A Quaker is the last person one would want to ask about the meaning of “holy days”! For much of our history, Friends have been averse to “observing days,” preferring to see each day as a locus for the holy - all of life as participating in the sacramental. It was only in the last 150 years that Quakers have begun celebrating even in small ways such days on the Church calendar as Christmas and Easter. In my own youth, I didn’t hear of Advent, Lent, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, or Maundy Thursday. For all I knew, the latter was a follow-up to the Mamas and the Papas’ hit song “Maundy, Maundy” (sic)!
But I do have to admit that yesterday in my Quaker theology class at Guilford College, I began discussion of a chapter on the Exodus in Patricia Dallman’s book The Word Within by wishing the students Hag Pesach Sameach - a familiar Jewish greeting at Passover. It was the first day of Passover, and I asked the students what the observance was about. Guilford has done a very good job of inculcating traditional Quakerism. Very few of the students had a clue!
I proceeded to share the story of Passover from snippets of the Bible and remembered versions of Jewish Haggadahs I had read. As I identified Egypt with Mitzrahim (the Hebrew word for the country), the land of bondage for the ancient Hebrews, I asked the students this question: “What is YOUR Mitzrahim? What are YOU in bondage to? How will YOU escape that bondage?”
Now, this is not a question for the faint of heart to ask college students! But we did have a little fun with references to Charlton Heston, the parting of the Red Sea, and Cecil B. DeMille theatrics - and I did volunteer to go first. I wimped out, though, and chose my “bondage” to workaholism and expressed my intent to take more time to relax, enjoy family, and not be “enslaved” to the college. The things I could have listed otherwise! Not all of the students felt free to follow my lead, but some shared deeply: alcoholism, striving for perfection, inability to follow-through. As with me, I’m sure the untold stories of Mitzrahim were even more intgriguing.
I found the exercise to be very helpful, both for me and the students. Passover served us well. And then we went on to talk about Easter and the traditional Christian understanding of what is meant by the Passion, Good Friday, and Easter morning. We talked about atonement, suffering servanthood, bondage to sin, and possibilities of release from that bondage. We shared about the traditional Quaker focus on “bearing the cross,” not “fleeing the cross,” and being “inwardly crucified” to our own will and human nature.
The Quaker default setting is to internalize the usual “outward forms” of religion, including “holy days.” Every day ought to be a day when the Light of Christ is born in our hearts; every day ought to be a day when it is resurrected in our lives; every day ought to be a day when we “bear the cross” and try to crucify whatever keeps us in bondage. What others make of these special days and observances is not for me to decide, but I would hope the emphasis would not be on the expropriation of others’ meaningful symbols and rituals but on an authentic experience of the meaning represented by those forms. I would hope that the meaning of these special days in each tradition would offer opportunity to reflect deeply on such questions as slavery, injustice, sin, culpability, and extricating ourselves from our own participation in personal actions and systems that keep ourselves and others in bondage.
Max Carter | Apr 20, 2011 2:53 PM