I know it is Easter. I know we are celebrating Resurrection. I’ll get around to that in a minute. But what has really been on my heart these past weeks is death, and how we respond to death. There has just been so much of it around here lately.
Jan Vennari lost her dad and her step-son within days of each other. I lost my cousin, Nate, whom I barely even had the chance to know. He was a casualty of drug addiction. Then, we lost two pillars of St. James in the space of ten days: Richard Matthews and Florence Chang. Like Jan’s dad, they had attained a good age, lived a full life, and died in peace. That doesn’t make us miss them any less. Mary Balmana’s son died last Sunday. Scott was way too young; another victim of addiction. Just this week, Blake Hallanan’s mother and my father-in-law died.
And there are those less recent, but very present losses. Last Sunday also was the third anniversary of Jill Bascom’s death. I always will think of her at Easter time: the closer she came to death, the more transparent she became to God’s love. These are just the losses I know about. I’m sure you can add others. Easter often reminds of those we love but see no more. The depth of our grief is a measure of our love, and while time may heal all things, we still have to move through it.
Off course, we can’t fail to remember, too, the death of Jesus. Holy Week, the Church’s great homage to suffering and death, never allows the scab to form over that wound. We keep picking at it again and again each year. Bound up with Jesus’ death is all the accumulated losses of our lives, all the suffering of the world. It is a lot to take in.
It is a lot to take in particularly this year, at this time in our common life. It is important for us to pause and pay attention to the amount of grief we are experiencing. Even if we didn’t know those who have died, or know them well, we are all part of one parish family. In any family system, the loss or addition of one member upsets the delicate equilibrium of the whole system. All of us are affected.
We all know this. It is no surprise that funerals and weddings, not to mention divorces and even births and adoptions, can be occasions for tremendous emotional volatility in families, with people sometimes responding to the change they are experiencing by behaving very badly. It can take time to descend beneath our denial, confusion, and anger to touch into our grief, and allow the healing that leads to reconciliation and new life. It takes time for the family system to achieve a new equilibrium.
Recognizing how fragile and vulnerable we are in our grief, we would do well to be especially gentle with one another at this time. Don’t take things personally. Assume good intentions on the part of one another. Ask for the help you need, and allow others to be there for you. We always need each other, but never more than when our world has been shaken, our hearts broken, and our lives forever altered. If we are willing to be forgiving and forbearing towards each other, to lean into our vulnerability a little more deeply, with God’s help we will get through this time together.
In the face of death, we need to return to the basics.
In her meditation on today’s Gospel story, Nancy Rockwell reminds us of how the experience of death brings us back to the basics, renewing our desire for the extraordinary ordinariness of life. Jesus’ Resurrection, according to Nancy, reveals that it wasn’t any different for him. Nancy writes,
[Jesus] wanted what we all want, when we’ve been through hell, looked death right in the eye and then come back. He wanted to go home. Just home, to the ordinary small things that are so comforting, so peaceful.
His desire for adventure was gone now, and also his taste for glory. Even his love for crowds had left him. Instead, he wanted the familiar. So he folded up his grave clothes and went outside and worked in the garden for a while.
Those folded clothes were the thing that convinced Peter. Jesus must have been a neatnik, at least by Peter’s standards, and he recognized that familiar touch in the grave clothes.
Mary found him working in the flowerbeds and wept when he said her name, but he hushed her, he said he had some more to do and asked her not to stop him.
Later he walked the Emmaus road, but instead of teaching them he listened, as they began to be the story-tellers, the interpreters of things.
The next morning he made breakfast for the men who’d gone fishing all night, lit a fire for them and had food cooking on the beach when they came ashore.
When someone dies, these are the things we all do, if we loved them. We fold up their clothes. And spend time in the garden they loved to tend. And walk where they often walked. And feed one another.
These really are the basics, I believe, the things we all want to get back to after something terrible has happened, when we are given the chance to go home.
This is one of the remarkable things about the Resurrection. With Jesus, the dead man himself shows us how to respond to death. Jesus goes back home to Galilee, where it all began, to be with this friends. They need to be there. Not to wallow in the past, with nostalgia for the glory days, but to grieve and let go and take comfort in each other. Jesus lights a charcoal fire, grills some fish and bread, and calls his friends to breakfast. When there is a death, the thing to do is go home, gather around the fire, start telling stories and share a meal.
That is what the Church does at the end of Holy Week. In response to Jesus’ death, we start the new fire at the Easter Vigil, light candles, and tell stories in the dark. Then we share a meal. And before you know it, there he is again, the dead man showing us how to live beyond death. Death can’t define Jesus. And it need not define us.
This gathering to remember isn’t always easy, but it is the pathway through death to freedom and joy: to Resurrection life with Jesus. The difficulty and hope of the work of grieving is symbolized by the charcoal fire in John’s telling of the story. Such a fire appears only twice in the New Testament, both times in John’s Gospel.
The first time it appears in the courtyard of the high priest, where Jesus is being taken for the trial that will lead to his crucifixion. Peter slips into the courtyard to see what will happen, and gathers around the charcoal fire that the slaves and the police had started to keep warm outside. It is around this fire that Peter denies Jesus three times.
The charcoal fire appears again on the beach where the Risen Lord is cooking breakfast for seven of his friends. I wonder what must have crossed through Peter’s mind as he approached that fire! There stood the teacher and friend he had abandoned – how wonderful and how terrifying. Peter could not have helped but remember how he had failed Jesus, wishing he had done things differently the last time they were together around a charcoal fire, fearing what his dead friend must think of him now.
When we gather around the fire to remember, we bring all our baggage with us. Things done and left undone. The guilt and regret over roads taken and not taken. We may even feel responsible for the death of our beloved, or filled with anger at others for treating our beloved badly, maybe even blaming them for his or her death. We may have ambivalent feelings toward the person who died. Death sometimes comes before we’ve gotten to all our unfinished business.
Death may leave us feeling anger and regret. It may simply be too painful to bear, the loss so devastating that we are tempted to deny it, throwing ourselves into work or some other compulsive activity, trying to pretend nothing has changed. It isn’t always easy to gather around the fire and remember.
It wasn’t easy for Peter. He must have wondered what this meeting around the charcoal fire will be like. Will Jesus come to him as an accusing judge? “If only you hadn’t abandoned me, none of this would have happened.” Would he demand an apology or punish him in some way?
Jesus, the dead man who shows us how to respond to death, doesn’t appear around the charcoal fire to accuse or blame or punish. Instead, he asks a simply question that cuts right through all of Peter’s baggage and gets right to the heart of the matter: “Do you love me?”
Grieving is about moving through the fear and pain and regret and blame to discover the deepest truth: we are connected by a deathless love that holds us in life – always and forever. In death, life is changed, not ended. Everything is forgiven (not by being forgotten, but by being remembered, integrated, and accepted) and we are welcomed back home to begin again because in the end, nothing else matters but love.
If we are willing to follow the thread of grief all the way to the bottom, we will find love waiting for us there. We will find Jesus waiting for us there, reminding us that this love is the truest thing about us, exhorting us to care for each other (feed my sheep), and gently reminding us that we all will eventually be led by others where we do not wish to go: through death’s door. Then, others will gather around a charcoal fire in their grief, telling stories about us, only to find us waiting there with Jesus, our arms wide open, assuring them that only love matters. Then they, too, will know the freedom and joy of the Resurrection.