On eggs and God’s mercy: An interview with Alice Sharp of Hart’s Log Hand Made

Alice Sharp is a medieval scholar whose life changed drastically when her second child, Hannah, was born with complex special needs. Hannah’s now two, and much of Sharp’s time is spent at various medical appointments or doing therapeutic care at home.
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“But life is pretty good, here, really, except for lack of sleep,” Sharp says.
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Sharp, who now lives in Toronto, is working to integrate her life as a scholar and caretaker with her formidable artistic skills. She’s recently opened an Etsy shop for her batik dye eggs, which range from traditional to fanciful. Hart’s Log Hand Made offers handmade eggs, including personalized eggs and special commissions.
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Here’s our conversation:

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First things first. How do you pronounce “pysanky?”
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Most people say “pih-SANK-uh.” But last year, I went to a Toronto-based conference and was horrified to discover it’s “PIS-ank-ee.” I’m thirty four, and it’s hard to retrain myself.
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What is the psyanky community like?
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It’s very much a strong community, mostly online, as most things are these days. It’s quite international, of course with people from the Ukraine and Russia and central Europe, doing both traditional eggs, with abstract designs and limited color palettes, and also more diasporate patterns, with more natural depictions of insects or animals, and more detail and a much wider variety of color, as well as new geometric patterns.
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I enjoy playing with traditional patterns, but I do a lot of natural motifs, and meditations on scriptural motifs.
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Why did you begin making eggs? 
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It was partially because I never really thought of myself as a visual artist. My mother ran an alternative art space, with a theater and a poetry reading program and a gallery, when I was young. I hung out with artists, but I was more of a theater geek and a writer. I wrote plays in high school.
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I had a real interest in small things, miniatures. I had a dollhouse, and I would build tiny little Fimo models of things. I was drawn to what we would call “folk art.” I liked the idea of embroidery, but I actually hate to embroider. My mother taught me how to knit. I didn’t think of myself as very good at any of that kind of thing. So that’s one reason: Because the eggs were not something more talented artists were doing. it was something I could have as my own, as my own visual art space.
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Also, they’re pretty cheap, if you’re a pre-teen whose mother doesn’t want to buy a lot of yarn! A dozen eggs, dyes, wax — it’s not really the most expensive outlay.
It’s also very pleasurable to all the senses. The smell of melting the beeswax, the feel of the shell in your hand, the warmth as you melt it off. I wouldn’t recommend tasting it. But I love the tactile nature of the egg and the smell of it.
It sounds somewhat similar to the process of making icons.
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There is a certain meditative culture around it. It was something women would do at the end of the day, when they took a rest and had some quiet time. Sometimes they would sit down and work on in silence.
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For me personally, I’m often trying to think through something that’s been read at Mass, or a [scripture] passage that’s been on my mind. For me, it’s a very prayerful experience. But I would hate to see what an icon would look like if I tried to write one.
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How did you begin to make the connection between eggs and the spiritual life?
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I’m a convert. I was baptized when I was nineteen, in my campus chapel. I really was not raised with a clear idea of much Christian theology. We had a family friend who gave me a “Precious Moments” bible.
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I was in sixth grade and decided I was going to be get really good at making Ukrainian eggs and win this contest. But being the kind of person I am, I never actually submitted the egg. But I did really start looking at what the patterns mean, how they’re built, the geometric divisions, how much white is used. I had a booklet of symbols. It was my first introduction to the resurrection.
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I remember sitting on my parents’ kitchen floor and reading eggs that said, “Christ is risen,” and understanding for the first time why Easter is celebrated. It wasn’t just bunnies and chocolate and giant hams. If anyone had told me Christianity preached the resurrection before, it hadn’t really settled. The eggs are rooted in pagan practices, but for, me they were a real messenger of the Gospel.
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How long does it take you to make an egg, start to finish?
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It’s a multi-day process. It wouldn’t have to be, if you were uninterrupted, but when are we uninterrupted?
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For an egg that is just one or two colors, with a fairly simple pattern, it will take maybe three to four hours. Not all of that is hands-on waxing or dyeing. There’s a need to stop, to let the eggshell rest and dry. One thing I’ve learned is how important it is to respect the shell. I never really know what it’s going to look like, because every shell is different. Every hen is different. The shell could take dye or vinegar differently from another one. Some are pale, some are dark, some are spotty.
