The Relieving Grief of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Holy Week
Anthony G. Cirilla
People often complain about Christianity for its gloom – for the puritanical streak, the killjoy side of Christianity. It’s the complaint that sings “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints – the sinners are much more fun.” But this is actually the easy attack on Christianity to respond to, for the reason that I think, emotionally speaking, it’s the opposite of what really bothers people about Christians, including Christians themselves. It’s not the gloom and doom of Christianity people don’t like. People actually love gloom and doom – it’s why there are so many stories about Apocalypse, fire falling from the sky, total chaos, cats and dogs living together. It’s why, as the news channels have discovered, bad news is good business. Of course, nobody likes having their own fun times condemned as sinful, but if you shift your focus to a general dissatisfaction with the way human beings live their lives, you’ll find their puritanical streak quickly.
My point is, people actually don’t mind professions of gloom as long as they don’t feel personally attacked by them. What people really find upsetting about Christians, I think, is a cheerfulness that seems out of touch with how bad things are, with bombings or shootings or natural disasters or horrible diseases or political upheavals that marry our lives to despair, violence, death, and outright insanity, in response to which we seem to inanely say, “Thoughts and prayers!” The problem of evil is raised, and we Christians love to march out Revelation 21:4: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” And don’t mistake me here. I absolutely believe those words are true and from the inspired Word of God. But when some unspeakable tragedy unfolds on the world scene, and in response I see some facile sprinkling of verses like that, Scriptural comfort confetti, I feel sick. It makes me almost, dare I say it, disgusted by the way those words are used a little bit, because it feels so dishonest. Because come on: this stuff is bad, and the tears are not wiped away. They are still flowing. The hearts are broken. Don’t come to me and cavalierly tell me in my grief that it’s all going to be okay, as if it already is. Because it’s not okay, it is evil, and heaviness of heart is the correct reaction. The Psalmist wonders in Psalm 13, “How long shall I seek counsel in my soul, and be vexed in my heart?” The Psalmist admits that comfort cannot come easily or cheaply, and that honest admission of the darkness is necessary to let the light of joy in God’s salvation shine. It reminds me of a congregation I attended where a young woman had suffered a miscarriage, and the congregation responded with such enthusiastic positivity about the child’s heavenly hope that it actually caused an emotional breakdown in her because she didn’t feel permitted to grieve what had happened.
What I think emerges from today’s readings, as well as numerous other passages in Scripture which deal honestly with tragedy, is that dismissing heaviness of heart about evil in the world is a weak-tea, watered down Christianity, where people maintain a hollow optimism that somehow pretends to be more impervious than their Savior’s. Jesus wept before he rose Lazarus. He sweated blood about his own death before His Father raised him up from the dead. He did not lose heart, he didn’t despair, but he didn’t pretend like evil wasn’t evil. We are moved by Christ crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” asks Christ, and then we frown at fellow Christians, who do not have the benefit of being God in the flesh, as being weak and insufficiently faithful when they express their suffering. I have heard one Christian rebuking another for honestly admitting he felt like God had abandoned him. Well, what does our Psalm say? “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord; forever?” Those words were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Don’t misunderstand me – the Holy Spirit also inspired the Psalmist to say, “my heart is joyful in thy salvation.” Being a Christian implies a real invitation to be joyful, to believe that good things are waiting on the other side of the dark nights of the soul both private and public. Christians have to be a testimony to others that there is real hope and comfort at the foot of the Cross because of the empty tomb. But to be honest with others, and to be honest with ourselves, we need to face and name the weight of darkness that confronts us in this world. Non-Christians feel that weight too, and it’s no surprise that they find our testimonies unconvincing if all they hear is cheery optimism. Of course, to that we can rightly say, it’s not good to only dwell on our past sins or the dangers of the world at the expense of maintaining an open posture to the joy of the Messiah’s embrace. And yet, for our own devotional lives, for our peace of mind and our sanity, as well as for the honesty of our testimony, we have to admit that it hurts. It hurts so deeply and so truly, and admitting that does no injury to but only enhances the comfort we take in the assurance of salvation in the blood of Christ.
