For the past decade or so, Holy Week has been the highlight of my year… a time of worship, prayer and self-examination that culminates in the joy of Easter Morning.
This year, though, has been very different.. and as I reflect on the events of Easter Morning, I realize that my heart was grieving more than celebrating. Grief, on Easter, feels discordant. Nevertheless, it’s where I am. And… I venture to guess that I’m not alone.
Last evening, I finished reading Night by Elie Wiesel, the deeply moving story of a young teen who survived the Holocaust. He witnessed babies being thrown into the furnace; stood just inches from a young boy who was hanged; and watched soldiers play games by tossing bread crumbs into the middle of starving prisoners to watch them fight over them. He nearly suffocated underneath a pile of frozen bodies, somehow managing to claw his way through the naked and dead to a pocket of air. He watched his father die, he lost every member of his family, and he experienced the death of his own faith, in this haunting description:
Behind me, I heard a voice crying out, “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where — hanging here from this gallows…”
And so, on Easter Morning, I found myself grieving injustice and evil.
A few weeks ago, my mentor and dear friend lost his son… and although I never met him, his life and death have impacted me deeply. He led a remarkable life of complexity, of flawed greatness, of laser-sharp focus lived at breakneck speed, of persevering through chronic, debilitating illness while still being marked by it. He left a legacy of contributions to the medical world that would be astounding for a full lifetime but are absolutely incomprehensible for a life lasting only 38 years. But what has impacted me most deeply is the visibility of loss in his father… eyes that shine a little less brightly, because an integral part of his heart and soul has left.
And so, on Easter morning, I found myself grieving death and loss.
A couple of years ago, I was advised not to teach a Bible class that I’d prepared for two years to teach, because my scriptural interpretation and scientific understanding didn’t match up with our church’s policy statement on homosexuality. In the whole scheme of things, that’s a pretty puny bit of personal hardship… but it hurt me deeply. I was an officer, a respected 18-year member, a veteran teacher, and a physician… and I thought I’d earned the right to be heard. To allow students in my classes to make a prayerful decision based on their own biblical understanding, rather than “telling them what to believe.” Mostly, I thought I was family… with heart ties too strong to be broken by differences of opinion. But it didn’t work out that way.
And so, on Easter morning, in a different church and among different believers, I found myself grieving isolation and division.
It was early in today’s service that I realized something within me was different. As we sang the triumphant words, “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” — the words lodged in my throat.
Where is death’s sting? In the memory branded into a young teenager of an infant burning alive. In the heart of a father, whose son learned to manage the pain of his chronic illness before he learned to speak. In the soul of thousands of followers of Christ, whose childhood faith has died and who are slowly putting the pieces back together disenfranchised and alone.
And so, as darkness falls and Easter Morning transitions into Resurrection Night… I find myself asking a different question. Instead of a jubilant cry of “Death, where is your sting?” I instead find my heart asking, “Where is the Resurrection?”
And like the tiniest spark of light… like new shoots of growth emerging from barren land… I find some answers sprouting within my heart.
Resurrection is found in these timeless words of Elie Wiesel, in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech:
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe… I have faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and even in His creation.
Resurrection is found in the life of a grieving father, the depth of whose grief demonstrates the depth of his love. Who finds within himself the strength to continue to care for countless sick and vulnerable children whose lives have been entrusted to him… as well as the wisdom to leave work early when necessary, to weep and to rest. Who continues to laugh, to love, to teach, to learn, to grow… and in doing so, to allow his beloved son to live through him.
And resurrection is found within my own heart. The loss of comfort and security and familiarity has been replaced with a new understanding of beauty and grace and compassion and love. I see life and resurrection in the vulnerable and the outcast. I’ve experienced the death of the god of my own making… and find within me glimpses of a God too big to wrap my mind around. And within these tender shoots of rebirth is a resolve to live the words of Elie Wiesel… words that are eerily similar to the life of Christ:
I will not be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. I will align myself with the oppressed rather than the powerful. I will speak for those who are voiceless and stand for those who cannot. I will seek to give rather than to take; to lose in order to win; to die in order to live.
And so, in the darkness of Resurrection Night, I pray the timeless words that have surely been prayed by countless feeble humans like myself, all over the world and throughout the ages,
Lord, I believe… help my unbelief…
A blessed Easter to every person loved by God… which is every person.