Death in Spring: two Holy Week meditations

Death encounters

On the first day of Spring, I awoke to a voicemail from a friend, her voice cracking with emotion as she said that her mother had unexpectedly died. Please pray for us, Sister.

The rest of that day, I attended a funeral for someone else, for the husband of a friend of my living community. The sons of our friend stood near the altar and wept as they remembered their father. Their father’s body lie silently in a casket in the middle of the Church, while a new Spring light streamed in.

On the second day of Spring, I stood in front of a group of 8th graders at a local parish and discussed the events of Holy Week. How did Jesus die? I asked the youth, pointing to a clue: the crucifix.

On the third day of Spring, I took a walk during sunset and tried not to slip on the ice so I wouldn’t be alone in the woods and injured. Or worse.

On the fourth day of Spring, I drove down a highway, snowbanks slowly melting in the ditches. At 65 miles an hour, I caught sight of a horrid image: a ragged deer carcass, frozen stiff, twisted and statued upright by a chunk of ice. Parts of its flesh and bone were exposed, likely picked at by hungry animals.

Later that day, I learned that two of my sisters had died.

On the fifth day of Spring, I bemoaned the fact that I live in a nation where death by gun violence is common. I carried a sign and marched among hundreds, demanding change so that no pupil in any classroom would ever die.

On the sixth day of Spring, Palm Sunday, I meditated and reflected on the Gospel story of the passion, the story of Jesus accepting his gruesome death on a cross.

On the seventh day of Spring, I attended a wake for Sister Bernyne. I touched her cold corpse inside the casket and prayed, asking her to help me, to keep helping our community. Before going to sleep that night, I watched a documentary about death and mortality. I was riveted by the beauty and vulnerability of the art and truth; I was in awe of the mystery and wisdom.

On the eighth day of Spring, I heard “the end is coming soon … any day now,” about another friend who is in hospice care, who is keeping vigil next to the door of death.

Spring has started, but death is staring me down, it’s around every corner. There’s no denying that death and dying are part of life.

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In the Garden  

After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.  —  Luke 22:41-42, 44

He’s agonizing, face pressed close to the earth as he prays, I imagine. Knees crusted with gravel and dust.

He knows he must die and it will be brutal. He knows that new life can only emerge for him, for his followers, if he accepts suffering — if he accepts the true cost of love: self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

As he goes through his head and heart and tries to find another way, trees and shrubs shelter him. But he knows he’s always known — there is no other way. He must die for there to be new life, for the fullness of life to be.

The moonlight illumines the garden. He stares at the exposed roots of a nearby tree, he studies ants crawling on the bark. He examines seeds cracked and littering the ground surrounding him, mixed in with dust and gravel. He remembers what he said, what he told his friends about the kernel of wheat.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” —  (John 12:24)

He understands he must be like the wheat. Or nothing he has told them will bear any fruit. He must be like the snow that elsewhere melts away, to expose new life. Dying and self-sacrifice for the sake of the community. That’s the paradox of life. That’s the paradox of every Spring.

He doesn’t want to accept the truth, but he knows me must. He doesn’t want to cause any hurt or pain. He knows his friends, his followers will be heartbroken, disturbed, confused — that things must become worse before they become better. As he talks to his father about all this, he is praying so intensely he becomes soaked with sweat.

He loves — the deepest affection ever felt by any human. And this love is for every human soul who has ever existed, including those who will live in two millennia. For you.

He sobs, his shoulders and chest shaking for the depth of it, for the love and sorrow and truth and pain. Now his cloak is soaked with both sweat and tears. He sees that blood is dripping from his face — his eyes? — and coloring his garment as well. He sobs and sobs and prays and prays all through the night, disappointed with his friends sleeping nearby.

At dawn, the sunlight cracks through the darkness, colors paint the horizon. He gains courage to embrace the cross, to show us all how to embrace the mystery and promise of death.

He goes through the political and religious trial. He is tortured, he his whipped, and nailed to two cross beams. He cries out from the cross before he breathes his last breath.

And through it all, deep underneath, behind all the torment, a slight smirk colors his thoughts. A small laugh. Death won’t win. It won’t have the last word. In three-days time he will arise. He’ll show them how death leads to new life!

That which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

— 1 Corinthians 15:53-55

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Have a holy and happy Triduum and Easter, Messy Jesus Business readers!  

May the beautiful mysteries of death and life be close,

and fill you with faith and hope. 

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