Memorial

18 months ago my brother died. On Sunday we remembered him with a memorial service. I was surprised by how uplifting it was. By the effect of being with others who knew and loved him and had supported our family. He would have loved it.

The clean break is the easiest.

The slow, progressive wrenching break is much harder. Our family is enduring one now in the form of recently diagnosed terminal illness. When my brother died suddenly it was weirdly easy to find words, to analyse and reconcile and comfort and celebrate. But I am silent before that which is ongoing and visible, and which I am powerless to stop.

All the emotions which flared and then faded into acceptance at the news of my brother’s death continue to flow from this new wound; anger, confusion, sorrow, regret, fear, to name just a few. I am afraid to spend time with the sufferer, afraid of adding somehow to the pain, ashamed to have nothing to offer, desperate to make it all better but knowing I can’t. I searched for something meaningful to say but found nothing. I heard myself talk but the words were not connected to my heart, which was simply breaking. Wordless. I prayed, feeling that if I had anything to offer it was this. I don’t know if it even made sense. Somehow that didn’t seem to matter.

I’m sure these emotions will fade into acceptance too. Over time. But learning to live with dying feels like stumbling into a whole new landscape.

He is risen. Indeed.

A lot can happen in 7 days. (Okay, 8, since I’m a day late). It’s just over a week since Good Friday, the annual remembrance of Jesus’ death. After this the biblical account of Jesus’ life becomes bizarre and improbable, reporting that the so very publicly executed young rabbi has been seen alive, and convincingly enough to transform his frightened followers into bold public preachers willing to face arrest.

I would like to say that my belief in the events of this week in history has been similarly life-changing, but the truth is more banal and frightening. I am still not the fired-up evangelist I imagine I should be. I haven’t, for example, given away my possessions and become a missionary in some inhospitable part of the world that hasn’t heard of Jesus.

I suspect that the years I’ve spent hand-wringing about this may be a cover for the fact that my mission field lies somewhat closer to home, in a culture where Jesus Christ is unknown, superseded by the knit-your-own-if-you-must approach to matters of faith. It would be easier for me to assume a mask of piety as a stranger in a foreign land than to keep the show on the road and show some ongoing integrity with my peers.

A week ago, as I re-imagined the horror of the disciples at the sudden, shocking death of Jesus, I felt a new edge to my sadness, a different kind of despair I suppose about the effects and scope of damage and pain caused by sin, by our rejection of God. But then three days after this bleak disappointment came the commemoration of Easter Sunday with its apparently ridiculous reports of resurrection. The gospels report that Jesus appeared a number of times to those first followers. Sorrow became joy. Fear became courage. A new religion was born.

There are times when contemplating the suffering, dying Christ has a certain passive nobility which fixes us in the agony at the expense of the glory. It can be easier to deal with the suffering since we are all familiar with that to some degree in our own lives. But it all goes a bit quiet for most of us after Easter morning. Once the chocolate’s been eaten and church goes back to normal, we get on with our lives, finding it easier to forget that He is still living His. It’s uncomfortable to deal with the living Christ because he doesn’t lie still and keep quiet, like some illicit lover hiding under the bed; he requires us to declare his presence, tip out all other competitors for our devotion, and allow him free reign over our lives. Dead deities are easier.

As the apostle Paul writes to the early church, I am, like all Christians, an ambassador for the Kingdom of God. A kingdom whose ruler is very much alive, well and active in the lives of his subjects. At this stage, a great part of my mission may simply be to live free of the anxieties, hang-ups and neuroses that have dogged me since I was a child, to embrace my life and my Source without fear. That may be groundbreaking in its own way, as the power which is enabling me to do what I cannot do for myself is the same power which raised Christ from death and proved that all things are indeed possible.

 

Friday. Good.

I’ve always wondered about the connection between Easter and chocolate. Let me not even get started on the man-size bunny that supplies eggs. Where I live now, in Australia, the spring theme of Easter at the beginning of autumn just adds to the strangeness. At the same time, it’s good to break out of the seasonality of the Christian calendar. The commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is relevant in all seasons, everywhere.

Whatever you make of it, this single execution some 2000 years ago is still news. Controversial, life-changing news for tens of millions. The danger for people like me who grew up in church and have heard the Easter story countless times is to let it wash over us a bit. Crucifixion is a horrible way to die, by anyone’s standards, and to become de-sensitised to it is to risk missing the enormity of what Jesus did.

Maybe to guard against that I have heard a fair few preachers deliver gory crucifixion sermons over the course of my life, doing in words what Mel Gibson did in pictures in his film The Passion of The Christ; it took me years to bring myself to watch it as my own imagination had already supplied plenty of footage, but I was glad when I eventually did.

My lent preparation for this weekend of commemoration, my phase of not complaining, really came out of a desire to get to an authentic gratitude, acceptance and humility before God. Not because I’m superspiritual (a casual browse of this blog will tell you that) but because that’s what God deserves.

Recognising a power greater than myself is not alien. My life, and yours, is full of authority figures, ranging from parents through teachers to bosses. I didn’t prostrate myself before any of these, but it is right and apt that I should do so before God. All the more so when the events of Easter remind me that He actually entered history and let himself be judged and killed by the very people he had created.

This morning in church we had a dramatic reading of the arrest and trial of Jesus. As usual in many churches, we in the congregation were the crowd who had to shout out at various times, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ It’s always powerful, and uncomfortable, to hear ourselves implicated in his death. A few days earlier, a crowd had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as a king. Now a different, or perhaps not so different, crowd were baying for his blood. Perhaps they felt he had betrayed them, sold them short, not given them what they wanted – a great political leader to overthrow the occupying Romans. Sometimes I might still feel something like that. I didn’t get what I wanted or hoped for. And so I reject him. I am disappointed that he hasn’t taken the world by storm, stopped evil dead in its tracks instead of relying on people, weak and flawed as we are, to let him work through us.

But then I remember that Sunday’s coming. And that though the crowd had the power to put him to death, it could not keep him dead.  And if we believe, we are also implicated in this resurrection. Rising from death.  The ultimate victory. The fresh start. New life. He had to die so that he could rise. So that we could rise. That surely makes this Friday the start of something good.

Happy Easter