The Lenten Journey: When Easter Came Too Soon
It sounds strange to many, but I have always loved the liturgical season of Lent. I grew up in a devout, pietistic home, and I’m grateful for it. Our regular practice of family devotions after dinner took on special meaning during Lent. On Wednesdays, before Lenten services at the Lutheran church where my father was a pastor, we gathered for a simple dinner. As a way of teaching their children about “fasting,” my mom and dad decided that we would forego a regular dinner on those Wednesdays. Instead, we ate oatmeal…just oatmeal…okay, oatmeal with milk and brown sugar. Then, we’d have devotions and prayer together as the candles burned on our simple family altar. I don’t remember a lot about the weekly Lenten services that followed except that each one always ended with the hymn, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” Those Lenten memories are ingrained in my soul.
When our kids were young, my wife, Signe, and I tried the oatmeal “fasting” discipline for a couple of years. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t seem to take, at least not in the way other traditions took hold, like Swedish Christmases and British tea and scones. Both of our kids have inherited our anglophilia.
Fast forward to the season of Lent in 2009. Signe was dying after a thirteen-year battle with cancer. We put her hospital bed in the family room. And every Wednesday afternoon during that Lenten season friends and family would gather in her room for a celebration of Holy Communion, a simple meal of bread and wine. And then, after Eucharist, in a tradition that was dear to Signe’s heart, we would indulge in tea and biscuits (which is British for cookies). On the Wednesday of Holy Week, a close friend arranged for a harpist to come and play. Tears flowed freely as the harpist played song after song. When she finished playing, once again as a community we received the Lord’s body and blood…and then took tea.
Two days later, on Good Friday morning, while I was sitting by her bed and holding her hand, Signe died.
The next days were chaotic. A parade of people came to the house. Graveside and memorial service plans were put in place. Saturday followed Friday, as it always does, and Sunday followed Saturday. But it wasn’t just any Sunday; it was Easter Sunday. I woke up alone in the house and decided to go to church, who knows why. I sat in my usual place in the third row. Everyone was dressed to the nines. Lilies swathed the chancel. The pipe organ was blowing out its stops. The pastor stood in front of the congregation and declared at the top of her voice, “He is risen!” I knew what I was supposed to say—“He is risen indeed!”—but I couldn’t say it. I thought I was all cried out, but what did I know? I caught the pastor’s eye and saw the expression on her face when she saw me. And I had the overwhelming feeling: “I shouldn’t be here. I’m wrecking it for everyone. Easter has come too soon. I want to go back to Good Friday.”
I often think we rush to Easter too quickly in order to avoid the pain of grief and loss. We fail to see the importance—nay, the necessity—of tarrying beneath the cross of Jesus. Any journey to Easter that bypasses Good Friday is nothing more than denial. Barbara Baumgardner has written, “Grief is not a problem to be cured. It is simply a statement that you have loved someone.”
Years ago, in college, I read Edmond Rostand’s brilliant drama Cyrano de Bergerac. I remember being particularly struck by the tragic reality of Roxanne’s line at the end of the play, “I never loved but one man in my life, and I have lost him twice.” In an odd way, that became my story as well. In the early spring of 2010 I was preparing myself for the anniversary of Signe’s death on April 10th. Quite unexpectedly, though, a wave of grief swept over me on Good Friday, which that year was eight days earlier. And so, though I have loved but one woman in my life, every year I remember her death twice: on Good Friday and on April 10th.
It will be the seventh such remembrance this year. And on Easter Sunday, for the sixth year in a row, I will declare, “He is risen indeed!”
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