The most striking of my childhood church memories occurred during our parish’s Good Friday service each year. At the end of the service, with the lights dimmed, our pastor would draw a black drape across the altar at the front of the sanctuary. As a child, the gesture reminded me of physicians I’d seen in old Hollywood movies draping the deceased. No doubt the allusion was intended. A black cloth hung on the cross above the altar, the sanctuary dressed for a funeral.

Afterward, my family and I walked quietly to the parking lot. An awkward hush followed us. Jesus had just died in there—what could you say after that? Buckled into the back seat of our station wagon, my sisters and I sat uncomfortably, waiting for the feeling to subside. This was only a pageant, right? The world wasn’t really this dark, our situation this bleak.

Eventually, conversation began to flow, and by the time we arrived home, the transition from Good Friday was complete. Like slowly waking from a bad dream, we emerged into the present once again. The next day, Holy Saturday, was filled with busyness. We made deviled eggs and rearranged the fridge to fit the ham. Nobody spoke of death or dying or thought about the black drape across the altar.

When we arrived at church on Easter morning, I always marveled at the transformed sights and smells of the sanctuary. Fragrant lilies and hyacinths blanketed the chancel, and the altar was covered in a white-and-gold embroidered cloth. The sanctuary had been scrubbed clean of death.

Even then as a child, the contrast seemed surreal. Were we the same people we’d been just two days before? After 40 days in Lent with Jesus, we stood at the foot of the cross and took in its horror, woke on ...

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