I am sitting alone, quiet, in the candlelit chapel at St. Mary’s. It is morning on Good Friday, and I am observing “Watch” at the Altar of Repose, a ceremonial depiction of the hours the disciples spent watching and waiting in the garden just before the dawn when Jesus was arrested. I am wondering if this hour might pass far too quickly and am aware of the many feelings swirling around inside me. My grief distracts me, and I wonder how to focus on this observance. I tell myself the story of that night, hoping to bring into focus the events that I want to remember here today.
The disciples had just celebrated Passover with Jesus. This day, a lasting memorial, commemorated for them God’s great deliverance from their nation’s slavery in Egypt. They ate the festival meal and considered the traditional Seder symbols: salt water for tears; bitter herbs for the bitterness of their bondage; matzah, bread without time to rise, for the quickness with which they had to flee. They raised the shank of a lamb, the Passover Lamb, the symbol of salvation from that night of judgement. And they ate charoset, for the sweetness of the land of milk and honey that awaited them. They raised four cups of wine, blessing the Lord, the Ruler of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. The third cup, which followed dinner, was the Cup of Redemption.
But this Passover was different. Jesus took the opportunity to redefine the celebration, as rabbis could do from time to time. I imagine that after their festival meal, Jesus raised the afikomen, the matzah that was dessert, and broke it, saying:
From now on, as you observe Passover and remember God’s great deliverance, rather than looking back at your deliverance from Egypt, you will look back at this night, when an even greater deliverance is taking place. Instead of remembering freedom from Egypt, you will look back at this night, the night that bought your freedom from sin and death. This is my body, given for you.
And then he raised the third cup, the wine of redemption:
From now on, when you drink this cup, look back and remember me. This is my blood, shed on your behalf.
He was telling them in symbolic form that on this night their ultimate redemption was about to be bought—with his body and blood:
I am the Passover Lamb about to be sacrificed. The freedom won today is freedom from slavery to your brokenness, and the promise is real life, in a place where evil will be gone, banished forever, inside and outside of you. This is the beginning, the foundation, the main event, central in all of history, and it seals the promise. You thought God’s deliverance from Egypt was miraculous! And it was! But now turn your eyes to this deliverance; I am here to change the focus, to fulfill the metaphor. From now on, do this in remembrance of me.
I imagine they were scratching their heads a bit as this observance, full of change and foreboding, came to a close. Then Judas leaves, with Jesus’ full knowledge of what he was about to do. Jesus asks his remaining friends to go with him to the Garden of Gethsemane. Once there, he leaves them behind, saying to wait, watch, pray, for the hour is coming. Confused and weary, they fall asleep.
But Jesus goes to pray. And it was here in this garden that the wrenching, blood-for-sweat, tear-your-skin-off decision was made: Yes, Father, not my will, but yours be done. Dreading, pleading that it did not have to come this way—and yet finally the surrender, to God, his Father, whose goodness he trusted more than he feared the pain. And so he decided: Not my will but yours. And we were saved. In that moment of his decision to trust—we were freed.
This is the hour I am observing as I sit in the silence of St. Mary’s, watching and waiting at the Altar of Repose. As my hour comes to a close and the night’s candles are put out, the light dims before me but strengthens around me. Light from the windows says that night has passed, just as that night, that dreadful night, full of change and foreboding, moved into day. A darkening day it was, as he proceeded through arrest, mock trial, beating, and the noon hour approached when he was forced to drag a cross to the site of his execution. This was what he was saying “yes” to. This was what he was trusting for. He must have wondered, even as he moved relentlessly through his final hours: This? And so his prayer: Why have you forsaken me? And yet the Lamb went, speechless and exhausted, to the slaughter, knowing that the arms of God awaited. The bladelike arms of God.
I leave the church and walk into the daylight, grateful for this time of remembrance and reflection. I become aware that my grief is still with me, looming, as I consider the days ahead. Even as I prepare to celebrate the glorious triumph that followed these dark hours for Jesus, I am also called to walk through grief, mine and others’. We will also gather to remember the too-short life of the young man we have suddenly lost.
“The bladelike arms of God.”
Annie Dillard uses this phrase in Holy the Firm, a beautiful and searing book that explores the experience of suffering in light of God’s goodness. My grief recalls it; I am moved to remember it today. When a little girl, Julie Norwich, is severely burned in a freak and tragic accident, the author muses:
Julie Norwich is salted with fire. She is preserved like a salted fillet from all evil, baptized at birth into time and now into eternity, into the bladelike arms of God. For who will love her now, without a face, when women with faces abound, and people are so? People are reasoned, while God is mad….
It is true: we are each of us salted with fire as our illusion of life on our terms is revealed to us and expelled. I see it this week in the faces of the parents who just lost their young and delightful son, also to a freak and tragic accident, a blast that leaves a gaping hole in the middle of their dear family. The look is strangely familiar to me; it is a look I grew up with on the face of my own parents, who in 1958 lost their eight-year-old boy to leukemia, an experience which blasted a crater through their dreams about a good God blessing them with a happy family.
But this time, in 2005, death came with no warning. This young man, this son, this brother, this friend, one moment full of promise and plans, took one misstep and perished suddenly, without sound, without goodbye. Dillard continues:
People are reasoned, while God is mad. They love only beauty; who knows what God loves? …The world knew you before you knew the world. The gods in their boyish, brutal games bore you like a torch, a firebrand, recklessly over the heavens, to the glance of the one God, fathomless and mild….
It was God’s sovereign hand that took these young sons from our midst. Indeed, each of us is given a number of days to live by our Creator—and no more. Yet in the face of their disappearance from our lives, our days for grief are also numbered, counted by the God who “puts our tears in His bottle” [Psalm 56:8]. And we find ourselves in the garden, crying out to Him that it not have to be so.
We are each of us asked to enter this garden, where the choice will be made: Will we say “yes” to whatever may come from his hand, wishing with all our being that this cup might pass from us? And yet, hanging on to belief in the utter goodness of God and His purposes, we say, “Yes.” Faltering, wavering, stumbling, we work to say “yes” to the pain, to the grief, to the loss that is this life. Our lives are shattered in the wake of our grief. Yet this is the way of this fathomless God who is also mild, who “does not afflict willingly” [Lamentations 3:33], but with true compassion walks beside us, as we move forward, hesitant and uncertain, through the deep valley of our pain and confusion. This God became a man, a man who cried out in the garden, sweating blood in his agony. Yet it was here that the decision was made. And it is in the garden of our deep pain that we also decide.
This is also the hour in which we are asked to wait, to pray. We pray for the mother, for the father, for the brothers of this young man. We pray for his friends, his bride-to-never-be. It is too much. It is too hard. We must wait with those whose pain overwhelms us, not falling asleep or pushing it away, but embracing them, knowing our own frailty in the face of theirs. This is our calling to the body of Christ. This is our hour to show up.
Walking, stumbling forward in our pain, hanging on to the promise Jesus hung onto, willing to go wherever this might take us—to love boldly in the face of loss, to work for good when the evil around us appears to win. This is the scorching, purifying fire through which we walk toward home. And we follow Jesus, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross” [Hebrews 12:2]. And though it seems distant, joy awaits us; and we celebrate in triumph that Jesus rose from the dead. He has bought our transport, our deliverance from this final slavery, and God was pleased. God brought him back to life. Because He raised Jesus from the dead, we have hope. And this is the promise, the pledge, that He will bring us home, where we will at long last be welcomed, collapsing, safe and finished.