Kicking Off The High Holy Holidays As An Altar Boy

With Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter on deck, the triumvirate of Catholic holidays is about to begin. If you were raised as a Catholic, where attendance at church (and often service as an altar boy) was required on all these days, Easter was never a very fun weekend. In fact, with all the extensive long-winded masses, I dreaded this time of the year, especially when forced to serve complicated and different routines. How my heart wrenched at the thought of walking in front of all those people, trying to remember every new instruction the priests half-heartedly gave us, if they remembered to instruct us at all. Coupled with the rather upsetting notion of crucifixion (how strange that the violent stuff of R-rated films should be so easily and flippantly impressed upon us at such a young age), and the heady perfume of a hundred Easter lilies dancing behind the altar, it was a wonder I never passed out in the incense fumes. For a kid, however, especially a kid with a penchant for theatrics, that incense was the best and most exciting part of the proceedings.

I remember watching the priest pour the woody mixture over the lit charcoals, and the instant cloud of smoke that was conjured. He lifted the censer (or thurible), swung it before himself, and let it strike against its own chain three times. The smoke rose high into the cavernous church, stretching out over the pews. When I used to sit in the back on those lucky few times I didn’t have to serve, I would count how long it would take the scent to reach us, imagining some sacred pebble tossed into a still body of holy water, the ripples spreading ever outward before doubling back on themselves from the edge.

As much as I hated it, the church became a sanctuary at this time of year. The long stretch from the start of Lent to its culmination on Easter, and all those Fridays at the Stations of the Cross, somehow eased the transition from winter to spring. The new season slipped in during those nights, as our winter moon boots gave way to regular shoes, the snow finally melting mostly away before the arrival of Easter. On those dark evenings, the light of the church was a beacon of safety and warmth, the incense embraced us, and the candlelight glowed in our hands. There was something to the ceremony after all, some spiritual alchemy that occurred, even to a kid who somehow knew he wasn’t truly welcome there, and in that space I forged my own relationship with God. It didn’t involve smoke and lilies and Odes to Joy, it only required my two hands – folded in prayer – and my inner voice – raised in supplication, and hope, and love.

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