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Then, when you get more complex, the hours keep adding up. The basic mechanics is you move from pale colors to dark colors. Anywhere you want that color to stay, you put wax over it. You can get more complicated, and wash dyes off with vinegar or soap or a combination, and that adds time, because you need to let it rest. You don’t want the shell to get too saturated, because then liquid will start coming back up out through the pores.
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You posted pictures of an egg that turned out much paler than you were expecting. What else can go wrong, in all those steps?
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Well, there’s the basic breaking. At the workshop I was in last year, I was washing a color off, and I dropped it in the sink. There was my day, all gone in the sink.
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Then there’s cracks, particularly around the hole. And if it gets too wet, or moisture gets inside, it will come back out again.
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What happened with the egg [in the photos I posted], I think the shell got too cold, and the wax didn’t really adhere firmly. It was a brown eggshell I was etching in vinegar. You put the shell in vinegar, and any part that doesn’t have wax on it will dissolve a bit. One step is scrubbing it with a child’s toothbrush to get the layers off. But the wax started to peel off. So I used a tiny paintbrush, which I use for spot dyes, and I ended up just painting it.
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I do it all on an Ikea desk in a 825-square-foot apartment.
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Do you have a clear picture in your mind of how you want an egg to look, or does it change as you go?
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I do change it as I go. If I’m going to make a new design, like the sunflower egg, I start with an experiment. I’ll start noodling around with the wax and see what happens. Through the process, I’ll start noticing, “This part runs into the other part of the pattern,” or “that part is too complex; that part needs more balance.” Then I do a second or even a third egg, to really master what it should look like.
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Being a medieval scholar, do you feel any conflict when you invent new designs, rather then preserving traditions?
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I probably should, but I don’t really worry about traditions being lost. There’s people very passionate about preserving folkloric and talismanic traditions, keeping records, photographing everything for books. There’s a real wealth of information on the internet.
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Very rarely, someone who’s not familiar with it will say, “These don’t look like the eggs my grandmother made.” And they’re right. That’s why I say I do batik dye eggs, rather than saying I made pysanka. What I’m doing is inspired by Ukrainian folk art, but it’s not necessarily what someone is expecting.
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Does the process relate to your scholarly work at all?
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I did my dissertation on a twelfth-century commentary on Genesis. As I was working with this medieval text and looking at manuscripts, there were two stages of the text. Someone had taken it apart and inserted more commentary. It was sort of a gloss on the text, sort of like Talmudic commentary.
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Having struggled with trying to fix things into a limited space, I had this very visceral sense of what it would be like to be a scribe trying to figure out what kind of space you would need. I found myself gesturing with my hands, trying to figure out how to divide up the page, because each manuscript is going to be copied. Just like each egg is going to be different, the parchment size is different, each scribe will be different. Just like with eggs, where you have to think about the shape and the shell.
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The starburst egg, that I’ve made a ton of, is sort of rooted in when I was doing my oral exams. I was thinking about angels and light, those angelic wings going every which way, looking like fire. I didn’t put on dozens and dozens of eyes, though.
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You wrote about how you used to keep a hobby blog, but that fell away as your professional life got more busy. Then your life changed radically, and now you once again return to making things. What kind of balance are you looking for?
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I would like to get back to writing more about the Middle Ages for a broader audience someday. My life is not in a space right now where I have that kind of mental space. I need something I can pick up for fifteen minutes while Hannah’s in her stander, and then put down and move back to the next appointment, or answer a question about the teeth of whale sharks.
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I never really feel like I wasted the time I spent studying or making connections, because I’ve been in such a supportive community. My advisor would like me to get back to writing a critical gloss.
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The tagline for your blog is “making the best of the unexpected.” It sounds like what you do with your eggs. Is it also about how your life has changed?

