Tag Archives: Easter

Leaving my losses at the foot of the cross

Jesus-sorrows-healing

In the early 1980’s. while working at University Lutheran Church at the University of Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to go on a Palm Sunday weekend retreat with the Taize brothers from Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. I felt privileged to be among this group of pilgrims preparing for Holy Week. The retreat house was in rural Maryland, and signs of spring were all around us.

The small chapel where the brothers led us in Taize prayer services was dominated by a large wooden cross, and we were invited to meditate on the cross.

I remember sitting in front of the cross on Saturday afternoon and imagining the scene on the day Jesus died. I imagined Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalen (my patron saint) at the foot of the cross, overcome with sorrow, crying out in anguish. In my imagination, I joined them at the foot of the cross and looked up at the dying Jesus. I gasped at the sight of Jesus in agony.

As I sat with Mary and Mary Magdalen, I joined in their questioning the scene before them. Poor Mary, recalling the prophesy of Simeon that her heart would be pierced. How right he had been!

Poor Mary Magdalen, losing the only man she truly loved, the man who had given her hope and loved her into wholeness.

How could this be? Where was God in all this? How could God abandon Jesus and us?

Even though Jesus had suggested bad things would happen in Jerusalem, we had no idea he meant this bad. I wondered how I had missed the signs, how I had misinterpreted what Jesus had been saying. How blind I had been, how comfortable in my denial.

As we watched Jesus dying and heard him cry out to God in his abandonment, my heart broke, and I wept along with Mary and Mary Magdalen.

Tears streamed down my face as I thought of the losses in my own life, of times when things did not go as I had hoped, of unmet expectations and crushed dreams. I joined Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalen in the depths of despair. I questioned God’s love and care for me.

And then, one of the Taize brothers approached me and gently invited me to lay my burdens at the foot of the cross. “Lay them down,” he said, “and walk away.” He told me to trust that Jesus would take up whatever was weighing me down.

What? Just let go of the hurts I had been carrying around for so long? Let go of those losses that had shaped me? Those painful events that I had survived and carried as a badge of honor?

The brother sensed my hesitancy, my resistance, and reminded me of the resurrection. God did come through. God is faithful.

By the time we left that retreat house on Sunday afternoon, I felt ready to enter Holy Week, believing that God’s love would transform my sorrow into resurrection joy.

Originally published in Manresa Matters, Spring 2022.

Taking Risks

The other day, my dog did something she has never done before—she ran out the front door and onto the lawn. I was shocked and shouted, “Get back in the house.” Instead, she ran halfway down the drive and then headed toward the back yard.

She reminded me of a child at the shore of a lake or the ocean, testing the waters with tentative steps, and then seeing a wave rolling in, running back to the safety of the shore.

Seeking safety and a solid foundation is something most of us know instinctively. We tend to crave security.

But Jesus calls us to put out into the deep… (Luke 5:4), which is the opposite of seeking safety.

God-vulnerability-faith

Taking risks and trusting that Jesus will be there to catch me when I fall can be a challenge—whether the risk is large or small.

During this Easter season, I have been pondering how my life compares to the early Christians. Am I on fire with the excitement of the resurrection? Am I bringing things to life (as Peter brought people back to life)? Am I spreading healing, hope and forgiveness? Am I witnessing to the restorative power of love?

I am trying to be open to how God is calling me to spread Easter joy.

One recurring thought is about unity and the way I relate to Christians of other denominations. Am I curious about how others practice their faith? Am I respectful of the ways that other Christians live out their faith and mindful that we are all seeking the same God?

I have been trying to be more conscious of my reactions to how others express their faith.

God-vulnerability-faith

Then, while driving to a nearby park for a walk last week, I heard a piece on the radio about the beginning of Ramadan. The interviewer asked what the appropriate greeting is for someone observing Ramadan. What is the Muslim version of Merry Christmas? Among the list of greetings was Happy Ramadan.

Just minutes after I arrived at the park, I noticed a woman wearing a hijab, a head scarf worn by Muslim women.

Maybe God is calling me to be mindful not just of Christians seeking God, but also to a deeper awareness of people of other faiths.

As we walked laps around the park, I wondered if I could muster the courage to wish this woman a Happy Ramadan.

I had said hello, but acknowledging her faith seemed to be crossing a line. I was afraid—would I say the wrong thing? Could acknowledging her faith somehow be offensive?

