All Opinions Wrong But Useful

@rixx@chaos.social · @rixxtr

Brain worms on Easter



It all starts with brain worms, just so you know. As far as I can tell, the brain worms are a critical precondition. In German, cooking recipes start with the phrase „Man nehme …“ (where English would say “Take …”). So, man nehme: one child, of impressionable age. Steep in religious sentiment: prayers at night, bible stories during the day, and attending communal service of some kind at least twice a month¹. Ensure the mix contains appropriate amount of flowery language bordering on Kitsch, and a healthy dose of recurring ritual elements.

Ah, damn – this second ingredient is where I have to give up my ironic self-conscious distance, and let my brain worms (thoroughly steeped by now) do the talking. Thus, Catholicism, with all apologetic footnotes taken as read by virtue of this opening.

Brain worms’ preface

[ Turns out, brain worms need apologetics, too: Know, reader, that this text’s distance from its Platonic ideal is painful. We could do better in German (but we were asked about Easter in English), or after spending two weeks in monastic seclusion reading nothing but Rilke, but alas, we’re stuck with each other like this. ]

Ash Wednesday

It all begins, in as much as anything ever begins at all, with Ash Wednesday. It’s the worst of winter: Christmas warmth is a distant memory, and we realise, as every year, that the real horror is not the Longest Night (neatly cushioned and made bearable by the festivities), but what comes after. The wet grey sky has been with us for an interminable time, and, left to its own devices and our dwindling stores of remembered sunlight, may never leave².

So now, when all spirit is ground down and tired, we begin to build our entire selves anew. It’s not an inviting proposition, so we bribe each other with the biggest party: Find all sparks of life, get them together. Splurge, eat, drink (or rather, get absolutely stinking drunk), party, fuck, mock the authorities, then eat and drink some more. Fasching is wild. One last hurrah.

And then, Ash Wednesday, hangover personified. Tired, partied out, not ready for real life to start again with a vengeance, and facing six weeks of gaping, gnawing nothing between now and spring, before colour can return to the world. Even the memory of last year’s spring, the palm leaves of Palm Sunday, have to be burned – where did you think we got the ashes? No phoenixes here, just seasonal depression.

At Ash Wednesday Mass, we’re marked with an ashen cross, with the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”. In an effort to be more inviting and optimistic, a newer alternative is “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Roman winters not being as depressing, maybe), but the original always shines through beneath, who are we kidding.


So then, Lent. It’s all about not-having, of not-using, of there being … less. Calling it “sacrifice” is too grand, too rewarding. It’s a muted longing, and a rising tension. Counting down the 24 days before Christmas feels frantic in comparison. Lent is nearly twice as long, unimaginable for the impressionable (still steeping) child, who doesn’t yet trust that this, too, shall pass. Lent isn’t counted down joyfully – instead, there’s a slow-burning, ever increasing pull towards the end of winter and asceticism.

Even Mass is changed during Lent. We don’t sing the Gloria or the Alleluia – too happy, too hopeful. The priest and altar servers wear purple, the colour of mourning. Texts read at Mass are full of the Best Of Old Testament, mostly Isaiah. It’s all one deep epic voice rumbling and rambling about wilderness and paths, harps and timbals, sin and righteousness, ash and fire, desert and water, tiredness and strength, death and bread. We’re hollow, and everything resonates.


The best part of Lent is Rorate Mass. “Before sunrise” isn’t really painting a picture, because everything is before sunrise in the German winter – we’ve stopped believing in sunrise by now. But more than that, it’s before work, 5am on a Wednesday, encroaching on real life rather than being safely isolated to a Sunday. You’d be an idiot to come.

The church, in premonition of Easter (wait for it …) is illuminated only by candles. Mass is short – nobody’s quite awake, everybody’s a fire hazard. We know everybody who is here, because this isn’t for the people who want to be seen, or for unthinking habit or vague guilt. Everybody who is here, cares. Or searches. (Or grieves for not searching anymore …)

The second puzzle piece explains things, maybe: Breakfast. Communal, if muted, plying everybody with big cans of coffee and tea, cheap rolls, and whatever people have thought to bring. Early enough that everybody is still themselves a bit more than usual, not yet closed up into the shell of their daily work and worries. A bit open (that’s how the light gets in), a bit thankful, a bit a-part-of. A bit cranky and a bit tired, too, and navigating the small pettiness of any local community, sure. The perfect embodiment of transcendent ideas getting slapped in the face by reality (and yet …).