It’s a large part of who I am. It’s such a hard balance. Like any child, I learn from being her mother. But she is her own unique, wonderful person, and she doesn’t just exist to teach me things. I don’t want to objectify her. Being her mother is full of agonizing grief, sometimes full of excitement. Sometimes it’s really boring:  For the next few hours, we’re going to work on eating this solid food.
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We were in Rome for my in laws’ wedding, during the Year of Mercy. Before we went through the door, I read a letter by Pope Francis that said, “Let God surprise you in this year of mercy.” I thought, “I guess I’m getting pregnant this year.” And I did. Hannah has been surprising in so many ways. Many of them have actually taught me about God’s mercy.
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 Is your psyanky time something you want to eventually teach to your son, or is it something you need to keep as non-kid time?
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For me, it is non-kid time. I’m working with Isaac now on baking and cooking. I do have a picture of Isaac as a two-year-old, sitting on my lap and helping me make an egg with an electric stylus (so there’s no candle involved).
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I’m hoping we can have a chance to give it a first try. I was a little older than he was when I learned. And I’m not as patient as my mother was when she taught me. But my children do not exist for my growth experience.
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You figured that out quickly, after only two kids!
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I’m on the crash course plan.
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You posted that you had to declare the weight of the goods you were shipping, and it was  .007 kilos. As a creative person and a scholar, do you have problems with the logistics of running a business?

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The hardest part is the imposter complex, which is an old friend, since I have a PhD. I think, “People will get these [eggs] and hate them. They’ll see there’s a flaw.” That’s my biggest challenge. I’m pretty good with boring paperwork, doing tax forms. What I struggle with is the advertising, making sure I’m tagging things properly, writing the search engine optimized descriptions. That’s where I wish I could outsource.

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If people want eggs before Easter, when should they order – in the US and in Canada?
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I have three tiers.
The eggs I made will be updated until the fourth Sunday of Lent; then I can’t expect them to get there [to customers] in time. If people want to see those eggs, they can “like” the Facebook page, or “like” the Etsy shop.
I do made-to-order eggs that I’ve done the design work for, but I can change the color or text, and those will be done ASAP.
Then there are commissions. I design an egg for you, then it goes through a series of several sketches, and I talk to you about it, do one or two practice eggs, and then the final egg. Those are sold out for Easter. I am running a waiting list for after Easter, for Mother’s Day, or weddings.
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Easter and other people

We made it to the Easter Vigil most years when I was little, often bundled in down jackets over our frilly Easter clothes.

We could just barely hear Fr. Stan‘s voice, muffled with age and with an aging sound system as he read the opening prayers. Then there was silence while we waited inside the church, twisted halfway around in our pews, wanting to follow the action outside but feeling so odd to turn our backs to the tabernacle. There would be swishing and clanking noises as the fire was prepared, and sometimes a whispered warning to the altar boys with their wide, flammable sleeves. Then more silence, and then . . .

Christ our light!” would come crackling from the twilight outside.

Then a kind of magic that made you forget your awkwardness: Here came the flame. First we could only see a few points of light in the dark, then a few dozen, then enough to make the dark stained glass flicker, and then only a few pews were left separating you and . . .

some guy with a Bic lighter. Every single damn year, one of our well-meaning brothers in Christ thought he could speed things up, make Easter a little more efficient. No sense standing around waiting for that one flame to make its way all the way ovah heah! Here ya go, yut, no problem.

It makes me laugh now, but it didn’t seem funny at the time. We wanted the real Easter flame, not the fake butane one! Here it comes, contaminating the entire church! Somebody do something!

Well. It’s surely not in the spirit of the risen Christ to get all snippy and say “No thanks” when someone offers you a little light in the darkness.

On the other hand, every other single damn day of the year is a day for substitutes, for good intentions, for not-the-point, for whatcha-gonna-do.  Surely we can get it right on Easter. Surely we have that much coming to us. What is more pure than the light of Christ? What is more simple and searing than a candle that divides itself but is not dimmed? When are we allowed to experience this loveliness except in the middle of the night in fragile, early spring, with the ground still trembling from the stone as it was rolled away?

And . . . what if there was more than one guy with a Bic out there, and we just didn’t know it?

I hope you’re not looking for a lesson here, because I don’t have one. We were way too tired to go to the vigil Mass this year. I spent most of Easter yelling at everyone I love the most, and I don’t even know why. I was sorry afterward, if that helps. I was even sorry during. Still, if I were all alone, without all these damn people, I’d get it right. I know I would. Would I rather be alone?

