Lent has officially ended. Today is Good Friday, the second of the three days (Triduum) leading up to Easter Sunday. Today — or rather, tonight, at sundown — marks the start of Passover. I’ve been thinking today about story, without which we wouldn’t commemorate either event. I’ve also been thinking, this Lent, about trust, about giving up my often desperate grip on control in my own stories. I’ve been praying, I guess, about letting go. Today, too, I am struck by the Triduum’s embrace of sorrow and agony, and how those dark places open us up. Story does that too, of course. As I write, I wrestle with wariness on taking on the immensity of these topics.
Lent is strange. It comes around every year and partly because of this it creates tension and duality. Like any liturgical season, it has its protocol, its expected and even habitual elements – the smudge of ash, the fish-on-Fridays, the penitence and fasting and alms-giving and prayer. Its forty days derive from the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the forty days alone in the desert. Whatever we give up (or take on) as part of a holy observance, we are called (and expected) to deepen our faith by new encounters with our own limitations, our God, our place in relationship with others.
Some years, such expectation has visited upon me an unpleasant pressure – a kind of assumption that It’s That Time to Fix Ourselves Again. Get out the spackle and paint, so by the time Easter Sunday rolls around we’re shiny and new again. And next year, do it all over. If that’s all it was about, why would we still bother?
Here’s another thing I grapple with: during those forty days of Lent and the three days of the Triduum, we know what waits at the end. How does the knowledge of the feast inform our fast? Regardless of what we believe, we’ve heard the story. Does that limit our experience? Buffer us from what we’d rather not feel? We grieve when someone dies because they’ve died. How is that grief tempered, lightened even, when we’ve been told that three days later he won’t be dead anymore? Jesus may have said to his disciples that the Son of Man would “on the third day be raised again” (Luke 24:7), but that doesn’t mean they got it. After all, they hadn’t seen a resurrection before. And as for us, 2000 years later, how do we wear the sackcloth – not to mention the agony and betrayal of Gethsemane and the Via Dolorosa and the deep silence of that Saturday? How do we kneel at the cross on Good Friday full of sorrow with a shopping list for Easter dinner tucked into our pockets?
I’ve heard Palm Sunday sermons that ask us to join the women who gathered at the cross, who were watching, who saw where he was laid. Yes, absolutely – but aren’t we also called to see our role in Peter’s denial and the disciples’ falling asleep and the crowd’s calling for crucifixion? Nothing wrong with joining the women who gathered at the cross, but please let’s not forget the rest of what we did. And still do.
No one wants to suffer. We are a culture that makes The Habit of Happiness a best-seller. We are a people who demonize “them” while glorifying “us.” Such harm we do when we won’t look at suffering or acknowledge our role in causing as well as experiencing it. Lent, of course, does not mandate suffering. There’s much hubris and ego and pride in the sackcloth and the hair shirt.
The liturgies of Triduum don’t whitewash sorrow. I’ve always been mystified by the leap made in so many of the psalms – from despair and anger and questioning to confidence and trust. How does the psalmist get from “I am in trouble; my eye wastes away with grief,…my bones waste away” (psalm 31:7-8,10) to “as for me, I trust in You, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God’” (31:14-15)?
In the past, I’ve shut the psalm book, disappointed (disgusted, even) at what could be seen as an reaction against what’s hard and tough and painful. Last Sunday, however, during the Palm Sunday liturgy, the words of psalm 31 made me weep. Even in trouble and grief and sorrow – perhaps especially in them – we can find God. Or at least, God finds us.
I could not have written the previous sentence ten or perhaps even five years ago. So what changed? Perhaps the more apt question is not what but how? There’s no promise, anywhere trustworthy at least, that we won’t suffer. And here’s where I come back to story.
In planning an upcoming class at the Grotto, I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction, examining how stories I admire tackle tough topics. Last week, I picked up Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment, and found in it a story called “Prayer in the Furnace.” It ends with the following statement from a chaplain to a (deeply suffering) U.S. marine in Iraq:
“ ‘Twenty centuries of Christianity,’ I said. ‘You’d think we’d learn.’ I fingered the small cross. ‘In this world, He only promises we don’t suffer alone.’
“Rodriguez turned and spat into the grass. ‘Great,’ he said.”
No easy answers, and no abdication of suffering, either. Whatever story you listen to tonight, may it open you up.