What are you doing here, still? This is it – Rorate Mass is the exception. Most of the time, Lent drags on like winter, like darkness, like this text: too long, and are we fucking there yet?

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday. Spring is within reach, and colours are seeping back into life. Flowers are growing, forests are transforming from skeletal horror illustrations into verdant life. Palm leaves (or local replacements) have to be collected, Easter eggs wait to be painted, and school holidays are imminent.

And on Palm Sunday itself, we get to play to our strengths: A procession! Happy songs! Blessed items to take home (and then, uh, awkwardly put into a corner)! A story we can explain to children (go on, colour in this illustration of Jesus on a donkey). After these long dark weeks, we needed this break – or how else would we get through the last stretch?

Passion Week

The next days are empty. Nothing really happens, except various Easter preparations at home. This is the hollow tension of Lent, condensed into just a few days. And then, on Thursday night, the real pageantry kicks off, trusting that the long, slow burn has put us all in the right, receptive state of mind for it.

Maundy Thursday

Thursday night is when we’re reminded that the heart of our weekly, most sacred ceremony has a root. It’s not just made up to give theologians something to fight over, or for everybody else to make cannibalism jokes. There’s a story, and today we’re not racing through the ritually abridged version. Twelve people are up there, around the altar (and if your priest is any good, they’re not twelve old men, but people of all ages and genders). A tangible reminder that humility and kindness require action, the priest kneels before each in turn, and washes their feet. Communion goes from that odd mix of rote and mystery to something more real. Real bread, real wine, real people.

Afterwards, late, we stay and share a real meal, in whatever slightly dingy community space we have. It’s nothing fancy (indeed, fancy is not allowed this week), but it drives home that maybe the deepest and most intimate part of our religion doesn’t take place during Mass; it’s alive every time we meet to eat and drink and party. (This isn’t to sermonise, I promise, it’s just the shared sentiment that evening.)

Good Friday

How to describe Good Friday, then? Less than 24 hours later, we meet again. Mass starts, as per usual: songs, organ or piano, prayers, the works. And then, the Passion of Christ. It’s a long text, even when read by three people (a novelty every year as we don’t usually go for theatrical, even if this is a kind of theatre Brecht should approve of – in form, not in content). We stand, we listen. Christ dies. We kneel, as one³. Everything falls silent, and things change.

The organ is shut off. From here on out, we sing without accompaniment. We’ve never sounded so small, singing without help in this echoing space. Feeling forlorn, we pray for intercession (and good on you if you can kneel for all of it, because the Great Intercessions go on forever). We struggle on, until we queue up to venerate the cross. In an amalgamation of rituals from across millennia, this one feels the most medieval: Everybody going up to their liege lord to swear fealty? Sometimes, I think that this is my favourite moment of all the Catholic liturgy, this medieval, romantic gesture out of time.

Finally, after communion, the altar is stripped of everything, until it’s just a bare slab of stone. We leave in silence: there’s nothing left for us here, no sound, no decoration, only emptiness.

Nothing much happens after this. Optionally, people can walk the Stations of the Cross, which is often geared towards children, making this crucial (heh.) story more vivid by walking past the 14 traditional illustrations. Some of us don’t eat at all today, or eat only bread and water. (Some of us have been doing that all week, a silent minority. We all remember acutely that we’re not supposed to talk about our private choices, lest we brag.) We wait.

Holy Saturday

The nothingness stretches on into Saturday. By now, it should be clear that Lent is defined as much by absence and waiting as by active ritual. The quality of the nothingness is changed, though: we’re carrying the silent and starkly empty church with us. It’s an active silence – not deafening, but inescapably present.

