The darkest day

Holy Week is usually one of my favorite, most distinctive weeks of the year. I did not grow up going to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services – I’m not sure why that wasn’t part of our faith tradition, but it wasn’t. For a generally cheerful person, I’ve always had a soft spot for candelight and minor keys. And Holy Week is full of contemplative music, hard realities and truths that you don’t really want to hear but desperately need to. In a usual Holy Week, I would have been at church Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday & Good Friday (and probably practiced trumpet for Easter at all of them!)

This year is, of course, different. This year, there was no sitting in a darkening sanctuary listening to the 7 Last Words of Christ and watching the light in the parking lot flicker, as I have every single year for two decades. There were no Taize pleadings to Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom”. The days and weeks have begun to blur together in a sameness only relieved by the gradual, gorgeous unfolding of spring.

But even in a normal Holy Week, there is always this Saturday. Today was actually bright and fair, with brisk winds and waxing sunlight, budding trees, vibrant forsythia and the burgeoning promise of a world soon to bloom. There was little dark about it, other than the day’s statistics on the number of dead mowed down by this novel virus. But today, in the liturgical calendar, is the worst day. Worse, maybe even than Good Friday. In the Easter story, today is the day after Jesus died, while his body lay unprepared in a tomb that wasn’t his. It was the day when the disciples and the women woke up – if they slept at all that night – to a world where hopes had turned to ashes. This day abounded in the bitterness of betrayal: Judas’s betrayal (another unburied body). The betrayal of all the plans. They MUST have thought on this day that Jesus could not possibly be who they hoped he was. He was dead, and the Messiah had not yet brought liberation to the people of Israel. They must have felt sick – how much of what he had taught was true and reliable? How much of their sacrifice had been worthwhile? Had they thrown their lives away on just another pretender? And … what exactly was going to happen next? Were they going to follow him to a criminal’s execution? Would anyone be left to be the son to Mary?

Of all the many dark days whose story is painted in the Bible, this Sabbath might be the very darkest. Hope was irrevocably lost. The worst had well and truly happened. The body was cold. More was likely on the way.

It feels a bit like that now, in this pandemic time. All through January and February, watching the headlines, I thought that this virus would burn itself out or be contained, just like SARs or MERs were – or stay distantly awful like Ebola. Like the apostles – or even Jesus himself in Gethsemane – I hoped that this would once again pass us by. But here we are, locked in our homes, in fear and in shock that our world can be so abruptly transfigured. Fear crawls on the back of astonishment, worrying us about how much worse this will become. Will it be my parents who die? Or me? Will I still have a job? Will this be the next great depression? Of all the people I know and love, who will die and be counted in the daily statistics tallied at 3 pm by the governor? When will I venture onto Facebook and learn that I will never again see someone? Or worse, when will that phone call come through that isn’t just a “How are you doing?”

We are in the deep darkness of the Saturday after Good Friday, friends.

But. There would be no Christianity and no Christians if the story really ended as badly as it appears to – if there were no chapters after “So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” There was real loss on that Saturday. Judas. Jesus as a living man. Mary never again held her son. The world was never the same again. But in this dark hour, let us remember the Easter story, that out of this darkest of days arose a new hope, so powerful as to reshape the entire world for the next 2000 years. Even death was not the end to this story, as it will not be the end to ours.

Tomorrow, when we rise to pancakes and baskets, we may feel like our cries of “He is Risen” are hollow. Like Easter itself is diminished under our collective grief and fear. But that’s just the thing about Easter, my friends. Without Good Friday and Holy Saturday, it’s just a confection – full of sugar and without sustaining substance. The power comes when we have despaired, and sat with our grief. Then we can truly become part of a world made new, in ways that we could not even imagine possible on Palm Sunday.

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Though much is taken, much abides

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I was running when my watch buzzed with a message from my brother, “Y’all seeing the fire at Notre Dame?”. At first I thought of the Fighting Irish. But the link, which I did not stop my pace to read, was from the BBC in Europe. So the other Notre Dame. I’ve been heart-sore lately.Good exercise on a day when the world was contemplating renouncing the despair of winter for the hopeful enthusiasm of spring was meant to be a brief panacea. I tried to put the fire out of mind (hoping it was minor) and focus on the daffodils.

