Yesterday while Lynne and I drove to choir rehearsal before the second service, we were astounded to see The Easter Bunny walking down our quiet Vermont street. And although the rational adult mind immediately concluded that it must be an adult in an Easter Bunny outfit, going to work somewhere, my first impression — the immediate imprint on my retinal brain — was that I really was seeing the Easter Bunny.
First UU Burlington had an Easter Egg Hunt this year, so perhaps he was heading in that direction. But the sight of him called up memories of a different UU congregation, and an Easter Egg Hunt which has been transformed from a commercial ritual to a multi-level congregational experience. I speak of First Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Jamaica Plain, MA, where I had the privilege of serving as Director of Religious Education for six happy years, 1999-2004. Rev. Terry Burke, and his wife, Music Director Ellen McGuire, met there, married, raised three wonderful children in that program, and still lead meaningful rituals. This is one of them.
First Church JP still includes a graveyard in its church enclosure. Far from being a place of fear or revulsion, it forms a peaceful and beloved part of the congregation’s identity. Congregational Historian George Wardle has led the way in bringing to life its inhabitants. On a sunny spring day, if it seemed to need it, I remember sending a restless Sunday School class out to carefully pick up its litter. It plays starring roles for the honoring of All Souls, and again at Easter. In my day, the older classes — bribed with the promise of a surplus of chocolate they could appropriate as they worked — would assemble early to stuff candy into multiple plastic eggshells. Then — still early, they would head out to plant these treasures amidst the markers, mounds and dried out winter weeds. Many eggs were stuffed into crevices in the stone wall that edges the site — sometimes with scoffing comments that, “That’s too hard for a little kid!” When the eggs were out, the message was clear: resurrection attends the dead, personal and visible; make of that assertion what you will.
After intergenerational worship — where voices of all ages might be heard during Prayers of Intercession, and silence lasts until every pulse in the room has found its calm — the little children claimed paper bags and scattered into the graveyard for their hunt.
The youngest, of course, immediately looked for help. Parents might get them started, but the veterans, anyone over about seven — took pride in claiming only a few eggs for themselves and then looking for a little child to assist. This gave the older children an alternative mode of participation, rather than simply filling their bags competitively, while showing the youngsters that Religious Education is a community. The older child would check the younger child’s bag to see what they had, offering congratulations and reassurance if any egg were there. Then, often hand in hand, the older child would guide their charge to spot the brightly-colored plastic. Together they would struggle safely over intervening tree roots, around gravestones, even reaching to the stone wall itself. During this stage of the hunt, I more than once saw older children check among themselves, to be sure there were enough eggs remaining for the younger ones. If not, they would then surreptiously reach into their own bags to plant a target further ahead, for their classmate to point out to some happily ignorant toddler.
But one of the most touching experiences I had with those older children came when one or two of them called me aside for a private conversation. “I’m wondering if I’m getting too old for this Easter Egg Hunt, Elz.” they confessed, each one by one. It was a major decision, a transition they knew would forever cut them off from a joy of childhood. “Do you think it’s time for me to come before church and put the eggs out?”
We would discuss the pros and cons. How did it feel to help the little ones? Were there enough older kids to keep helping the little ones, if you and your class made the shift? It’s a personal decision, I would say, not a statement for any one class. When you’re ready, you’ll know.
Each of them chose their own pace for closure. Some wanted to do this year and then one more, knowing this would be the last. Some were ready to say that this would be the last, and next year, they’d be arriving early. Lots of personal factors went into each decision, not least whether one’s siblings were older (before church crowd) or younger (hand-holding stage of life).
I think of those conversations now as I watch my friends with fatal conditions venture forward along their final journeys. As with the Easter Egg Hunt, these are decisions that can’t be redone. Adulthood — that long era of holding younger hands — eventually gives way, in a healthy family or society — to the joy in investing in youngsters less personally known to you. They are yours not through shared play, but shared stories, shared values, common dreams. And as their feet walk where yours walked before, as their hands reach into the stone walls and bushy thickets where you have placed those plastic shells — the ones you filled with your own hands, and carefully sealed against spillage — your childhood comes alive for just a moment, not for you, but for another child, another family. What has happened to our world, that there are people — childless by choice, like me — who take no delight in lingering by the fence, to watch our future unfold with faith and ethics?
Investing in a collective future. That’s only one of the lessons taught by these stages of participation. Whoever it was this month in Vermont, who hired that adult to wear that costume and hide those eggs, had no idea how much they were depriving our youth, our elders — and our future.