Good Friday, April 18, 2014
Death, and resurrection; death, and resurrection; death…
When Helene and I first came out to Oregon we drove cross-country from Georgia, all of our life possessions packed up in our little Dodge Neon. It was a spectacular but grueling trip, with worry about the car, time, money, and the open, broad future ever before us. But it was an important trip – to drive cross-country is one of those iconic aspects of American culture, and through the hardships of the journey I rested on the fact that I was living a part of a legend, both of the pioneers and any other American, by need or yearning, who picked up and went west. But when we got to Eugene and unpacked our car into our new apartment, I felt something nagging me, down in the back of my mind. It was just a vague sense, just an inkling, but I knew that I wasn’t done, even sitting in my new home, safe and with a heart full of memories. And it was only when we took another trip further west, and when we drove north on US101, when the dunes opened upon the vast ocean, and later when I bent down in the sand and touched the surging waves, that I knew the trip was complete, and I could find some rest. I had come to the end of land, and only the deep, deep sea remained.
Now, this sense I had, the sense of things left unfinished, undone: I’ve learned to trust it. While studying literature it has helped me intuit the structure of a work, and among friends it has helped me judge when a sad comment may bespeak deeper sorrows. And it helps me here, with the gospel. We all know this story, and here we are again, to repeat it. Today is Good Friday, and Jesus is upon the cross. But the story does not end here – we know it doesn’t end. We know it in our minds and our spirits, but we also feel it in our bones. It’s wrong to end the story here, to leave him in the cave, dead, and all his disciples set to weeping. Our inner sense of balance and harmony, of story and hope, screams out: this cannot be the end! Cannot thirst be quenched he cannot die! It is not truly finished! And with this our minds look to Easter and to coming joy.
But, in the story, and indeed in our own liturgical time, it is only a coming joy, not a present one, and when we return from imagining the sunlight of rebirth, we find ourselves back here, tonight, Jesus still dead within the tomb, and only a few moments gone by. Each year we read this story again and hope for Sunday, but no hope may push onward any faster the slow movement of time, and Jesus remains in his grave, motionless, another minute, another minute more, and the skies seem as shadows. It is the way of time to give each moment its due.
It’s hard for us Christians to stay here, to ponder the sorrow that must have taken those who believed, especially when Jesus himself cried, “It is finished.” Not, of course, that we do not know adversity, but that we have founded ourselves on joy. Like rereading a novel, we know things will turn out alright, that the fear and pain are but a passing thing. But aren’t they? Hasn’t Christ died so that we need feel no terror? Have no fear? Walk in a living hope? Indeed this is so, but still it is Friday, ever Friday, and Joseph still looks upon the tomb and weeps.
Now, we give patience to many things, but rarely to this sort of sorrow. We are told to stop and smell the roses, to give sight and mind and presence to the warmth of a summer’s day, the laughter of children, and the presence of family. Last year, during our personal prayers at the Saturday mass, the birds sang into our silence, their voices high in the summer eve, and Brent gave thanks for them. It was for me one of the most present moments of communal prayer, and it was of deep and lasting comfort. For these things we wait and we watch, and through them we forget the incessant movement of time, to allow for something else – some great Other – for God to show us his own time in eternity, for Beauty and Truth to slip us quietly away from the necessity of moments laid one atop the other. But what of those things which are perhaps also true but not so beautiful? What of patience before a winter storm, slow and cold and long, or the vast emptiness of space, where at times literally nothing exists? And what of death upon the cross and the horrible silence that followed? What of these things to which we wish to give no patience, for they awaken fear in our hearts? Are these not, too, parts of creation?
We often talk of death and rebirth as a system, a line that leads from one to the other, so that when we speak death we hear resurrection – and the importance of this day is that it forces us to give pause, to give patience, to the horrible concept of darkness that has seeped into creation. For the moment we start thinking of resurrection, death and darkness and sorrow look by necessity beyond themselves to some desired end. And so pain must lead to gain, a tragedy happens for a mere lesson for the survivors, the fall becomes a happy fall.
Now, I’m an optimistic person; I don’t want the story to end here – I know the story doesn’t end here; but the very reality of time and the shape of our liturgy forces me to sit and remain at this point, to follow lives lived in time, of one who died in hunger and thirst and of those who, in sorrow that cannot be imagined, remained thereafter. I am asked to sit and look at death squarely in the eye and not ask, immediately what comes next; what comes next. For at this moment the effort fails, the great revolution comes to a grinding halt, and all is sorrow and darkness. We cannot see. And surely I can say that while in darkness light will shine the brighter, or that something must die before it can be reborn, but again I am looking towards the result and not the fact, not the plain fact that Jesus died. And what do I gain from thinking about this? What lesson ought to be learned? What do I do with this sorrow? Nothing, I think, though not all learning is growth, for not all learning is centered on us. At times we must look beyond ourselves and simply see.
One of the great strengths of Christianity is that, through the death of Jesus, we are able to know death, not only in its connection to resurrection, and thus to joy, some future happiness that is not now present but shall soon be – but instead that we may know the plain fact of death, and darkness, and sorrow in and of themselves. Is it frightening? Yes, indeed it is. Is it supposed to be frightening? I think so. Yet to see a thing in full, to not fight and argue with it, to allow it its own full existence, even if it is threaded with terror and doubt, is to know a thing in an inkling of how Christ knows it, a hint of what it was like to be fully human and fully divine, to walk as he did through the world, to beg for the cup to be taken and yet still to take it. It is the strange paradox of sorrow and steadiness, of utter hopelessness and even still of courage, not courage because there is hope but even because there was no hope. It is living in reality, whatever the cost, and for God this was the only way to save it. And like so many good things this seems to make no sense – but such is the way of miracles.