A tornado, a child and the Easter vigil

April 01, 1994|By L. Gregory Jones

THE irony was unmistakable: a tornado's fury striking a small United Methodist congregation gathered peacefully for Palm Sunday services in Goshen, Ala. But that irony soon became unbearable when it became personal, the pain of discovering in a phone call that the church's pastor was a good friend from our days together at Duke Divinity School. And, worse, that the pastor's 4-year-old daughter Hannah had been among the almost two dozen killed.

My wife and I had first met Hannah several Christmases ago. She was a babe in swaddling clothes, sleeping quietly in a Washington, D.C., restaurant where the two couples had gathered to renew friendships and to introduce our babies to each other.

How could it be that she was now dead? And how could God possibly be connected in any way with striking down people gathered for worship?

Of course, that is not a new question. The question of how a good and gracious God can allow evil things -- whether "natural" disasters like tornadoes or human violence and destruction -- to happen is as old as the book of Job, and as new as the massacre in the mosque in Hebron. But for me the question has once again become urgently personal; and for Christians it becomes ritually focused in the drama of Holy Week.

Too many Christians in America move immediately from Christmas to Easter, from "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" to "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today." Or some of the more devout move immediately from Palm Sunday's "Hosannas" to Easter Sunday's "Alleluias." But doing so misses the heart of the Christian understanding of God, and of Easter. For Christians cannot truly understand Easter, and the God who raises Jesus, unless we move through the mystery of sin, evil and death that is Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Easter is not the worship of Christ uncrucified; Christians worship Christ crucified and risen.

For me this year, the mystery of death and resurrection is even more mysterious. I do not know how to make sense of Hannah's dying, just as I as a Christian do not know how to make sense of my (and our) willingness to crucify Jesus. I do know that the drama of Holy Week suggests that death, even in all of its awfulness, is not the last word. Easter signifies that God can and does bring new life even out of the most awful of deaths. God is making all things new.

To be sure, Easter will take on a more poignant cast for me this year. Perhaps I will see things I had not seen before, seen now through the tears I shed for Hannah and for her parents. Perhaps I will see God a bit more clearly, a bit more truthfully.

In Wallace Stegner's novel, "Crossing to Safety," the narrator describes an encounter with Piero della Francesca's painting of the resurrected Christ starting up behind the tomb. "That gloomy, stricken face permitted no forgetful high spirits. It was not the face of a god reclaiming his suspended immortality, but the face of a man who until a moment ago had been thoroughly and horribly dead, and still had the smell of death in his clothes and the terror of death in his mind. If resurrection had taken place, it had not yet been comprehended."

The narrator then describes how one of the characters, a woman who had endured much suffering, studied the painting: "She studied it soberly, with something like recognition or acknowledgment in her eyes, as if those who have been dead understand things that will never be understood by those who have only lived."

The pain of death is awesome; its effects are often numbing. Even so, as we reflect on the tragedies of people throughout the world, and most particularly, at least for me these days, of Hannah, we can set our own grief in the context of Christ's dying and rising.

For the drama of Holy Week is an invitation to be among those who "have been dead" and can thus understand things inaccessible to those who "have only lived."

Even more, it is an invitation to keep the Easter vigil, that ancient rite by which Christians mark the time between Jesus' death and his resurrection. And it is an invitation for which others can find appropriate analogues.

As the Jewish writer George Steiner has suggested in "Real Presences," Jews and others know of the "long day's journey of the Saturday." Jews and others know the analogous effects of Friday: "of the pain, of the failure of love, of the solitude which are our history and private fate." And they know about Sunday: "the day of liberation from inhumanity and servitude . . . the lineaments of that Sunday carry the name of hope."

There are ways in which we can all keep the Easter vigil, and Christians most explicitly as we look toward Easter. As in the vigil, all people ought to be ever mindful of those forces, both of nature and -- perniciously -- of human origin, which conspire in the production of evil and death.

At the same time, however, we ought to be searching, praying and living for signs of God bringing about new life, signs of Easter, anywhere they can be found. Then we can truly say, for the sake of Hannah and all those who have shared her fate, death be not proud.

L. Gregory Jones, a United Methodist minister, teaches theology at Loyola College in Maryland.

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