I read Catherine’s Pascha, written by Charlotte Riggle and illustrated by R J Hughes, on Clean Monday. It seemed appropriate that right after Compline and the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, I sat down and read a delightful and evocative children’s picture book about the purpose of this long, arduous, and hopefully fruitful journey through Lent.
Catherine’s Pascha is the story of one child’s experience of the holiest feast in our calendar, the brightest jewel in the liturgical year. It’s laced with individual impressions, from Catherine’s claim that she wasn’t actually napping before the service, “I’m just resting my eyes,” she insists, to her curiosity about the contents of the Pascha baskets, “One of them is full of little ham and cheese sandwiches. The other has sticky sweet rolls shaped like bunnies”, to the tradition of bashing the ends of red eggs together at the feast afterward, and the fact that hot dogs, Catherine’s favourite food, are considered one of the Paschal treats in her parish.
On one level, it’s the story of a single child, with a specific Paschal experience. Charlotte brings the character to life, along with the celebration in that fictional parish. On another level, it reaches deep into each reader, bringing, through the particularity of Catherine’s experience, the commonality that we all experience every year. We may not have ham and cheese sandwiches, we may not have hot dogs, we may not put the shroud on the altar at exactly the same time Catherine’s parish does, we may celebrate at dawn instead of midnight, but we all experience that spine-tingling, joyous resurrection in our own churches, and we remember ours through Catherine’s experience of hers.
I have to admit that as I sat in my easy chair, tired from the Canon and the contemplation of the work ahead, I got chills up my spine and a lump in my throat as I shared Catherine’s Paschal experience. It brought back all the high points of our own Pascha, and I felt again the joy of that first “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!” I felt the bodies pressing in on me in the crowded nave, and heard the ragged responses “En verite, Il est ressuscité!” to our Québecoise: “Le Christ est ressuscité” and all the other languages we shout as Catherine’s parish called out their Arabic, Slavic, and Spanish responses.
It’s not just Charlotte’s text that evokes that response. R. J. Hughes’s illustrations are deliberately crafted to connect a particularity to a general experience, and she does it magnificently. The detailed illustrations are framed by quotes from the main text, or by responses from the Paschal Liturgy. The page backgrounds show different Orthodox churches from all over the world, and from different eras. There is a church in Antarctica built in 2005 set on a page facing a church built in Kodiak, Alaska in 1796. On another page, we see a cathedral in Damascus that was built during the 2nd century AD. It’s a subtle and effective way to remind adults and teach children that in some mysterious way we cannot understand, it is always NOW for God, and that at Pascha most especially, but whenever we enter into God’s presence, we also enter that eternal NOW.
There is nothing new, or startling, or surprising about the book. It’s a view of Pascha from a child’s perspective, with all the wonder, delight, and newness bright and sparkling off the page into our hearts. Charli, as she’s known to her friends (of which I am one), and RJ Hughes have caught a child’s impressions and wonder beautifully in the text, and through it and the illustrations, remind us all what this whole faith and celebration is about.