That to me, I think, is the blessing of Ash Wednesday, Lent in general, and Holy Week. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our death and all the fears connected with it. The ashes on the forehead are a rebuke of that Scriptural comfort confetti, a statement that a biblical worldview sees with open eyes the frailty of our mortality. Lent readjusts the perspective on the things to which we give value in our lives, to help us identify where in our lives we have been fools in our hearts saying there is no God, by putting temporal goods higher in our priorities than our relationship with Christ. This penitential and purgative season of Lent culminates in the jarring days of the Triduum. On Maundy Thursday, Communion is not only celebrated as the blessing and sacrament that it is, but also to the deep injustice of the world that led the Paschal Lamb to the slaughter. That easy transition from recognizing “Oh, of course I am a sinner” to “But God has forgiven me” is given a more reflective, more profound pause by the stark memory of Good Friday, where we reflect on the terribleness of the Good, the roaring nature of goodness like Aslan, the danger of standing before inherent and essential justice when we have been a source of judgment, agony, and pain for others and have failed to live the lives we know we are called to live. We see there on the cross an image of the full weight of torment we deserve. Ah, does that sound Puritanical, harsh, self-flagellating? Perhaps, but I fear worse the charge that those admissions of guilt are just a show, a necessary prelude to the all-too-easy resolution of Easter Day.
Maundy Thursday, the eve of expectation, sets up Good Friday’s remembrance of the weight that Christ bore for us, the physical, spiritual violence heaped upon Christ, the same darkness that clouds the world even now in the form of terrorism, bigotry, hatred, and every manner of injustice. But there’s an element of hot spectacle to Good Friday that in some paradoxical way makes it more bearable, the severity of the lashings. I often think Good Friday was the hardest day to bear in the liturgical calendar; it is certainly the saddest one, for the same reason that it leads to the happiest one. But Holy Saturday, if less violent in its urgency, is the coldest day. The Savior, entombed. We remember the apostles and the dear women and the other Christians who live a whole day with their beloved teacher and Messiah just…. Gone. Christ himself felt the cold breath of the absence of the Father, and now the Son is liturgically hid from us.
Now we have the official, liturgically sanctioned freedom to admit it. God feels hidden sometimes. Like Lady MacBeth who can’t get rid of the stains, Christ’s sanctifying blood seems to leave the spots of our sins that we are promised will be removed. Some days you feel the Spirit awake in your heart like a brilliant fire, energizing and bursting through the clouds of sadness and pain, and you cannot fathom disbelief in those times. But it is not always so; disbelief, if not embraced, even so sounds a note of reality all around the world. The Son of God is dead, and with Him all our religion, spirituality, high minded cheerfulness. On Holy Saturday, as the culminating moment of Lent, we have the relief of having our own hopes and certainty entombed with Christ, where we are no longer responsible, no longer have any means, to be the power by which faith is restored. Mournful, yes, but honestly mournful, and there is a rest for the soul in that earnest grief, because now it is totally in God’s hands and out of ours.
We can’t stay here in this mood, of course. The coldness of Holy Saturday could set in too deeply, and the honesty of a heavy heart can too easily become despair. We go to sleep on that Saturday night with our hearts crucified and our hopes buried, our grief eased but not dismissively dispelled or comforted as something trivial. We admit, with a sigh of relief, that it is still a fallen world, and it still hurts. Then we wake up on Easter Sunday and are lifted back up into the earth-shattering joy of the Risen Lord who conquered our sin and our death, and at the Lord’s Table our sanctifying tears of confession are wiped away and we are fed holy food and reminded that our pain is in the midst of things that truly are passing away. Of course, every Saturday and every Sunday is a liturgical reminder of this ebb and flow of Christian emotions. Every Sunday Communion Service is Easter in miniature. But just as this coming Ash Wednesday we will start to get ready for Easter Sunday through Lent, even on this coming annual Easter Sunday we know that the true Easter will still be tomorrow, for the tears will have not yet been wiped away.
Tomorrow the jarring clarion call against the threat of complacency in our sins and the darkness of the world is sounded, and we put our hands in the scars of our Savior’s hands, feet, and side. Tomorrow we will encounter that miracle – that we need not accept the grief as the end of the story. Tomorrow, triumphantly “He is risen” shall in earnest ring again and the joy of reunion with the whole heavenly host and the creation-consuming glory of the Creator shall restore our earthly glimpse of the Promised Land. Tomorrow we will sing and pray and be called to the Feast and be made together the Living Body of Christ the King. Tomorrow, Joy, against all our cynicism and despair, prevails with all its unimaginable and inexorable sovereignty.
But not today. Today we admit the sacred gloom.