The dripping blood our only drink,TS Eliot, East Coker
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
When I was about eight, I fled our Good Friday service in tears. It was a shared service with another church in my hometown, and I remember pushing through the heavy, dark wooden doors of the sanctuary to run down the bare concrete of the foyer. It was dark, there were candles, and we had been watching an emotional film depicting the events leading up to Christ’s death. Looking back, I saw my father, so much taller than he is now, walking slowly toward me.
“Babe, what’s wrong?” He asked quietly.
“He died,” I sobbed. “He died. He had a mom and she had to watch him die.” My dad hugged me then, not knowing that Mary’s fate would someday be mine, the shared fate of so many mothers throughout the history of humanity.
It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I began to think about Mary, Mother of God. Having been raised Protestant, Mary really never came into the picture. She was just Jesus’s mom, a nice lady in the background, the one who scolded Jesus when he stayed behind at the temple and didn’t bother to tell anyone. She knew “anticipatory grief” — a term we’ve been hearing in conjunction with our current existential crisis — better than anyone, having received funeral incense at the birth of her son.
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
The Easter after my daughter died, I thought of Mary, watching her son’s life ebb, and wondered if she had remembered him as a boy, touching his (probably) dusty hair, smelling his little boy scent, aching to ease his current pain. I know she did, because she was his mother. Her ache was mine. She became real to me then, and never again receded to the abstract I’d grown up knowing.
Good Friday, then, is not just about the death of one man, but the heartbreak of those who loved him. It is the Father who loved his dirt-smeared, emotion-driven, irrational little creations enough to give them a chance, knowing what it would cost him. He created universes with a word, and yet was forced to stand by and watch a part of himself die. He could have changed the outcome, but to do that would have broken his promise, which would have condemned us all. It is the mother, a willing participant in the larger, glorious miracle of salvation, who stood at the feet of her dying son, flesh of her flesh, and could do nothing to save him.
Good Friday is the day of mourning, the death of hope. It is the day that life becomes nearly unbearable. This day is the day where everything breaks, the day that we are nearly certain will be the last on earth. And it should be — can’t you understand how impossible it is to go on when everything is gone?
Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
But the sun rose and set again for Mary, and it kept doing so until she was given something she had to have believed she’d never have again — hope. Joy, relief, peace, love, hope — all of it was returned by several orders of magnitude.
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
What we have now does not feel like hope. So many of us are quite bereft of anything close to it. But it’s there in the darkness, because of a woman who had faith, and a Father who is merciful as well as just. The choice between humanity and his son was one he had given himself, an atonement for our mistakes. The covenant he made with Abraham was to right the wrong that we had committed, the aberration that we had introduced. Our separation is of our own making, and yet He gave up everything to set it right.
We are lost right now, in the larger cultural sense, although I’m aware that this is said of every age. We sit in our houses, prisoners of an invisible enemy, with so many voices clamoring for our attention, simultaneously seeking to assure and alarm. We are afraid. Unsure. I don’t have any idea of what this world will look like in six months, or even three. But I do know what it is like to be at the bottom of the deepest, blackest, darkest pit and see the possibility of light. I know that grief never becomes easy to live with, as much as it becomes something you live around. Life is nothing if not a series of losses interspersed with anticipatory grief.
But I know that there is hope. The sun will rise tomorrow, and again the day after, and it is because of this day, a day of death and despair.
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.TS Eliot, Ash Wednesday.