[ We’ve given, so far, an account that is very localised, very specific, in order to be true to the ideal. We’ll only get worse, now: Because Easter mass can of course take place Saturday night, or Sunday at the normal time (10am or whatever), but that’s not how you do peak drama. Instead: ]

Sunrise Easter

We meet in the early hours of morning in the churchyard. It’s dark, and sunrise is a long way off. Thanks to some people getting up even earlier, a large fire is burning away merrily. We cluster around it, juggling our (self-made or bought) new Easter candles, our hymn book, various children, tiredness, excitement. Then, the priest enters (with entourage, jostling for positions where the wind won’t push the fire too close), and the biggest spectacle, no holds barred, begins.

There are more altar servers than usual – two for the incense, six for the candles (not yet lit), and at least six more besides, if you have them. (At least one of the youngest will either fall asleep or faint from the incense – it is the night for entertainment, after all). All the colours have returned, and after six weeks, we’re finally rid of the purple-black of Lent.

Out in the open, singing without an organ feels natural instead of hollow. The flames warm us (in body those close enough, in spirit everybody else). The fire is blessed, and the huge Paschal candle is lit from it. Then, joy!, another procession: we enter the church. We go first, and the priest and his entourage follow, letting us settle into the pews while the altar servants light their candles from the Paschal candle.

Finally, these seven little dots of light enter the silent, expectant, dark church. Three times, the priest sings to proclaim the light of Christ, and three times, we answer thanks in rising pitch. And then, finally, the flame spreads from candle to candle, until the whole church is lit by a sea of flickering lights. And if this means that we’re all spending half of our attention on not setting ourselves and our neighbours on fire, then that’s also half of our attention sharpened to a meditative focus on our candle and on all our candles.

Meanwhile, the priest gets to sing the Exsultet, a long, ancient hymn of praise that sounds delightfully ancient (if your priest can sing. If not, condolences). A lot of bible readings follow (to the point that it’s a common hobby to predict which ones will be skipped this year). Meanwhile, outside, the sun is rising – the church is still dark, but it’s no more a sea of small candles in an endless black void that goes on forever. Slowly, the stained glass windows behind the altar start to glow. And this, this dramatic rising light, is why churches are pointing east – and ideally, not just vaguely east, but precisely so that the sun will rise behind the altar on Easter morning.

And then, suddenly, as if to greet the sun, the organ bursts forth, all stops pulled out (literally, for once), a triumphant roar that you feel in your bones. For the first time since before Lent began, we rise to sing the Gloria in preparation for the Gospel telling of the Resurrection. And in the same moment that the organ roars to life, the big chandeliers and all other lights are turned on, and everything is light and sound and rejoicing, and THIS is the moment the past six weeks have been building up to. And if you’re lucky, it works and there’s an emotional payoff that I can only describe by writing thousands of words about the process, and none about the result.

Or nearly none. I’ll tell you to go read Rilke again, after I try my hand at it.

It’s as if, for a moment, the church turns into the ideal Gothic cathedral, no matter how squat or ugly it is. With the sudden, overwhelming rush of light and sound, the ceiling lifts, the columns grow taller, until everything is elegant, transcendent, and filled with light that has nothing to do with electricity, and everything to do with so many souls, so carefully nudged into a long mental arc, feeling. Not feeling anything in particular, just feeling, all at once.

And that’s it. There’s more pageantry afterwards: blessing of the baptismal water plus renewal of baptismal vows, more songs and prayers and Eucharist and so on, but it’s all spent in this mildly altered mental state. Not bliss, but maybe not not bliss.

And then: home, either with your family or meeting them soon, I hope. Hide Easter eggs, eat a big meal, feel at home. Enjoy each other’s company while you’re feeling so clean and forgiving and forgiven. It’s spring, finally, and everything is alive.

¹ Don’t fuck this up, the resulting brain worms will stay with the child for life, in one form or another. Exemplum gratum: see above.

² Not because Persephone is trapped underground, no, nothing so beautiful. It’s just that, from before the Battle of the Teutoburg forest to Kafka’s soul-deep exhaustion, we have had to deal with a lurking greyness that owns everything north of the Limes.

³ That’s a lie, of course, half the people don’t remember and just follow the others.

⁴ The actual time necessarily differs by latitude.