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.

Credit: FreeImages.com

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

Credit: FreeImages.com

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. 

Credit: FreeImages.com

Easter Sunday: ordinary resurrections and trembling tombs

Alleluia!! Alleluia! He lives, and laughs death right in its face, saying,
Surprise, surprise! Nothing can kill this everlasting love!

Ordinary resurrections are everywhere.

There are glimpses of light where despair was once too intense for hope! The broken bone has healed completely. The child awoke from the terrifying coma. Your neighbor offered you an unexpected invitation to dinner. A relationship has been mended. Ugly habits have decreased; renewal found you in the Lenten desert. The tendency of that cruel colleague to snap at you decreased. The struggling student earned a high grade. New, green life is bursting forth through dismal ground.

Amazingly, the love that has caused this freedom made tombs of all sorts tremble.

The grumpy, over-stressed grandmother lets out a big belly laugh. The violent mind experiences a moment of truth and compassion. The refugee child squeals with joy, seeing the father from which she was separated. Tears fall down cheeks while the family, once divided, laughs over an Easter feast, forgetting what caused the rift between them. Joy beams through border fences, and all are welcomed to the feast.

 

Our awesome God is victorious, and today is a day to celebrate!!!

Happy Easter, Messy Jesus Business readers!

"open tomb" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“open tomb” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

a life to the fullest type of December

“I came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  – John 10:10b

Merry Christmas! God is with us!  And, this God who is with us- Baby Jesus- has given us the greatest gift of all: life! I believe that life abundant means that life is packed full with all bliss and burdens being human offers.

This December, my Advent and now-Christmas spirit kept switching channels.   Due to the circumstances of my life and the events of our world, my inner-spaces and accompanying emotions flitted around like a spinning top.  Really, I was on a journey through the valleys and peaks of life; there truly was a lot of the Jesus-named “life to the fullest” stuff.

December began with a week long awaiting for the birth of my new nephew.  The first major life peak I dealt with was nervous anticipation unlike any I had ever felt before.  The beautiful baby boy arrived on the 7th.  Ecstatic joy, gratitude and awe came right with him.  Plus, that same day, I also learned that a darling little girl who I love has leukemia. My heart broke with sadness.

More life: my work load snowballed, it was mid-quarter at the school where I work.  Grades were due again.  Enter heightened stress and exhaustion.  After my grades were submitted and I sighed with relief, the layers of life became more meshed. The fun of Christmas was nearing but the harsh reality of suffering and tragedy still hung heavy.

Mid-month, I was like most humans: horrified and depressed about the news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.  I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wanted to scream and compel everyone to throw guns away and pour their money and energy toward compassion and mental health.  I wanted to wrap my new nephew in my imagined fairytale safety cloak so that no gun could ever come within a mile of him.  Never before had a felt so protective yet full of grief.

Instead, I had to do what many of us did: pray a lot, cry a little, and then push my fire-y feelings into my daily grind; the regular hard labor for Gospel peace and justice.  Meanwhile, in my classroom and around the high school, everyone seemed to be getting antsy because Christmas was getting closer.  I wondered if we were numb or ignoring suffering, or just eager to be joyful and celebrate the Nativity.  Around the school we ate too much sugar, started singing carols and decorated as if our lives depended on it.

Where I live, the sisters and I sang and danced to carols on the radio, laughed and played games, baked cookies, made homemade candies, whipped up a feast, and exchanged gifts with much joy.   The jolliness of the Christmas spirit had somehow had found its way into our hearts despite our consciousness of the expanse of human suffering.

I was merry too, as I drove off to be with my family for my new nephew’s baptism and Christmas celebrations. Fa-la-la-la-la-ling I went into Midwestern snows with a trunk packed with gifts and freshly made Christmas goodies.   The radio didn’t stay stuck on the cheery Christmas carols, however.

With horror, I listened to how the national debate on gun violence had evolved one week from the Sandy Hook massacre. No longer were we talking about mental health, our violent culture and the need to change our gun laws.  No instead, to my disgust, I was hearing the proposal for more guns, security and a suggestion that teachers should be armed.  I was so angry I thought I would be sick.  So then, onward to Christmas and baptismal feasts and joy did I go, slightly stained with the awfulness of cynicism and sarcasm because of the direction that the national gun debate turned.

The baptism and Christmas celebrations were beautiful and blessed, of course.  I was honored to become a godmother again. I sang Christmas hymns to the new baby.  I cherished every second I had with the living masterpiece that somehow, miraculously was made up many of the same genes that I am.  My family stuffed our bodies with wonderful farm food and then burned off the calories by laughing so hard our sides hurt. And, of course, the prayerful liturgy was deep and peaceful.  As we meditated on Christ’s coming to change and empower us, I felt God embrace the wideness of the fullness life.  The Christmas happenings and the Holy Spirit provided a deep consolation.

So, now I am back to La Crosse with my community, still feasting in the calm and beauty of Christmas. And, this Christmas is going to last a while.  You see, this year I am going to engage in a Christmas Every Day experiment.  This was announced in the La Crosse paper yesterday.

Yesterday was also the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The fun and excitement of my Christmas Every Day experiment announcement, was squished between my prayer for all the thousands of children who die everyday from unjust causes throughout the world.  I started to understand what I was getting myself into.

Living Christmas Every Day will mean that I will awkwardly flop around as I try to do what all of us are called to do.  I shall celebrate that our God is with us through all things, especially in the suffering and pain.

Christmas Every Day means that as I will be more intentional about living the Christmas spirit than I am normally.  And, that Christmas spirit that I’ll be living with isn’t all sweet and good.  In fact, the story of Christ’s coming itself includes great violence and horror.

Christmas Every Day means that I shall carry all of what is true, good and hard about being human.  My constant fun celebrating shall be colored with the wholeness of what life is and how God is with us, especially in the raw hurt.

Yes, Merry Christmas, may it be a real Christmas too, a celebration conscious that life to the fullest is packed with joy and pain together.

"holy infant" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“holy infant” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA