A few nights ago, I was talking with a small group of leaders at church, checking in around our senior minister’s nearing retirement after 23 years. We are 8 weeks away, as of Easter. How are we doing? What are we hearing?
One by one they offered their reflections, mostly personal, about what they imagine it will be like to come to this religious community and not have him here, not rely on his presence in the pulpit, or for pastoral care. And as they spoke, they offered a common longing. If I just knew he could come back, I wouldn’t feel so bad right now. It’s the not knowing, and the possibility I won’t ever see him around here again.
I wish I didn’t know what they meant. I wish I didn’t have my own stories of longing to know already, in the midst of a major loss, that something would continue. I wish I didn’t know just how desperate that clinging can become, how much rationalizing a brain can do. I wish I didn’t understand the kind of bargaining their hearts were posturing – I will let him go in this way, if I can just keep him in this other way.
A few years ago, my dear friends ended their primary relationship, and yet they wanted to remain friends – and with two children, they wanted and needed to be more than friends, but also family. They imagined creating a new relationship, a truer one, a happier one that would lift them both up in ways they couldn’t achieve as primary partners. And so they tried to leap right there. Tried to forge this new thing as if in the next breath after deciding to let go of what was. It all made perfect sense. Except, the patterns of the heart are not so easily remade. New creations are not so easily constructed. Every conversation, though begun with the most hopeful of intentions, ultimately had them angry and grieving that the other was still not the partner they wanted and needed.
In my Facebook feed today, a few of my Christian friends have posted the refrain “It is finished” to signal their observance of Good Friday. It’s from the Gospel of John. Jesus says the phrase as his final words before dying: tetelestai. It is finished.
If you’ve observed it with any kind of seriousness, Good Friday brings you face to face with a kind of loss you don’t easily forget, even many years later. I still remember the bare sanctuary, the empty place where the banners usually hung from the tall ceiling behind the altar. I remember the altar, without cloth. I remember silence. I can feel myself still on my knees, though it has been decades now, the press of the kneelers, my collapsed head. Tears.
It is a ritualized removal, a routine letting go of that which you are told you need to survive. Jesus, symbol of hope, sign of Love’s power to overcome all odds, is executed. All the dreams his followers had for making real and lasting change appeared to die along with him. And for practicing Christians – at least the way I was taught – Good Friday invites you to feel this loss, to rehearse this experience of Jesus being gone – each Good Friday, through Holy Saturday – until finally, on Easter, you can feel the great relief and release of the good news: he lives.
But not yet. Today, Good Friday, we are invited to play along. Suspend our knowledge of how this story ends and instead live with that terrible reality that he – and so all – are lost.
It is finished, the author of John has Jesus say. But what is finished? His life? The hope for something new? Or, as it has often been interpreted, does he mean to say his mission has been completed? In other words, rather than his death representing an end to his ministry, does it signal the fulfillment of its promise?
Many have speculated, but truthfully, we don’t know. Like so much of Hebrew and Christian scripture, the text is not clear. It seems like at the least, he was describing his human life, and the ministry he had been doing up until that point. It was over, and he knows it. And his friends and family know it. The intake of air, finished. The warm and loving touch, over. The shared meal or the lazy afternoon spent fishing, complete. The calling together of the apostles, the tending to the sick, their planning for what may be next, their possible future together – all of these, done. Easter doesn’t exist yet, remember? There is only today, and today, it is finished.
We seem to have come to some peace in Unitarian Universalist circles about Easter. But none of the churches I’ve attended or ministered in practiced anything resembling a Good Friday observance. It reminds me of that Louis CK bit where he talks about how society thinks sadness is a problem to be solved. We think we can just push away the sadness, that this should be our goal. But by doing this, he says, we also never really feel completely happy. By avoiding pain, we also avoid joy.
Though there are surely many reasons why we don’t as regularly embrace Good Friday as we do Easter, at least one of them has to be our desire to skip ahead to the resolution, to the good news, the resurrection. We want rebirth and transformation and for life to go on and on. We don’t want to have to sit with absence, loss, grief, death. We don’t just want to affirm that truth continues to unfold, but that the truth we have right now will keep on unfolding. In short, we want everlasting life!
But the reality is – and this is what I told that small group of leaders that night – there is no Easter without Good Friday. There is no possible new thing if we don’t accept – for real – that what is finished, is finished. It’s possible that our senior minister will be able to return and have some relationship with the congregation. But the only way for such a thing to happen is to let go of the possibility that it will happen. It’s terrible. They hated it. We all hate this. But they knew from their own life experiences – we all know, it’s true. Only by letting go of the possibility that a new thing might be born, can that new thing actually be born. And in turn, clinging to that hope while also trying to accept the loss – dooms the possibility from ever really materializing.
There is no short cut to transformation. Whether we call it Good Friday or not, we Unitarian Universalists need to find a way to regularly rehearse these days where the thing we feel we need to survive – is torn from us. We need to practice being so deeply disappointed together. So confused, and struggling, together. We need to grieve and wail, cry and question. Because whether in the form of a retiring minister, or a broken relationship, a dying friend, or some other dream cut short – this too is life.
And through this shared practice, we remember, that though the thing we knew is indeed finished, not everything is finished. Something else entirely is at work, and much remains alive. Much in fact, is still being born. For as that same story goes, “a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”