What will Easter 2021 be like? Nothing like 2020, if I have my way. This year, I dream, Easter will be preceded by a Holy Week as solemn as if COVID had never been. Purple-veiled statues will stand solemnly about the church overlooking the Holy Thursday foot washing, a jug of water the only cleansing agent in sight, while a large choir sings the Ubi caritas. The Mass will be jammed with people, as it is every normal year, lovely, unknown people who spontaneously show up, unregistered and untraceable, squeezing in wherever there’s space. Afterwards an altar boy swinging a golden censer will lead the procession through volutes of blue smoke to an altar of repose, swathed in white silk.
The next day, the church will be even more crammed, for Good Friday draws the biggest crowds of the year. Three cantors sing the Passion; the narration in a baritone range, the crowd’s role in a high tenor and the words of Christ in a grave bass. The crucifix is unveiled and servers robed in cassock and surplice present it at the altar rail for veneration. The singers chant the reproachful Populi mei, ‘O my people, what have I done to thee?’ and then Crux fidelis, ‘Faithful cross,’ the melody so familiar you can’t help joining in. The entire church lines up to go, one by one, to kneel and kiss the feet of the crucified Christ. There’s no obligation, but every last person in the church goes up. At the end of the ceremony, the door of the empty tabernacle is left ajar. We go soberly home for a fast-day meal of fish and hot cross buns.
On Holy Saturday our thoughts turn to feasting. Braided brioche goes into the oven, duck rillettes take pride of place in the refrigerator and colored eggs appear. Will we have oysters Rockefeller for Easter breakfast, or eggs Benedict on smoked salmon? Must rush to the shop for fresh oysters if the former. The aroma of toasted sesame seeds fills the kitchen; they will be ground with coarse sea salt as a condiment for hard-boiled quails’ eggs.
Many believe firmly in spring lamb for Easter dinner. But there is much to be said for the Easter rabbit, either as a main dish for a small number of guests, or in a terrine as an appetizer. Celebrated Montreal chef Jérôme Ferrer offers a delightful recipe for Québec rabbit with honey, rosemary and bière blanche, wheat beer. You may not be able to get Québec rabbit where you live, but if your liquor store carries Blanche de Chambly, one splash turn you and your rabbit into honorary French Canadians. A pyromaniac’s variation calls for the rabbit pieces to be browned. You pour on a couple ounces of gin and flambé the pieces.
Setting fire to things (on purpose) while cooking is great fun and invariably stirs up lively conversation, not to mention the odd shriek of terror among the guests. But for quiet elegance at the Easter banquet, give me that shy, exquisite opener to the feast, the rabbit terrine nestled in lettuce. The best rabbit terrine I have tried also hails from la belle province.The recipe calls for raisins macerated in Armagnac, but I use dried apricots that have been bottled with Napoleon brandy and allowed to rest for several weeks instead. As Holy Saturday winds to a close, it’s time to hang up the apron and get ready for church. Or so I’ve planned for my ideal Easter 2021. In some places, the Easter Vigil doesn’t start until at least 10 p.m., when it’s completely dark. The Easter fire blazes before the church steps and the great painted Paschal candle is lit from the blessed fire: Lumen Christi, the light of Christ. We follow the pillar of flame into the dark church. The shadows shrink back. O truly blessed night, sings the deacon. A server takes a light from the Easter candle and touches it to our tapers. The church is all aglow. By midnight the Mass is underway; the organ lifts the roof a good inch off the rafters at the Gloria, the bells peal and not one voice in the place is silent.
Don’t call the cops; it’s just a dream. But why can’t we protect the vulnerable, while letting everyone else get on with life? As Mark Twain supposedly said, there are only two sure things in life: taxes and death. Under the circumstances, all we can do is strive to live well. But how can we live well if these ceremonies and traditions, these beloved fasts and feasts, these gatherings with strangers and loved ones are legislated out of existence? Aren’t they worth a little risk? If there is one thing Holy Week and Easter teach us, it is that we need not be ruled by our fear of dying. As John Donne might have said: COVID, be not proud, though some have callèd thee mighty and dreadful. ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.’
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2021 US edition.