Christ plays in ten thousand places, better in the face of someone who just wanted to help than in someone who loves beauty and is enraged when she doesn’t get it. The idea that hell is other people made me laugh then, but it doesn’t seem funny now. To be alone, getting everything the way I want it: That is Hell.

Come to think of it, I can’t remember a single year when the Easter candle wasn’t adulterated with a helpful, dopey Bic lighter or two. Whatcha gonna do. Even though there never was even one time when we did it right, I still have it in my mind that there was something pure and holy there in that congregation, or else there wouldn’t have been anything to be spoiled.

We don’t want to miss His approach, but we don’t want to turn our backs to Him, so we plant our feet on the ground facing East, we twist at the knee, and we wait for someone else to get it right. And the Lord, too gracious to sigh at yet another night of missed-the-point, came to us without delay.

“Christ our light!” comes to us over an aging system. But it does come. Next time someone offers me a dumb little butane flame, I’ll try to accept it with thanks, in honor of the undimmable loveliness of the Lord. Because ten thousand places is so much better than none.

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Photo: Steve Moses via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Helping our children see paradise

In New Hampshire, the incessant cycle of birth and death and rebirth is inescapable. You cannot ignore the ancient story of desolation and consolation, the ever-present hope of new life. No matter how cold, how dark, how hard, how closed-off the world becomes, there is always reason to hope, deep down. Every twig bears witness to this hope. Trim off a branch of the lilac in the deepest day of winter, and you’ll see it: a tiny shaft of green. It’s hard to wait in the middle of February, but by God and his Grace, it’s better than having nothing to wait for.

Read the rest of my latest column for Parable Magazine.

What’s for supper? Vol. 78: Hallelujah! Let’s eat!

Hooray, a Friday food post again! I actually spent last Friday, Good Friday, cooking and not tasting. IT WAS HARD. But I was way behind on Passover cooking, so that’s how it turned out.

Here’s what we had this week:

SATURDAY 

Holy Saturday is when we have our Passover seder. On the menu for the feast:
Chicken soup with matzo balls

The soup turned out much buttier than usual; no idea why. It’s supposed to be on the clear side, and “golden” (i.e. shimmering with fat). Tasted great, though.

Chopped liver


Gefilte fish (store bought) with horseradish


Charoset


Spinach pie


and Garlic cinnamon chicken and
A tiny bit of roast lamb (it hadn’t gone on sale yet!)

You can find recipes for all of the foods above in this post.

The only thing I intentionally made different this year was to cook the spinach pies in mini muffin tins, rather than in a pie plate. I just don’t think you should hear “pie” and then taste spinach and onions. (For some reason “spinach muffin” doesn’t trouble me.) I thought they were cute and tasty this way, and will make them this way again.

I didn’t have a meat grinder this year (but am eyeing this attachment for my Kitchen Aid), so I made the four pounds of chopped liver in small batches in the blender. This was not a gratifying experience. It wasn’t velvety smooth, but still delicious.

Dessert:
Chocolate walnut cake with apricot
Lemon sponge cake
Four kinds of macaroons (store bought)
Chocolate-covered jelly rings
Chocolate-covered halvah (sesame candy)
Sesame crunch candies
Pistachios and almonds
Chocolate caramel matzoh

I moaned and groaned over not having any fruit slice candy this year, but we survived.
Both cakes were from new recipes this year. The chocolate one had a nice flavor, but it was squashier than I would like. Pretty, though.


The lemon one also tasted fine, but man, it was dense. No sponge about it. I just don’t have a light touch with baking, and baking without flour or yeast is just asking for some really compact treats! I think I used the recipe on the side of the potato starch can.

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SUNDAY
Seder leftovers!

And boy, there were plenty.  And of course hard boiled eggs, and a world of Easter candy.

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MONDAY
Matzo brei, salami, dill pickles, grapes

Matzo brei is a weird little recipe that everyone should know. You take a sheet of matzo, break it into chunks in a bowl, and pour hot water over it. Let it sit for thirty seconds or so, and then press the water out. Then beat up two eggs, stir in the drained matzo, and fry the mixture up in some hot oil, turning once, until the edges are crisp.

