Some years ago I was invited to preach at a Good Friday service. I preached on the subject of death—all of which seemed to fit. But the choice of subject prompted one member of the congregation to complain, “Why didn’t you focus on the resurrection?”
“Two reasons,” I explained. “One is prudential: If you preach the resurrection on Good Friday you steal the rector’s thunder and you are never invited to preach again. But there is a second and much more profound reason: Part of the spiritual discipline of this day and tomorrow is to sit with the reality of death.”
The church, no less than our culture is caught up in the denial of death. As a result, we rush over both “Good Friday” and “Holy Saturday,” preferring to emphasize the Resurrection. As a result, the message we send is that “Jesus died, BUT he was resurrected.” The failure to sit with the reality of death has a number of unintended consequences: We fail to own the full experience of loss that Jesus experienced, reducing him to someone “who has seen the movie,” but who doesn’t really comprehend what it means to die. We minimize the significance of death for us as individuals and as bearers of God’s image. We force people confronting loss in their own lives to sublimate their pain in order to celebrate one more “happy clappy” church holiday, and we rob the resurrection of its full significance. Those are serious losses in a world that needs to hear from a church that should be realistic and hopeful.
A little more than a year ago my brother Dave lost a battle with brain cancer that he had been fighting for over seven years. A gifted hand surgeon, the tumor destroyed his medical career and precipitated an unplanned quest to find both the spiritual counsel and friendships that would sustain him along the way. At one point on that journey I asked him if he was going to church.
“No,” he responded.
“Would you mind telling me why?” I asked.
“If the preacher isn’t using stained-glass language that I can’t pin down and apply to my life, then instead he is blowing smoke, telling me the whole experience is a blessing in disguise.”
“It’s hard,” he went on to say, “when you’ve been told that you have a brain tumor to hear people tell you that ‘God has a plan,’ that ‘the best is yet to come,’ or that God is giving you ‘a blessing in disguise.’ When you say that to someone who has a tumor that claims the lives of all but 3 percent of those who have them within a year, the words are worse than useless.”
My brother’s language was pretty raw, but it is also fairly typical of people who find themselves at life’s ragged edges. Nurturing communities of faith that can walk with people in those places has long been a centerpiece of theological education, particularly in classes and internships devoted to the subject of pastoral care. But effective care at life’s end and the little “m” mortalities that we experience along the way (including job loss, divorce, and illness) cannot be addressed through theory, training, and technique alone. Leaders and communities that can care for others also require deep spiritual formation, and that, in turn, requires us to face our own mortality.
Living with Good Friday and Holy Saturday can help. The death of Jesus was painful and difficult for Jesus himself. It scattered, panicked, and grieved his followers and family, and the events of Friday and Saturday seemed to eclipse his message and ministry.
It’s time for the church to get real. Easter cannot mean what it should mean without fully appreciating the gravity and loss of the two days that precede it. And resurrection hope is reduced to wishful thinking when we fail to observe the spiritual gravity of the two days that precedes our celebration of the resurrection.