I watched her walk out of the park.

But then, feeling like Phillip running to the Ethiopian in the carriage (Acts 8:29-30), I ran up to the woman and asked if it was ok to wish her Happy Ramadan. She smiled broadly. “Yes, yes,” she said. “Thank you so much!”

She seemed happy, and I was grateful that I was able to step out of my comfort zone.

Easter joy

Every year for Lent, my parish distributes a daily reflection booklet that begins with a “plan your Lent” section. We are encouraged to spend some time with God discerning which Lenten disciplines will help us grow closer to God. Over the course of the forty days, there are reminders to check back on our “plan” to see if we are on track or if the plan needs to be tweaked.

That booklet is followed by an Easter version, with daily reflections for the fifty days of the Easter season. But there is no “plan” involved.

I recently read an article that suggested we Catholics are very good at Lent—the whole world can see our ashes to start the season and we share openly what we are giving up, etc.

But how are we at celebrating Easter? Can the world see that something has happened which makes us incredibly joyful and celebratory? Are we different because of Easter?

God-faith-prayer

For most of my twenties, I lived in southern Virginia, a minority Catholic in a sea of Southern Baptists. A woman from work once took me to a revival, where the preacher spent a fair amount of time talking about Catholics. That seemed a bit odd to me because I could not recall ever hearing a Catholic priest talk about Southern Baptists.

This preacher wanted his audience to know that Catholics did not believe in the resurrection and were, therefore, not saved.

Afterward, I asked my companion why the preacher thought Catholics did not believe in the resurrection.

“Crucifixes,” she said.

What?

She explained that having crosses with the body of Christ still on them was proof that Catholics did not believe in the resurrection.

That memory returned to me as I pondered this article about how Catholics celebrate Easter and made me question my own response to the resurrection.

The disciplines of Lent are so clear—prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But what marks the Easter season?

Reflecting on the past two weeks, I can honestly say that I have not been singing Alleluia every day, and I doubt that anyone would say I have been more joyful these past two weeks or that there is any discernible difference in me.

Why is that? And what would need to change to make this time more joyful?

Throughout the Easter season, we hear stories of the early Church community, about how Jesus’ disciples preached boldly and cured the sick. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how these super-excited Christians prayed together and cared for one another, sharing everything they had and being especially mindful of those most vulnerable among them.

Perhaps prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the disciplines of Easter, but instead of being done from a position of penitence, they are carried out in a spirit of freedom, joy and deep gratitude.

The early Christians were dramatically changed by Jesus’ resurrection; they embraced a completely new way of living. I wonder how open I am to a new way of living.

Surrender

The post-resurrection stories in Mark 15:9-15 depict Jesus’ disciples as doubters, as people resistant to change.

After hearing the accounts of how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and two others, Jesus’ companions did not believe. Not until Jesus appeared to them did they believe. Jesus rebuked them for “their unbelief and hardness of heart.”

Why do we resist? Why do we stick with our own certainties and refuse to see things in a different way? Why do we close ourselves to new ideas?

Jesus had predicted that he would die and rise, so it wasn’t as if this was completely new information for the disciples. But still, they dug in their heels and refused to be moved.

My word for Holy Week was surrender. During prayer times and church services, that one word kept coming back to me: surrender.

What, I wondered, is going on in my life right now that I am resisting? What certainty am I clinging to irrationally?

We, like the disciples, can find change difficult. Change is a kind of betrayal—it is as if the truth we knew and believed wasn’t really the truth. Changes shifts the ground upon which we have been standing—like an earthquake—and when the shifting stops, nothing looks the same.

How do we make sense of it?

In the disciples’ situation, Jesus appeared to them to dismiss their doubts. That is unlikely to happen to us in such a dramatic fashion. So how does it happen?

I recently attended a talk on mindfulness and the speaker talked about trees and how they change four times a year. Trees appear dead in winter, but then bud and leaf, before losing their leaves and appearing dead again. Every year, the same cycle of change. But, she noted, the tree does not resist. Rather, it simply changes.

God-mindfulness-surrender

Be the tree, I said to myself. Embrace change. Lean into it. Welcome it. That is what it means to surrender. Not insisting on my way or my beliefs but living in the kind of openness that invites change, living in the reality of every moment instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.