You can serve it with jelly, you can serve it with salt and pepper and fried onions, whatever. It’s SO GOOD. Worth venturing into the Jewby aisle to get yourself a box of two of matzo, believe me.

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TUESDAY
Beef banh mi

Remember when I asked how to make Easter last for fifty days? You could do worse than making a lot of banh mi, especially if you just happen to have a lot of leftover chopped liver in the house. These sandwiches were out of this world.

In the morning, I sliced up some carrots as thin as I could, then put them in a jar to pickle with some white vinegar, a little water, and some sugar.

Then I sliced the meat (I used London broil) pretty thin and put it in a bag to marinate, using this recipe. I let it go for about six hours. My husband cooked up the meat — well, first he ran out for more bread, because I burned the first batch while toasting it. Then he toasted more bread, and then he cooked up the meat in a single layer on a roasting pan under a hot broiler, just enough to blacken the edges a tiny bit.

So, the smell. This marinade calls for garlic, shallots, and fish sauce. Benny spent the dinner hour hiding under a fleece Our Lady of Guadalupe blanket and weeping because the house smelled “wike dog frow up.” Which, well, she wasn’t wrong, especially early in the cooking. But it tasted so good.

Toasted rolls with mayonnaise, lots of cilantro, pickled carrots, sliced cucumbers, the meat, and then chopped liver. Oh, my stars. The sweet, savory meat frolicking with the snappy, sour carrots, and the strong, bitey liver cuddling up to the cool cucumbers and cilantro. It was so good, it was almost indecent.

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WEDNESDAY
Hot dogs, chips

I spent the afternoon sorting winter clothes to be stored away. Four hours from start to finish:

so the kids made hot dogs.

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THURSDAY
Instant pot mac and cheese

I made a triple recipe of this in my Instant Pot (associates link). The hot sauce and mustard give it a good flavor. This is miles easier and faster than cooking the pasta, cooking the sauce, and then mixing them together and baking it. Also, this time, I read the directions more carefully and did not shoot a geyser of yellow cheese at the ceiling through the steam vent.

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FRIDAY
Roast lamb, challah, maybe asparagus if I remember to get some

Today is Friday within the octave of Easter, or, as it’s traditionally known, Meatster Friday. Leg of lamb was at the astonishing price of $2.99 a pound, so I got a niiiiiice big one. Gonna stud it with slivered garlic and rosemary, slather it with white wine and honey, and roast it.

Gonna try out this challah recipe. Here’s a pic of the last time I made challah:

And now I’m running out to buy some yeast. Benny says, “Yeast makes everything rise! God thought of it! He thought of everything! He made friends and family! He made sisters and brothers! And cousins! Well . . . I’m not so sure about cousins.”

Sorry, cousins. I don’t know how you earned a place in Benny’s theodicy, but there it is.
Happy Easter! Happy Meatster! He is risen! Let’s eat.

Hey, faithful Catholics, why are YOU here?

This plea goes for sinners whose souls are heavy with old-fashioned sins of the flesh, and also for sinners whose souls are heavy with the even older sins of pride and presumption.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

How do you keep Easter going for fifty days?

Happy Easter! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Remember, the Church is not like Walmart. We don’t celebrate a holiday for a day and then tear everything down the very next day as if it never happened. The Easter season lasts for fifty days, until Pentecost.

So, how do we observe Easter?

I realize that some of you live in bizarro land, and are already going swimming and using the AC and stuff; but here in the northeast, Easter comes as spring is just getting a foothold. The birds are newly hysterical with love, the streams are exuberantly throwing off their last loads of ice and rushing to meet each other, and there’s an almost audible glow around every bush and tree as the hard, closed buds finally burst into the first fresh greens of the year.

So I do feel like we’re celebrating Easter, resurrection, refreshment, renewal, and general hopefulness and fresh starts as we do the things that naturally go with the seasons: putting away boots, mittens, and snowpants, sweeping mud out of corners, clearing out flower beds, cleaning up the yard, planting window boxes, and finally opening the windows again. The hammock and trampoline are back in service.

