A Subsistence Easter

I met a woman named Frances last week. She lives in Arctic Village, Alaska. I met her when she stopped in after church services to visit Grace, my host for the night in the village along with a colleague from the Episcopal Church’s Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society and the Bishop of Alaska. She came in for conversation from the Arctic spring evening, still light at 9:30 p.m., and only 10 degrees below zero (which is 40 degrees warmer than the winter!).

On the way into the house, she passed the freshly hunted caribou left by the door earlier in the evening. She offered to come by the next morning to prepare the meat for Grace, an elder of the village. She did. Her work produced three large sacks of fresh meat for Grace and her family.

While sitting around and talking, Frances mentioned that she had prepared seven caribou that day. She proudly showed me the tools she used, one with a beautiful handle made of a bone worn and polished from many hours of Frances’ use. And Frances described her work.

The hunters bring her the caribou. She prepares them and places the meat in heavy-duty sacks made of tarp-like material. Then she drags the bags on the snow delivering the fresh meat that is the staple of the Athabascan diet to the people of the village. She describes it as what she does now that her arthritis prevents her from doing heavy work.

It did not escape my attention that she was telling me about this immediately after sharing in the village’s first Eucharist in several months and in the same breath as how much she wants the traditions of the church to be taught to the village’s children.

But here’s the amazing thing to me. When asked how much she charged to prepare a caribou, Frances said, “Oh, I don’t charge anything. It’s just what I do.” There was one exception. As long as people eat the meat and share it with others, Frances doesn’t charge anything. “But if they’re going to take it to Fairbanks and sell it, then I charge.”

The Athabascan people of Arctic Village have what we would describe as a subsistence culture. Although this is changing, traditionally at least, they hunt what they need to survive, they eat what they have hunted, and then they hunt some more. They take what they need to survive from the herd and from the land and no more. What Frances does is a living out of that culture.

To my ears, formed in a European culture, subsistence means something different than it does to Frances. To me, it means barely being able to survive. To Frances, I learned, it just means surviving, something I might more likely use the word living to describe. My understanding leads me to ask, “How much do you charge?” Frances’s understanding is “It’s just what I do.” It’s just about living. There is a world of difference.

I’m not finished processing all the important things I think there are to learn from Frances, at least the ones I can grasp. But at least one of them seems to have something to do with Easter and the Holy Week that precedes it.

I’m seeing the resurrection through the eyes of a new understanding of subsistence this year. From Frances’s perspective, subsistence isn’t barely enough. It is just enough. One Eucharist every month isn’t barely enough. It is just enough.

I wonder if I’ve been looking at Jesus as barely enough. I think what Easter may be about is that Jesus is just enough. That’s all that is really necessary — enough. And really, that’s all I need to know about it. It is enough. Anything beyond enough, like taking caribou meat to Fairbanks, gets charged for.

Easter is enough to survive. And it comes at absolutely no charge. When we try to take more than we need, that’s when things get messed up. The way of Jesus, the Easter way, is a subsistence spirituality, at least in an Athabascan sense of the word. It is enough for living. It is the peace that comes from knowing, not how much to charge, but that what we have been given is enough, not barely enough. And it becomes just what we do.
Source: Huff Post

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