Running through the well-kept houses and lawns of wealthy Winchester, I reminded myself how amazing our civilization is. It is so much easier to destroy than build. But there is so much more built than not. What a great weight of effort lay behind every vista. And to the pounding rhythm of my slow pace, the words came back to me: Though much is taken, much abides

I find myself greatly consoled by remembered poetry. You’d think that this would mean I spend more time reading and memorizing poetry, but humans are not so sensible. We do not always invest in the things that offer us the greatest returns. We do not avoid the things that bring us harm. But this poem is not one I’ve read. It is, instead, a poem that a friend has memorized. I remember one bright night, when we were all younger than we are now, when we went together to see a play – a musical. We all agreed that it was quite possibly the worst performance any of us had ever seen. But walking back together through the streets of Boston, through swirling mist and halogen light, he recited all of Ulysses to the city sky. I’ve likely heard him say this poem 20 times in our years of friendship. So it is unsurprising for me to hear it in his voice. My friend’s voice assures me, much abides.

When I returned from my run and saw the pictures of the flames, I thought nothing could survive. What was built over centuries and endured for longer centuries would be wiped out in the slow course of my 5k jog. I was comforted only by the memory of that poetry. “Much abides” I reminded myself. And indeed, from the implausible wall of flames much more was recovered – largely because of human planning, care and expertise – than I dared hope for. The windows remain. The bees remain. The gothic walls and buttresses were designed independent of the roof, so the one could fall while the others held. I read an amazing response (which I cannot now find) by a medievalist who long studied the cathedral at Reims. The scholar talked with great hope about how the Medieval architects had learned so much (from hard experience) about how cathedrals burned that they had built new ones to withstand conflagration. The churches were designed to burn, but yet abide. And looking at what remains in the rubble in Paris, that seems true. How clever we are, we humans, when we put our minds to resilience and preservation. How foresightful we can be, and have been. Much abides.

Today, as I write, it is Holy Saturday. Last night, I went to Good Friday services – my favorite of the year. There’s no sugar coating harsh truths on Friday night. We put ourselves in the place of the false accusers, the cowardly arresters, the sleepy and scared friends who fail at the first test. We speak of beatings and mockery and spears and nails in the flesh. We listen to a dying man make fun of another dying man. There’s no place on Good Friday for looking away or softening. I think it’s no coincidence that rarely are children present that night. (Although I was very, very glad that my youngest son joined me, for the first time. I’m not sure my children will be able to understand my faith if they never worship with me on Good Friday.) On this Friday night – and on the long Saturday that follows – we live in a reality where God himself has died and we cannot see how anything can ever be okay again. Hope is lost, and all that remains is cleaning up and moving on.

Of course, there’s always the rest of that story. I usually practice my Easter hymns on Good Friday (which feels like cheating, but practice you must!) Beyond hope, hope arrives. There is redemption for the failed and weak. There is forgiveness. Although there is also real loss – Judas is never forgiven. I sometimes wonder if he would have been, if he’d chosen repentance over despair.

As we look to rebuild Notre Dame, and the black southern churches destroyed by a hateful arsonist, I am reminded of another phrase caught in my mind lately, from Isaiah:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:12

As I looked for the right words to close my thoughts, my pastor posted a poem by her favorite poet, whose title caught my eye. I leave you friends, with a new poem. May it be a consolation. For much abides.

What Abides, What Returns

Three cheers for Marmee!*

My mom has come out to visit. I know Holy Week might seem an odd time for a pastor to be a continent away, but Spring Break coincided with Holy Week this year and she is also a teacher, and so she came! My father is coming out in a week or two. My mother-in-law is coming out towards the end of April when I am going to FRANCE (and Amsterdam) for WORK with an agenda that has a bullet point for WHITE ASPARAGUS SEASON. This whole work thing is going fantastically, if you ask me.

Anyway, it’s sort of feast or famine with help for us. For reasons I’m still attempting to work out, our relatives are less inclined to visit us in February? Why on earth do people not feel downright DRAWN to New England in February? The mind boggles.