There is, of course, also tons of special food in the house, and I bought a truly insane amount of matzoh, which we’ll turn into matzo brei.

But I’d love to add some overtly religious practices into our family routine, to set Easter apart from the rest of the year. What has worked in your family? A special prayer you only say during this season? Maybe candles at dinner? Maybe a song added to evening prayers? Music during meals? This year, we read the Easter homily by St. John Chrysostom on Easter day, and followed the orthodox tradition of having the kids shout back “He is angered!” every time that phrase came up, and then “He is risen!” every time that phrase came up. They loved it, but I think it would be less spectacular if we did it more than once a year.

Any ideas? Simple is good!

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Image: Norway maple bud via Max Pixel

 

And why are you at Mass?

The elderly gentleman thinks Pope Francis is some kind of pinko hippie, and there hasn’t been a real Pope in Rome since Giuseppe Siri, and he will tell you alllllll about it if he can get you cornered in the foyer.

The nun next to him is headed to a pro-choice rally after Mass, and is chilling some champagne for the day when women priests will finally be approved.

So … why are they at Mass?

Because Jesus is here, and He’s giving Himself away.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

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Image: Christ revealed in the breaking of the bread, photo by Ted via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Christ is risen and the demons are cast down!

Let all pious men and all lovers of God rejoice in the splendor of this feast; let the wise servants blissfully enter into the joy of their Lord; let those who have borne the burden of Lent now receive their pay, and those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes on the eleventh hour as well as to him who has toiled since the first: yes, He has pity on the last and He serves the first; He rewards the one and praises the effort.

Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it, He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh.

When Isaias foresaw all this, he cried out: “O Hades, you have been angered by encountering Him in the nether world.” Hades is angered because frustrated, it is angered because it has been mocked, it is angered because it has been destroyed, it is angered because it has been reduced to naught, it is angered because it is now captive. It seized a body, and, lo! it encountered heaven; it seized the visible, and was overcome by the invisible.

O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are abolished. Christ is risen and the demons are cast down. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is freed. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead: for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of those who had fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

by St. John Chrysostom

Image: Resurrection icon by Stefan Rene, photo by Max Mulhern via Flickr (Creative Commons)

10 gorgeous Easter books for kids

Easter is April 14th 16th. I know, because I have Googled it eleven times in the last week people on Facebook told me so after I got it wrong after Googling it eleven times. That means if you have Amazon Prime, you can still order a nice Easter book for your kids, and it will get here in time.

Most of these books are linked through Amazon. (I’m an Amazon Associate and earn a small percentage of all sales made after getting to Amazon through my links. Please bookmark my link!) Note: Most but not all of these books are available with Prime. Please check shipping dates if you’re shopping for Easter! If you can’t find a good price on Amazon, I recommend checking Booksprice, which gives you a side-by-side price comparison of many booksellers. 

And now the books! I own some of these, and some have been recommended by folks I trust.

1. MIRACLE MAN: THE STORY OF JESUS by John Hendrix 

Top of my wish list.

The illustrations are fresh and exciting, with the text incorporated into the images

and the reviews promise a new and captivating take on a very familiar story.

2. THE MIRACLE OF THE RED EGG by Elizabeth Crispina Johnson, illustrated by Daria Fisher

A traditional Orthodox story telling how Mary Magdalene goes to a feast with the Emperor Tiberius. She spreads the thrilling news that Jesus has risen from the dead.

 

When it reaches the Emperor’s ears, he says, “Do you see this egg? I declare that Jesus can no more have risen from the dead, than this egg could turn blood red.” Which it does.

3.THE TALE OF THE THREE TREES: A traditional folktale told by Angela Elwell Hunt, illustrated by Tim Jonke

This looks very moving.

From the customer reviews:

“The story opens with three trees on a hilltop; one longs to be made into a dazzling treasure chest for diamonds and gold, the second wants to be a mighty sailing ship that would carry kings across the ocean, and the third simply wants to remain on the hilltop to grow so tall that when people see her, they will think of heaven. As woodcutters fell each tree, we find that although at first they cannot understand why their dreams weren’t fulfilled in the way they wanted, God used them for much greater purposes than they could ever dream.”