If I had been one of Jesus’ companions in Mark’s Gospel, how would I have reacted to Mary Magdalene or the two people who met Jesus on the road? Would I have been quick to believe? Or would I have been incredulous and cynical? Would I have needed to see for myself? Would Jesus chide me for my lack of faith and hardness of heart?

I fear the latter. But I want the former. I want to be like a tree that moves smoothly through the changes in life, that welcomes and celebrates every season and sees the beauty of each. I want to let go of my certainties and be quick to believe.

Surrender is a discipline to be practiced—letting go of the past and living in the present with a heart open to change.

God-Easter-hope

From death to life

Holy Week and the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) have long been my favorite time of the liturgical year.God-Easter-hopeI love hearing the Passion twice in one week and watching the pageantry of Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. The rich symbolism of the Easter Vigil touches my heart and invites me to renewal in a unique way. The baptisms and confirmations of people choosing my faith as their own always strengthens my faith and makes me more hopeful.

Since 2002, Holy Week has the added significance of being the week my dad died. It was Monday of Holy Week (March 25 that year), and every Holy Week Monday is now a memorial day for me.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday in 2002, the hospice nurse called and said, “Your dad is ready to die, but your mother won’t let go. You have to come home.”  I explained that I was coming home for Easter and already had my ticket for Thursday. “No, you have to come now,” she insisted. So I changed my ticket and came home the next day, Palm Sunday.

Contemplating Jesus’ Passion and death that year, while my dad was also dying, brought new, deeper meaning to the mystery of death and resurrection.

Once my mother let go of my dad, once she truly said good-bye to him, he died within an hour. The nurse was right; he was ready.God-Easter-hopeThen five years, ago, my friend Jim died on Tuesday of Holy Week (April 3 that year), adding another memorial to an already meaningful time.

On Palm Sunday 2012, almost nine months after his diagnosis of brain cancer, we knew Jim was close to death. He ate his last meal that Sunday afternoon, spent the next day in bed, and died early Tuesday morning.

Their deaths, occurring during this holiest time of the year, has deepened my understanding of the Paschal mystery—how death is part of life and how new life can come from death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)God-Easter-hopeI ask myself what fruit has been produced by their deaths—and the deaths of others I have loved.

One fruit is my deep awareness of how fortunate I am to have loved and been loved. I know myself as blessed, even in the absence of those I love.

St. John Chrysostom said, “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they once were. They are now whenever we are.”

It is true that my dad, Jim and all the other people I have lost are no longer present in physical form, but I carry them in my heart, and they are with me in a different way. I think of them often, and their lives and deaths help me to live each day in awareness of the fragility of life and in gratitude for all that is.
God-Easter-hope

 

Set free

unbind-her

“Unbind Her” by Anna Woofenden, 2014

Anna Woofenden’s picture Unbind Her prompted me to ponder the difference between being bound and unbound. Her depiction of breaking free from the bindings and leaping away conjures up images of being free enough to soar into a new direction.

The idea of breaking free and leaping into some unknown future is appealing. But, breaking free can be difficult—just ask anyone who has walked away from an addiction to alcohol, drugs, unhealthy relationships, food, shopping or anything else that had kept them bound. It can be very challenging to walk away from a life lived in bondage, no matter how unsatisfactory or even painful that life might have been.

It is not always easy to walk away from people, situations or self-images that bind us. The old way is familiar, and finding a new way can present lots of challenges. Change often calls for a great deal of determination, discipline and perseverance; it involves saying “no” to what was previously a “yes.”

This Lent, I have been reflecting on times in my life when I turned away from relationships, jobs and behaviors that were holding me back. Sometimes my turning away was short-lived and I quickly returned to that which held me bound—old habits die hard. Other times, though, I have been able to stay strong in my resolve. Mostly, though, I feel I have been slowly chipping away at behaviors and beliefs that needed to be changed, those things that bound me.

Incremental changes over the years have added up and I can see that I am a much different person today than I was forty years ago. The invitation of Woofenden’s picture, though, is to ask if I am free enough to leap.

At the Easter Vigil last night, the priest talked about the leap of faith required of the apostles to believe the reports of Jesus’ resurrection and how we need to make that same leap to be followers of Jesus.

As he spoke, I imagined the scene at the tomb when Mary Magdalene and the other women had gone to tend to Jesus’ body and found that Jesus was gone. I could see them telling the apostles, and the apostles disbelieving them. I imagined Peter running to see for himself. Their emotions must have been all over the place—sadness at Jesus’ death, confusion that his body was gone and hope that something fantastic was happening.

