Content Warning: Stillbirth
Yesterday was Good Friday. Instead of working on a sermon or reading scripture to follow Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, I spent hours on the phone with my elderly mother, trying to help her master Zoom technology. The hours felt as sacred as any Good Friday observance.
I want my mother to be able to see the faces of her family members all at once, to feel our love and support. Like many frail elderly people, she is in a facility, sequestered to a room, no longer able even to take meals with others. It does not surprise me that she is bearing up well. Being 91, she was born into the Great Depression and is tougher than she looks.
Also living in a facility, is my mother-in-law. At least she was until Thursday, when she was admitted to the hospital. This year April 10 was not only Good Friday, it was also my mother-in-law’s 87th birthday. She — and all of us — are waiting on the results of a Covid test. She has used supplemental oxygen for a decade, but we’re hoping and praying that all she has right now is pneumonia.
This is the time to think about the veil between life and death. The three days — the Triduum — include the day of darkness, this Holy Saturday when Jesus is entombed and the women and disciples are shut away to observe a Shabbat that surely challenged every belief they had ever cherished.
Perhaps this quarantine is creating a similar spiritual experience for all of us. That is not an entirely bad thing. We can contemplate the reality of life and death, and why it matters whether or not we believe in the resurrection.
Ever since the virus upended life, the collision of societal suffering and personal suffering has been intense. Just two weeks ago a friend of mine discovered that the baby she’d been carrying for 34 weeks had died in utero. Despite fears of contagion, she had to go to a hospital to deliver him. I prayed for the people attending her, just as I have prayed each day for hospital workers around the globe. In a text message I told her to be sure to ask for whatever she needed. Many of us women find that difficult, having been trained to care for others. So I reminded my friend that in the delivery room she was Queen.
What I wanted to say, of course, was less trivial. I wanted to acknowledge that she, and she alone would deliver this baby. Only one person manages the passageway from womb to life, just as a person travels alone from life to death. But I couldn’t use that three-legged dog of a metaphor. My friend was not ushering her son from womb to life, but from death there to death here. I weep for both of them.
I weep for all of us who are helpless in the face of death, an oncoming force we cannot control, despite our best efforts. Death, like the virus, is as real — and invisible — as the breath I am using to dictate these words into my phone.
I’ve escaped for an hour to a piece of woods a couple miles from my home. The gate is still open, for which I’m grateful. As I began my walk I caught the movement of three deer among trees on the other side of a meadow. I watched them watch me, wary. A bluebird flitted from a branch to ground and back again, like an unexpected bit of blue sky dropping down to earth. Later I heard the call of a pileated woodpecker, as sharp and insistent as a war cry, soon followed by percussive drumming. Her red head flashed as she flew through the words. I was a spectator, mired to the ground, watching a bit of drama among the trees.
I will have to let these glimpses sustain me — the wariness of white tails, the impossibility of blue feathers, the regal flight of a red head. Each is beautiful, yet no more permanent than I am. Than you are. Each is completely beyond our creation or control. The virus and the resulting quarantine is forcing us to face realities that are guttural, that can gut us.
On Sunday Christians will celebrate the resurrection. All week my Facebook page has featured clergy arguing whether or not it’s permissible to have a drive in worship service on Easter. The conversation is less civil than usual, which some people complain about. But I understand. Emotions are running high. My own contributions have been blunt. I suggested that we publicly shame churches having any sort of gathering at all, even in cars. Others have referred to those who do as having “blood on their hands.” They’re right. The virus will not stop spreading because it’s Easter Sunday.
Pastors must convey the gospel message of hope. And at Easter there are expectations! But to celebrate the resurrection, some pastors are brazenly defying death, which is faithless and foolish. As a pastor, I denounce these actions. Why tempt our congregants to get out of their cars, for “just a minute.” One thing I’m sure of is that Jesus will be risen, no matter where we are, so let’s just let that be.
All of us need to take a moment. If the virus has given anything, it is the need, and the opportunity, to take a moment — to be open to beauty that is beyond us; to reach out, from a distance, to those we love; to sit with mortality, our own and each others’. In other words, to rest in Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.
This Holy Saturday is not a day of triumph, not yet, though we often rush to pluck Easter eggs from the grass while Jesus is still in the tomb, as if the disciples and the women had known all along that Jesus would reappear, as if the perfectly calibrated rhythms of Christendom’s liturgy were always a done deal. But they were not. The women and the disciples didn’t know what was to come.
This year, perhaps for the first time in our collective history, we are living through something that approaches that first Easter. I wish you well as you navigate the darkness and the dawn.