The Heart of the Desert and the Threshold of Easter

The two days before Easter -- Good Friday and Holy Saturday -- are at the heart of the desert.  And at the center of this is the Friday night service, when the death of Jesus is commemorated.  We gather and hear readings and song, and listen to a strange story from long ago with archetypical contours: of a promising cultural hero and religious figure who is betrayed, captured by a corrupt and violent power, and tortured and killed.  His followers are left desolate, his family with no hope.

Jesus, the hope of the oppressed, is dead.  Let’s pause at this moment to understand the experience of his followers, the experience of those in despair and suffering in the world, and our own experience of desolation.  The temptation is to shift to Easter to avoid this reckoning.  One classic hymn “glories” in the “old rugged cross” and its “wondrous attraction”.  It asserts that Jesus’ betrayal, torture, and death have a meaning, so that one day we will be called “to my home far away.”   

But in these two days before Easter, and in the structure of the Good Friday evening service, we hear the readings again,  but the story stops when Jesus is dead.  Then we leave the service in silence, with awkward nods of the head to other silent participants, and walk out alone into the evening.  All is lost. The person we thought was God-with-us is gone, dead.  There is scant doctrine that can help us when we face this night.  It is a mystery beyond understanding, and can only be grasped by our experience of the grief, by our reluctant tears. 

 
“For tears are like rain, heaven’s tears, now a cloudburst from a pregnant sky or from despair’s cumuli, when the sluices of the eye and of the heavens open, now a mild and gentle spring rain, yet no rain is as fruitful as tears...”        
-- Søren Kierkegaard

                                         

 
  For tears are like a gentle spring rain - a welcome refreshment in the desert.               (Photo: Almut Furchert)   

For tears are like a gentle spring rain - a welcome refreshment in the desert.              (Photo: Almut Furchert)

 

This night is at the heart of the Desert Elders teaching.  In the comprehensive collections of saying and stories, they are often seen weeping. But these tears rarely show in the popular selections.  Weeping, sadness and grief are out of fashion as a religious experience.  We prefer to be spiritual.  And by doing so, we miss the opportunity to grasp our full humanity.  For we often are abandoned, we do lose hope, we grieve.

This Saturday is a threshold in the church year, and we should pause here within the threshold before crossing it.  All of our humanity is gathered together in this neglected Saturday, suspended in the architecture of time. Sorrow for our loss, limitation, and failure but also the hope for the next day, and the joy that awaits us.  It will be a different joy, with a different resonance in our lives, if we can remember this Saturday well. 

A Practice of Remembering Those Who Sorrow

I invite you on this Saturday into a practice of remembering those who sorrow.  You might see it as a prayer for a suffering person.  A Buddhist might see it as lovingkindness meditation.  But all of us can pause to remember a specific person who is suffering.  It may be someone in your family, or even someone you have read about in the newspaper.  Do not choose an abstract group (the poor), but some real person. Then practice a quiet contemplation of that person. 

Sit silently and practice breathing for a few moments, and then bring that person to mind in loving memory.  Remember them in their fullness and detail, and remember the sorrow, grief, or despair that consumes them. Pray for them and their sorrow, or hold them in loving contemplation.   

Then return to practice of the breath and compassion. 

Throughout this day, return to this person in your thoughts, and use the day to remember them.  You might even write them to say you are thinking of them.  Then, when tomorrow you come into Easter, bring them to mind again in that joy. 

What to do with Passion Week? Or: Blessed are those who mourn