Even imagining this emotional firestorm gave me pause. Am I free enough to feel strong emotions? Or do I keep my emotions in check? How would it feel, I wondered, if I let myself experience the range of emotions Mary and the others felt that first Easter?

I fear I have been afraid to feel.

My Easter prayer is to be set free so that I may experience deep joy, be open to possibilities, and be courageous enough to respond to God’s invitation to live fully. I want to leap into the future and trust that the best is yet to come.

 

Good grief

My mail piles up, unopened. Appointments are missed. I don’t cook, knit, exercise or practice Polish. Frequent naps are the order of the day. The television drones on as background noise.

I am grieving.

If someone had asked me five years ago, “How do you grieve?” I would not have known the answer. Now, unfortunately, I do. I recognize the signs—the unopened mail, disruptions to my routines, the lethargy. “You forget to eat when you grieve,” a friend said the other day. She is right. Food has little appeal.

My memories sustain me these days and I can spend hours lost in the past, reliving the joyful moments of a friendship that helped shape my life.

I let my tears flow, even if at inopportune times. I don’t want to stifle my grief, because I know what happens if I deny expression to this sadness—it will not be stopped but will manifest itself in other ways, upset stomach, anxiety, restless nights. No, I have learned that it is far better to let my emotions have their way, certain that they will not overwhelm me completely, that I will survive this ache, this loss.

I am blessed, really, to have loved so deeply that I hurt so deeply.

That is what I remind myself when I show up for a meeting on the wrong day or find that hours have passed and I have accomplished nothing. “Be gentle with yourself,” friends advise. That is probably one of the greatest gifts grief has given me—the capacity to be gentle with myself, to accept myself in the vulnerable state. I cut myself slack and explain my loss when I miss a deadline or am at the wrong place at the wrong time. People are kind and compassionate; they honor my pain.

We begin Lent next week, walking with Jesus to his death, and I think I will be in a good place for Lent this year, this latest loss so recent. Mary Magdalene will be my companion, and the words of scripture my consolation. “She did what she could,” Jesus says (Mark 14:8) as much about Mary as about me. I did what I could to be a good friend and loving companion.

And then at Easter, I hope to rejoice as Mary Magdalene rejoiced, to be ready for a new life with a deeper appreciation for what has been and a greater hope for what will be.

 

 

Living Easter Joy

Sometimes I am in sync with the liturgical seasons; for example, this past Lent. Part of my plan for Lent was to identify and face my fears, and I spent time pondering what keeps me unfree and praying for the grace to let go of fear and grow in trust. It was a good Lenten practice.

But now that we are in the Easter season, I am feeling a bit disconnected.

Our daily readings from the Acts of the Apostles provide the backdrop for this season, capturing the reactions of the early church to the resurrection —stories of jubilation and passion for spreading the Good News. As I read these passages, the joy and passion grab my attention and offer me a standard against which to measure myself. Am I that joyful about the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection? Am I that passionate about spreading the word?

I am not feeling it. Perhaps I have not moved beyond the fears I recently identified. I think I needed an extension on Lent, a few more weeks to come to a deeper resolution.

One way I know that I am living in fear is how I relate to money—or the lack thereof. I don’t usually worry about money or even give it much thought at all. I grew up without money and have never earned a very high salary. I live fairly simply and within my means.

In one job, my board president called me “lilies of the field” because I trusted so completely that there would be enough money to do the work we were doing. At one point during a government budget standoff that upheld contracts, other programs like ours were laying off staff and cutting programs, but we continued on as if we had no money worries. I trusted, and God provided. It is really that simple for me. I have that much trust.

So when I find myself concerned that there might not be enough money, when I start to check my bank account daily or even worse, start thinking about a second job, I know something is off.

When fear infects my life, I know I have moved away from living in gratitude, away from awareness of God’s abundance. Fear is the antithesis of trust, joy and freedom.

Prayer is the antidote to fear. Spending time in prayer is what I need right now. Placing myself in God’s presence and allowing myself to know God’s love for me moves me back to living in gratitude, to remembering God’s abundance. In prayer, I hear God called me His beloved and remind me that I am more important to God than the lilies of the field. God provides.

In this Easter season when we celebrate new life through Jesus’ resurrection, I need to remind myself to stay focused on all the good in my life and to be grateful.