But it’s been awesome having my mom around. I sometimes feel guilty for how hard it is not to take my mom’s time and help for granted. Like of course she’ll make me my favorite cinnamon rolls. And of course she’ll get up with the kids so I can sleep in. She’s my MOMMY. She’ll take care of me FOREVER. And then I think about 27 years from now, when I’ll be where she is now, and wonder if I’ll be so gracious. It’s a sobering part of parenthood to remember that everything you expect from your parents, your children should have a right to expect from you. Do you hold your folks and yourself to the same standard? I hope my husband and I can live up to the ones set for us!

She took the kids on Sunday, after church, so my husband and I could be cultured dilettantes. We went to the Museum of Fine Arts, courtesy of a neighbor who gave us tickets. We wandered the dim remains of The Secrets of Tomb 10A and marveled at the items which have traveled so very far through time and space to arrive before us. We ate overpriced pastry at an artistic table and drank cappuccino and no one interrupted us. Then we had dinner in Cambridge, followed by an evening of gaming and hanging out with friends. We didn’t get home until late. It was AWESOME.

I think a little more concerted attention, as well as the final arrival of his in-process molars, has really helped Thane. He’s developed a deep and abiding love of apples. You wouldn’t think such a little guy with so few teeth would be able to eat an entire apple, leaving nothing behind, but you would be wrong. “Appa! Appa! Appa!” Happily, it also keeps him occupied while a grownup type person cooks dinner. It will be interesting to see if he’s permanently leaving the “Cling to mom’s leg and weep while she prepares dinner” stage behind, or if he’s just taking a hiatus with it while he has Grandmama to shower attention on him. He has started talking a mile a minute. I was trying to remember if this was 18 month old standard, or if it’s Thane-specific. The nice ladies at daycare comment on it nearly every day, though, so I’m thinking Thane specific. One of his favorite phrases is “E-I-E-I-O”, which means exactly what you think it means.

Grey is just full of awesome. I LOVE LOVE LOVE 4 years old. He’s so much FUN. The imagination is off full tilt. The knock-knock jokes rise to new levels of zany. He’s solicitous and loving. He’s finally ceasing to NEED the naps that he dropped nearly a year ago, so is less tired. He remembers everything, and we start to get precious glimpses of his life without us. [DIGRESSION: including the fact, which we’d completely missed, that they don’t heat up his lunch at preschool. They do for Thane, so I ASSUMED they were warming Grey’s lunches of soups and casseroles which all were designed to need heating. But no. Cold spaghetti. Cold potato casserole. Cold everything. NO WONDER he didn’t eat his lunches. I wouldn’t like cold macaroni and cheese either! So after a bit of foaming at the mouth followed by a bout of self-recrimination I took the blessed opportunity of another grownup in the household to run to Target and buy thermoses. Star Wars themed. Because I pay attention to the patter, which now has a strong, if ill-informed Star Wars bent. “Did you know that Annakin cut of Dark Vader’s head?!?!?” /END DIGRESSION] Grey plays these wild, imaginative games with other kids. Yesterday one of his friends came over and they disappeared and were playing games with shifting rules defined by parameters grownups can’t possibly imagine. Delightful. With me, in the blessed space cleared by mom making dinner, Grey and I turned into Annakin and Luke Skywalker, with Thane playing a surprisingly convincing R2-D2. There were laser noises and epic light-saber battles up the stairs. Even Thane got into the laser-noise action, bopping around saying “pew pew pew!”

And after the truly epic deluge of the last week, today the sky has emerged washed clean. The lawns are greening up. The forsythia is out in shocking yellow to color-deprived eyes. My hyacinth waft perfume on the afternoon breeze as I return to my home in daylight. I will not be TOO cold in my Easter dress this Easter, for possibly the first time EVER. And the Easter Bunny has brought some fun stuff for two little boys. I’m in an Easter spirit and frame of mind, this Good Friday.

Anyway, there – sans thesis statement of unifying theme – is what’s up with me lately. How about you?

*Bonus points if you catch the reference