocally better in third-world countries: holidays and fruit.
That’s right, fruit. Fruit is just better when it doesn’t keep for longer than a few days. There are some fruits I just really don’t like eating in America; most specifically, pineapple, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon. Apples are tricky, too. Fruit just isn’t the same when it’s picked before it’s ripe, plumped with water, or coated in a beautiful waxy sheen that properly displays water droplets from the dumb produce section “showers.” (Seriously, does anyone appreciate those?) But that’s just my soapbox. I wrote about fruit last week.
Holidays. There is something about celebrating holidays in poor countries that just can’t be reproduced in rich countries no matter how hard you try. I’ve been trying to define this quality for years. It’s easy to say that it’s the communal culture, and I think that’s the biggest underlying ingredient, but it’s not that simple. In poorer cultures there seems to be an undying need to celebrate. It seems that the wealthier and more prosperous we become, the less we appreciate opportunities to recognize an event as more special than the others. Maybe. . .
There is also deep ritual that makes celebrations something to look forward to. We all enjoy ritual on some level, and it’s always tricky to find a balance between ritual and spontaneity. When you think about it, we generally look forward to what we expect. Growing up I looked forward to Christmas Eve because that’s when we opened presents; more than that, though, was the homemade vegetable soup and white bread that my mom always made. It also meant that sometime during the week before Christmas she made a very yummy brisket with Lipton Onion Soup mix that we probably ate with baked potatoes and salad; she saved half of the brisket for the soup. The gifts changed every year; sometimes there was more, sometimes less, sometimes you struck out; that unpredictability was exciting. But the soup and bread were always the same: delicious and dependable. I haven’t had my mom’s vegetable soup in years, and Christmas just isn’t the same without it. Ritual.
Looking back over my childhood, and even now, Thanksgiving is the holiday that I could do without. Makes sense, since there were no Pilgrims in Mexico. We celebrated it as a family, usually with other Americans or even local friends. But it was still pretty much just a meal; as much as I love a good meal, and the comfort and memories generated by specific smells and flavors, it doesn’t make or break a holiday. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday; this is in part because of the traditions and rituals within my family, but I think mostly because of the traditions within my church. These traditions are not legalistic rituals, but things that we did together as a congregation every year: the youth party, the bonfires, the piñatas (that I was always afraid of – those suckers can be really violent!), the ponche and tamales, candy, drama, glitter . . . lots and lots of glitter. I can still remember portions of lines I memorized for Christmas plays . . . an angel, part of a Christmas tree, a representative of a country (Peru?), a daughter of a man who didn’t believe in Jesus. . . these memories stand out so much more vividly than memories of the “family” part of Christmas. (I have to give proper credit, though: I think my parents planned it that way. I’m so glad for that.)
Which brings me around to Easter . . . it probably didn’t happen quite like this every year, but here’s the week-long celebration the way I remember it:
Palm Sunday: Everyone gets a palm branch to wave throughout the service. We sing every song we know that includes the word “Hosanna!” There might be a play or some sort of representation of Jesus coming through the congregation, walking on palm leaves and robes. Lots of joy and celebration. Hosanna was a battle cry, a cry for political freedom. Everyone believed that Jesus was the leader who would free them from Roman oppression. No one had a clue. . .
Maundy Thursday: Communion service. This is a somber time to remember that last meal. I never knew what “maundy” meant, so I looked it up just now; it is a Latin-based word that means “command,” and is also used to refer to a foot-washing ceremony. I had forgotten that this happened at the Last Supper . . . what an amazing final show of love Jesus gave to his best friends before undertaking the ultimate show of love for all mankind! I have always been struck by how alone Jesus must have felt, even in the midst of his best friends, because they so struggled to accept the truth of what was to come. How abandoned and betrayed he must have felt by his closest brothers, who couldn’t stay awake even an hour to pray with him.
Good Friday: The usual service to commemorate and talk about the horrors of Jesus’ death. That’s not what sticks out to me, though. In Mexico, this is the “big” Easter holiday. There are re-enactments of the crucifixion in the town square, and always rumors about whether or not they’re going to use real nails. This is beyond tragic to me; I have no words to express the grief and sorrow I feel for those who believe the story stops here. This unbelievable sacrifice is meaningless without the last chapter, without the victory over sin and death, without the freedom, without the tearing of the veil. This is what I always think about on Good Friday.
Saturday: Sabado de Gloria. This is my favorite day of Easter week, and there is nothing Biblical about it. I’m assuming that the disciples were crying their eyes out, staring blankly at one another across dark rooms, so resentful at the betrayal of their political and spiritual leaders, so frustrated that it’s the Sabbath and they can’t go to the tomb. But in Mexico, there is no grief: it’s national Water Fight Day. It would be perfectly socially appropriate for a stranger to dump a full bucket of water on your head from a second-story window as you pass by their house. I know; it happened to me once. It’s hilarious! Everyone gets together at church for a potluck, to finish getting everything together for Easter, and to throw a little water around. (I do remember at least once when the church went on a picnic, but the water fight wasn’t as good.) This was also our “traditional” baptism day, which meant that a few people had the advantage of extra access to the water source. I remember one particular year, especially. We had filled up the big tank in the church yard. Even the little old ladies were throwing cups of water at each other. Somehow (I think one of the boys might have thrown it at me) a prickly pear came into extensive contact with my back. I had to stand inside while a couple of long-nailed women pulled all the little needles out of my back. I’m not sure what was more painful, the needles and pinches or watching everyone have fun through the window.
