During an overly pious phase in my childhood, my favorite holiday was Maundy Thursday. I had nothing against the traditional favorites of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. I did, after all, grow up in Hershey, Pennsylvania—raised in the First United Methodist Church on Chocolate Avenue, where the domes on the street lights resemble Hershey’s kisses and the fragrance of chocolate hung often in the air. I had no complaint against holidays that brought bonanzas of candy and gifts.
But, at some point in my young life, I began to understand that not every child lived in a town with a chocolate factory, an amusement park and zoo, four swimming pools and nine golf courses. Some children were hungry and lonely and had no home in which to live. When this first glimmer of comprehension about suffering in the world came to me, I began to like Maundy Thursday.
My family always went to church that night. When we got home, I climbed into bed, unzipped my Red-Letter-Edition King James Version Holy Bible, and turned to Matthew 26. Over and over, I read the part about Jesus going off in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest, asking his disciples to watch with him, then finding them asleep and saying, “So, you couldn’t stay awake with me one hour?” He had to say it three times.
I had a 3-D, framed picture of Jesus in the Garden, with a real stone and a fake bush glued beside him—a perfect object for my piety. I wanted to be a faithful disciple, and my test of discipleship was being able to stay awake all night. I never made it past about 1 o’clock in the morning. My eyes would grow heavy, and I’d begin to nod off. I’d wake up on Good Friday morning, spy the picture of Jesus on the nightstand, and feel utterly disappointed in myself. I was sure that Jesus was disappointed, too.
A few years ago, I spent Maundy Thursday in a church providing overnight shelter for women. My shift for staying awake, being available in the kitchen if needed while the women and the other volunteer slept on mattresses on the floor of the parish hall, was midnight to 3:00 a.m. I turned off the glaring overhead fluorescent lights and lit a candle. I opened my New Revised Standard Version Bible to Matthew 26 and began to read about Jesus and the disciples on the night before he died.
Then I prayed—longer than I had prayed in a very long time—for the women snoring lightly just beyond the kitchen door, for friends facing illness, for situations of suffering and hardship around the globe. My heart grew heavy, and time slowed to a crawl. I struggled to stay awake until 3 o’clock—nodding, pacing, counting minutes, pacing again.
At breakfast three hours later, groggy and unfocused, I tried to make coherent conversation with Joanne, whose husband had blackened her eye and broken her jaw three days before, and Sybil, a former stripper and exotic dancer who was hoping to find other work. Rhonda dragged herself to the table, looking extremely pale. When I offered her breakfast, she grimaced at the cinnamon sticks and cold boiled eggs, then told me that she had been awake all night with a very upset stomach.
She sighed heavily and said, “I’m the Easter Bunny.” Over the years in my work at shelters, I’ve heard people claim to be everybody from Adolf Hitler to Jesus Christ, but this felt different. Rhonda sipped some water and said weakly, “I’m the Easter Bunny at the mall.” I couldn’t imagine her, sick and weary as she was, climbing into a stuffy costume and welcoming a stream of energetic children all day long. To be honest, at that moment I couldn’t imagine anything except getting home and falling into my comfortable bed for a long sleep.
The sunrise was spectacular that Good Friday morning—a pale pink sky in the East, hemmed in by purple thunderclouds, the mountains draped in white mist. A brilliant orange sun peeked through for just a moment as I turned toward home. After four hours of peaceful dozing, I bolted awake about noon with the thought, “I should have been the Easter Bunny.” I wished that I had thought to offer to take Rhonda’s place, to give her a break so that she could have the day to rest and recover. I thought then about how often as a child I had been told that Jesus “took my place on the cross.”
I haven’t embraced that version of sin-and-atonement for a few decades. I understand now that the cross was the inevitable end for a prophet preaching and practicing compassion, inclusion, and nonviolence in the jaws of an unjust, repressive, and militaristic empire. Surely this Jesus—who chose to be one with the marginalized and despised—was with Rhonda as she struggled to survive one more day, one underpaying job at a time, trying to put her life back together and make a new start for herself and her children. On that Good Friday, Jesus was the Easter Bunny.