Hope Like a Question Mark

 

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I can still see the stretch of sidewalk, bathed in sunlight with dandelions poking through the cracks. I hear the grownups behind me, spilling out of the church onto the front lawn, catching up on the week’s events after giving the preacher a firm handshake at the door. I hear the laughter of little kids who managed to sit still for a whole hour and now line up to be tossed high up in the air by the broad-shouldered teenager with none of the gathered mothers’ impulses towards safety.

I run ahead from the crowd, out to the cracked sidewalk alongside the street. I’m propelled towards our car by my growling stomach, looking forward to going to my grandma’s house for salty ham and soft rolls and broccoli rice casserole made with those little cans of Cheez Whiz. I’m looking forward to hunting brightly-dyed Easter eggs with my little brother in her front yard.

It’s a beautiful day. As I walk further into the memory, I can almost feel the warm sun. I look down and admire the way my dress swishes when I walk; the way my shadow looks more graceful and elegant with my lanky legs tucked into the full skirt of my new dress. And more than anything else, it’s this singular light-hearted thought I remember:

“It’s always sunny on Easter.”

Of course it isn’t, but when you are 8 or 10 and don’t yet know the shadows of this life, it feels true enough. Growing up, I don’t remember talking too much about Good Friday. Perhaps we did, and it was just my youthful excitement that skipped straight to Sunday with its bright eggs and fancy dresses. But I also think there was a bit of a bias towards lingering too long at the cross. Catholics were the ones who portrayed Jesus on a cross, and in the religious community of my childhood, that was almost sacrilegious because it put the emphasis on the wrong part of the story: defeated dead body hanging on a cross instead of the death-defying power of an empty cross and an empty tomb. At any rate, whether it was because of my own youthful exuberance or the traditions I grew up in, I didn’t consider the need for Lent or Palm Sunday or Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. They just set the stage for the grand finale. They were only the events that preceded the sacred “but.”

It may be Friday, but Sunday is coming.

I’m older now, with my fair share of hurts and bumps and bruises. And I know some of the shadows of life far too well. Life can really hurt an awful lot, and flinging “but” at someone’s pain feels at best fraudulent and fake and like one giant exercise in reality-denial.  At worst it feels cruel and uncaring. However well-intentioned, responding to pain with “but” is fundamentally not empathetic.

I’m sorry your mom died, but at least she’s in a better place.

I’m sorry your husband cheated on you, but at least you have your children.

I’m sorry you can’t get pregnant, but there are other ways to build a family.

The bumps and bruises of my life, and the ones I see afflicting those I love and this banged-up world around me, make me resent the “but.”  They make me less quick to skip to always-sunny-Easter. This year I find myself especially grateful for the days before Sunday. Getting from Palm Sunday to Easter morning feels like one of the most honest and human spiritual journeys we could take, and I don’t want to skip to the end of the story.

There’s the jubilation and anticipation of Palm Sunday; our King is coming to set all right in the world. We’re on the winning team! It’s going to be great!

Maundy Thursday shows me a savior who sits down and shares a meal with the man who will betray him and another who will deny him. He washes feet and breaks bread and lives in the depth and breadth of rich community, soaking in the love of those he loves to strengthen himself for the walk ahead.

Good Friday comes like the phone call in the middle of the night. The opening of the front door to somber-looking police officers illuminated with flashing lights behind them.  Good Friday is the crashing to our knees, the wracking sobs, the derailed train and crashed plane and end of the world as we know it. I can’t be the only one who sometimes accidentally calls it Black Friday.

And here we are on Saturday. I imagine the disciples on Saturday morning. They wake up and for one brief moment, the world is ok. It hasn’t yet ended. And then the memory of last night comes crashing like darkness down again. And his last words must have echoed in their mind, “It is finished.”

I’m no theologian, but it seems today we read those words through a theological lens that knows the end of the story. We imbue them with meaning, celebrating how Jesus finished his work on the cross, setting us right with the Father and conquering evil once and for all.

When we hear his words, I think we usually skip to the end of the story.

But Jesus doesn’t say “it is finished” as he’s leaving the tomb. He says it with his last ragged breaths. And the disciples were just as human as you and me; they didn’t know what was coming next. And I think in the moment they heard that, it must have sounded like defeat. It must have registered in their hearts like hopelessness, not victory. In the long hours between Jesus’ last breath and the discovery of the empty tomb, “it is finished” can only mean one thing. It sounds like the end of a story.

And to me, this feels like the day of the story I know best. It feels honest and real and I’m grateful beyond words that my faith doesn’t only have space for always-sunny-Easters.

I picture the disciples, fearfully gathering to discuss the events of the previous day and trying to figure out what they do next. Where do they go from here? A week ago it felt like things were just getting started; they were so sure they’d come out on top!  And now it is finished?

Longing. Despair. Fear. Confusion. Doubt. Uncertainty. These are the emotions of Saturday. And sometimes doesn’t life feel like one long Saturday?

I need Saturday. Maybe the little girl, with her scabbed knees tucked under a frilly Easter dresses didn’t need Saturday. Maybe always-sunny-Easter was enough. But as an adult with a lot of questions, a faith built only on the spiritual highs wouldn’t keep me company in the shadows of life.

So let’s linger on this Saturday. Yes, we can know Sunday is coming, but let’s sit for a moment with the disciples in their longing and despair and fear and confusion and doubt and uncertainty. Let’s feel the weight of believing that it’s all over; that it really is finished. Because God-only-knows how often we whisper “it is finished” ourselves, in the shadowy and dark moments of our own lives when jobs are lost and dreams are dashed and diagnoses are received and loved ones are buried. God-only-knows how often we feel the weight of Friday’s horrors come crashing down on Saturday morning. The things we fear most in this life? They aren’t always just a bad dream.  And thanks be to God, there’s room for even this in our faith.  God didn’t resurrect Jesus right after he breathed his last… no, he allowed for a sacred pause.  A waiting.  A time of wrestling and longing and fear and doubt and he doesn’t turn away from us in that space.  We aren’t alone here; we find our spiritual company with the disciples as we linger on Saturday morning.

And as we linger, I think we’ll find something else. I think we’ll find hope curling like a question mark through all the emotions of Saturday. Hope curls through the longing for the way things were and the despair at what has just happened. It wraps around the fear and confusion, our doubt and uncertainty. Hope curls like a question too impossible and implausible to ask.

Is it really finished?

We don’t yet have the answers and we don’t yet have all the reasons and meaning for what has happened. But we wait with hope.

Looking back, those dandelions pushing through the sidewalk cracks in front of my childhood church seem like an important part of the Easter story. We’d pick them off and yet the next week they’d be back, persistent and hardy and unable to fully root out. When I think about hope, I think about those stubborn little dandelions, curling through all the crushing and plucking and tearing.  Hope springs eternal, as relentless as dandelions in sun-baked sidewalks.

Maybe always-sunny-Easter isn’t enough for me. But waiting with hope that curls like a question through all of my doubts? That is enough for me.

 


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