Easter Sunday: Oh man, this was a great day! It starts with Sunrise Service at 6am (I think once we might have done it at 5:30), which is always cool because you have to get up crazy early and it feels like you’re going on a trip or something. Jesus is alive! He’s alive! He’s alive! Then there’s food. Then there’s the regular service because no one wants to leave and come back at night for church at the normal evening time. Special music and plays and stuff. People getting saved. Then there’s more food.
My mom will probably want to correct my memory on some of these details, but I don’t care. These are the memories of a child, and it was wonderful. It was community. It was fellowship with a group of people just dying for something to celebrate. And celebrate we did.
- To observe a day or commemorate an event with ceremonies or festivities
- To make known publicly, to proclaim, to praise widely or to present to widespread and favorable public notice
- To perform with appropriate rites and ceremonies, to solemnize
I used to cashier at a big super store. I could understand people overspending on Christmas and Valentine’s Day, but the Easter commercialism frankly makes my stomach turn. I remember people going through my lane that literally spent HUNDREDS of dollars on candy and toys for 3 or 4 grandkids’ Easter baskets. The Easter bunny does not come to Mexico. I’ve gotten a few simple baskets from my Grandma that I appreciated because I love chocolate, but she’s never been one to try to out-give Jesus. I’ve never been in an Easter egg hunt. I just don’t get bunnies and baskets and the egg thing, unless it’s just a belated celebration that spring is finally here. I consulted Google on the history of the Easter basket. I clicked on a link for a Christian-sounding sight that I thought seemed promising. Here is what I read: “Easter as a holiday is the result of many different cultures and religions combined.” Oh man. Lesson #1 in rationalizing ways to “stay religious” while completely rejecting grace and mercy. It went on to say that the basket is representative of the baskets used to collect items for preparing the feast to end Lent. If that’s true, how on earth has completing an act of selfless worship morphed into yet another excuse to sugar-load and spoil our kids?
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with secular traditions; I deeply cherish my Christmas tree and stockings, and I’m all for anything that involves chocolate. It just seems to me that these are really lazy ways to celebrate. We have lost our deep need to rejoice. Life is just too easy for us. We don’t hurt enough, we aren’t broken enough, we aren’t convicted enough. Think about it: don’t we appreciate a gift more when we realize we have great need of it? There are a lot of really financially broke people out there who don’t realize it because they live on credit. When someone offers to buy them dinner they turn it down in pride and instead offer to buy that person a meal . . . on the credit card. But what if there was no credit card? The amount of money available doesn’t change, but suddenly these people are so overwhelmingly grateful for a meal out and a chance to get dressed up. They are aware of their need and desperate for a chance at freedom from endless cheap spaghetti.
We are saved by grace, and our salvation is firm . . . and because of that it is so easy to lose our grasp on the actual value of that gift. In America we live in a society that slips and slides all around difficult truths: financial responsibility, sexual purity, diligence, language, consistency, honesty, gossip, gluttony . . . you name it, we can rationalize it. How often can we say “just this once,” or “I slipped up,” or “I’m struggling with this, but I’m trying,” or . . . nothing at all? We forget that we’re Christians. We recognize that we’re sinners . . . to the point that we can blame our lack of integrity on our sinful natures. We ignore the conviction until it goes away, because it does. And we lose our deep need to celebrate the freedom Jesus gave us when he came out of that sealed tomb.
I suppose I write this because I am re-awakening my deep need to celebrate. I haven’t been to church on Easter in a long time, simply because I haven’t belonged to a church. I think it’s incredibly hypocritical to only go to church on church holidays. I love my new church. It’s a simple place full of people that are allowing God to make them ever more aware of their deep need to celebrate. We only had two Easter-related services this week, and there were no palm branches or water fights, but it’s the best Easter service I’ve ever been to in this country. We celebrated today. It was loud and ablaze. There was shouting and laughing and crying. Loving God is not all about emotional encounters, but celebrations of joy most certainly are.
I work with hurting and lonely kids every day. Most of the time I have a special compartment for them in my heart, a place where I keep their pain and sorrow safe but out of my own life. Every once in a while, though, God gives me a moment that goes beyond the scope of my profession and moves me powerfully. I had just such a moment on Thursday when I held a beautiful 8-year-old on my lap and did my best to comfort him in his desperate search for his mother. In that moment I felt what I can only imagine to be a mother’s love come surging forth in my overwhelming desire to cry with him, to hold him close and absorb this great pain that he feels in his perception of abandonment. My heart broke as I tried to make him understand that he must not run away to pursue her. On Friday I was forcefully reminded that God gave His only begotten Son . . . His SON . . . His DNA . . . and then abandoned Him to the cross. I saw the pain in Jesus’ eyes through the eyes of the little one who cried on my lap the day before . . . so lonely, so angry, so abandoned, so desperate for a parent’s love. And I felt perhaps a small fraction of the pain in God’s heart, knowing he must deny to His beloved Son the comfort He so desperately longed to provide. Unlike my little guy, though, the Father and the Son knew what they were getting into. There are no human words to describe the magnitude of this gift. One can only celebrate it with reckless abandon.
How deeply do you feel the need to celebrate?
Sing to the LORD a new song; Sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless His name; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.
Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.
For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before Him, strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of His name; Bring an offering and come into His courts.
Worship the LORD in holy attire; Tremble before Him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns; indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and all it contains;
Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy
Before the LORD, for He is coming, For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness.
– Psalm 96