Warning: Working in a church the week before Holy Week is invariably heavy and inevitably affects a pastor’s pondering. In addition to the workload in preparation for the holy days, the emotional tones of the stories that lead up to Easter are heart rending. If we dare to look deeply into our stories, the pain is palpable. Ours is story of unnecessary and unimaginable suffering. Yet from a place of pain at the outer edge of our imagination, comes a story of hope.
Of course it is our human inclination to reach for the hope without the rest of the story. Like a steady diet of chocolate chip cookies, it works until it doesn’t. We might enjoy the taste of the cookies until our bodies start to revolt from lack of nutrition. Likewise we might enjoy and share the festival of Palm Sunday and Easter without the drama of the week in between, but after time even the festivals become hollow without the sustenance of the painful chapters that make them possible.
I am not a believer in the ‘no pain, no gain’ approach to life, but I can bear witness to the truth that the most beautiful blossoms in my life have come after the earth of my soul has been tilled. I know that the exquisite joy in holding my newborn babies came after the hell of something euphemistically called ‘labor’. And I know that when I eat green things, bitter though they may be, my body simply feels better.
To be sure we have likely had experiences of the telling of the so-called passion narrative (the last week of Jesus’ life) that were unhealthy and unhelpful. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” a few years ago was a rendering that created controversy and drama promising to pave the road to Easter’s hope; but it didn’t. In fact Passion Plays around the world offer to do just that, and tragically have a history of unleashing anti-Semitic violence rather than Easter hope. Reveling in the gore of an ancient story is not likely to bring modern hope.
In the wake of these common offerings, the temptation to move from Palm Sunday’s parade to Easter’s festival is certainly understandable, but we miss compelling invitations to touch the spiritual truth of the story that will enable a deeper encounter not only with the pain but more profoundly with the hope.
As I listened at the vigil for Trayvon Martin last Friday night, and heard the story of the broken body of God’s son, I realized again that the stories that will most helpfully illumine our Easter hope are not simply the ancient ones but rather the timeless ones. The call of our holy week isn’t to remember an ancient evil but rather to face a modern one. To acknowledge, own, name, the worst our kind can do… to put it out on the table and weep loudly. Call the wailing women and lament. Having allowed our hearts to acknowledge the place of lament, the exquisite beauty of the empty tomb will mean so much more than we could otherwise have imagined.
I am reminded of the powerful work that Desmond Tutu shared with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The cornerstone of the work was to acknowledge that real healing can come from neither polite denial nor vengeance; that spiritual healing requires an honest accounting of the wrongs done before releasing them. Easter comes when the Roman Empire is acknowledged and held accountable. The tomb is empty only after the oppressors are named and faced. He has risen comes after we’ve gotten honest about the fact that he’s suffered and died.
As I sit with the heaviness of the story this week, with justice still absent in Sanford, I feel myself falling into the despair of the week that is ours as humans, trusting that on the other side we will again find the exquisite wonder of an empty tomb. And so the week begins…
Note for Peace UCC folk: Liturgically (in our church community), we’ll have two important opportunities next week to hold this spiritual truth. One is the ancient and timeless celebration of Passover with a Seder (potluck, family-friendly) dinner on Thursday (April 5 @6pm); here we move from lament (slavery in Egypt, the plagues, the escape) and into joy (freedom). The other opportunity is through a contemporary story shared by poet Treasure Shields Redmond on Friday (April 6 @7pm); the poetry reading will be followed by an (optional) time of prayer evoking the parallel images of Jesus’ last week.