4. THE EASTER STORY by Brian Wildsmith 

 

 

Wildsmith’s own passion for the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection is unmistakable in his glorious, metallic-gold-hued illustrations, which tell the story more vividly than words ever could. In fact, to his credit, Wildsmith adapts the story of Jesus’s last days in as simple and straightforward a manner as possible, allowing young readers to glean the substance from the paintings, symbolism, and, most likely, discussion with grownups who may be reading along.

The donkey’s-eye-view of the events allows a slightly different perspective from the standard, without being overly intrusive as a literary device. Lush jewel tones capture the richness of the narrative, and mesh in a strangely beautiful way with the simple paintings of Jesus, the angels, Mary Magdalene, and others in the biblical cast of characters. The Easter Story will make a gorgeous addition to any Easter basket. (Ages 5 and older)

5. THE MIRACLES OF JESUS by Tomie dePaola

Twelve miracles explained plainly and with dignity, and illustrated in dePaola’s unmistakable, luminous style.

We have this book and the kids love it.
6. and 7. LOTS OF BOOKS BY Maïte Roche

So difficult to choose just one or two by Maïte Roche. I can’t find a reasonably priced edition of My First Pictures of Easter, which I recommend heartily, so keep an eye out! It’s a treasure.

You will also love
MY FIRST PICTURES OF JESUS, a sturdy little board book with captivating illustrations for little ones to pore over. This book is arranged with lots of pictures and only a few words, to inspire your own conversations with kids.


Another lovely offering from Roche:
MY FIRST PRAYERS WITH MARY.
Here’s one of my favorite illustrations from this book: Mary teaching baby Jesus to walk

It includes several short, simple prayers to Mary, with large, bright pictures of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, accompanied by smaller pictures of modern children on the facing pages. The faces are very inviting.

8. LET THE WHOLE EARTH SING PRAISE by Tomie dePaola

A departure from dePaola’s familiar Renaissance-inspired, style:

From the reviews:

“This joyous book sings thanks and praise for everything in land, sea, and sky-from the sun and moon to plants and animals to all people, young and old. Beloved author-illustrator Tomie dePaola captures the beauty of God’s creation in his folk art-style illustrations. With text inspired by Old Testament Scripture and artwork fashioned after the beautiful embroideries and designs of the Otomi people from the mountain villages around San Pablito, in Puebla, Mexico, this is a wonderful celebration for all to share.”

9. EASTER by Fiona French

Brilliant stained glass-inspired illustrations paired with passages from scripture

to tell the story of Easter, starting with Palm Sunday and ending with the ascension.
10. THE DONKEY AND THE GOLDEN LIGHT by John and Gill Speirs 

Illustrations in the style of my man Bruegel! This is on my wish list. From the reviews:
“[A] young donkey named Bethlehem and the interaction he has with Jesus beginning the Messiah’s birth and proceeding through the flight into Egypt, the baptism by John, the wedding feast at Cana, the events of the Last Supper, and finally with the Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities.” Christ appears somewhere on each page.

BONUS:
If you are looking for a DVD, I recommend The Miracle Maker: The Story of Jesus

Pretty intense, as you can see from this clip:

I was skeptical, and boy do I want to be careful showing my kids any moving, speaking representation of Christ. This is not perfect, but it’s good, and powerful. Hope to rewatch soon and provide a more detailed review.

Next Year in Jerusalem

Have you taught your children that, while Christmas is very important, it’s really Easter that’s the greatest feast of the year? Do they buy it?

When I was little, this point of doctrine was obvious: All during Holy Week, my father could be heard practicing the Exsultet to chant at the Easter vigil, as my mother fried and ground up liver and onions in preparation for the Passover seder. The fragrant schmaltzy steam of the chicken soup, the palm leaves, bags of jelly beans for Easter Sunday and the boxes of jellied fruit slices for the seder—these were all equally essential for Holy Week. We drooled over the growing heaps of luscious Passover food as we suffered the final pangs of Lenten sacrifices. My mother covered her head to bless the candles at the start of the seder, and then a few hours later, hovered over us in the pew to save us from singeing our hair on the Easter candles. I can’t imagine eating leftover gefilte fish without a chocolate bunny on the side; and I can’t imagine hearing “Christ our light!” without echoes of “Dayenu!” – “It would have been enough!” still lingering, both exultant prayers of thanksgiving to the God who always gives more than we deserve.

You might be pardoned for imagining some kind of schizophrenic clash of cultures in my house, but that’s not how it was. My parents did struggle to synthesize the incongruities between Catholicism and Judaism (and for a hilarious read, check out my mother’s account of interfaith communications). My parents were raised secular Jews, and went through a long and strange exodus through the desert together, and eventually converted to Christianity—and then, when I was about 4, to Catholicism.

But for us kids, there was no incongruity: Growing up Hebrew Catholics just meant having much more FUN on Easter than anyone else. My Christian friends wore straw hats, ate jelly beans, and maybe dyed eggs if their mothers could abide the mess. We, on the other hand, whooped it up for an entire weekend as we prepared for and celebrated the Passover seder, the ceremonial feast which Jesus ate with his disciples at the Last Supper. At our seder, which we held on Holy Saturday, there was chanting and clapping, giggling over the mysterious and grisly ceremonial roasted egg and horseradish root, glass after glass of terrible, irresistible sweet wine,

special silver and china that only saw the light of day once a year, pillows for the chairs so we could “recline,” and the almost unbearable sweetness as the youngest child asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

It was different because, every single year on that night, there were laughter and tears. The laughter was always more: I waited with bated breath for my father, after drinking his third or fourth ceremonial glass of wine, to trip over the Psalm and say, “What ails thee, o mountains, that you skip like rams? And o ye hills, like lung yams?” And then there are the tears, when we remember the slaying of the first born, and a drop of wine slips from our fingertips onto the plate.

Most Catholics are familiar with the idea that Moses prefigured Christ: Baby Moses was spared from Pharaoh’s infanticide, as baby Jesus was spared from Herod’s; Moses rescued his people from slavery, as Christ rescues us all from sin and death; the angel of death passed over the houses whose doors were marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb, just as death passes over the souls of those marked with the sign of baptism. Moses brought the Jews on a generation-long journey through the desert, during which God showed constant mercy and forgiveness, and the people demonstrated constant faithlessness and ingratitude—a journey which is mirrored in the lives of everyone. And Moses eventually brought the people within sight of the promised land of Canaan, as Christ has promised He will lead us to the gates of Heaven.

I will always remember my father pausing in the middle of the ceremony, and holding up the broken afikomen matzoh to the light of the candles. When he had the attention of all the children he would ask, “Do you see the light, shining through the holes? Do you see it?

It is pierced, just like Jesus’ hands, feet and sides were pierced. And do you see the stripes? Just like Jesus was striped by the whip of the Romans.” And then we would replace the matzoh in the middle compartment of a silken pouch. This special pouch held three sheets of matzoh (a Trinity?)—and the middle one would be hidden away (as if in a tomb?). Until it was taken out and consumed, we couldn’t have dessert. All the sweets that were waiting in the other room—the chocolate and honey sponge cake, the fruit slices, the nuts and blonde raisins, the halvah and the macaroons—all of these had to wait until that middle piece was found and found (resurrected?) again.

But what always stopped me in my tracks is something my father discovered one year. Imagine, he told us, the Hebrews in their homes, painting their doorpost and lintel with the blood of the lamb as the Lord commanded. They would raise their arm to brush the blood on the top of the door, and then down again to dip again into the blood; and then up to the left, to mark the post on one side, and then to the right … does this sound familiar?

Act it out: up, down, left, right.  It’s very possible that, thousands of years before Calvary, the children of God were already making the sign of the cross.

Make of it what you will. At our house, what we made of it was that God loves us, has always loved us, and always will love us. “I have been young, and I have grown old, and I have never seen the righteous man forsaken or his children wanting for bread” (Ps 37:25). We are all the chosen people, and God speaks to us each in our own language, through our own traditions.

And I believe that he laughs and weeps along with us when we say with a mixture of bitterness and hope at the end of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

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[This post originally ran in Register in 2011 – re-posted at the request of several readers]