Thursday, April 13, 2017

Paschal Mystery: How the Easter Triuduum Helps Us Walk With Grief

It's Holy Thursday morning, and once again, we stand at the brink of the celebration of the Easter mysteries. In fact, what we will experience from tonight through Easter day is the heart of what we pray at Mass every time: "The Mystery of Faith" - the very death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we call the Paschal Mystery.

Paschal Mystery symbol in Freising Cathedral, Bavaria
Meanwhile, real people are suffering their own versions of paschal mystery. In a conversation this morning on social media, a friend whose wife died of cancer a while back reminded me that he had learned his wife was losing her battle with the disease from a phone call while on his way to the celebration of Good Friday. I am conscious that another friend learned a few days ago that his wife's cancer has metastasized and is now inoperable. 

Almost eight years ago, I suffered a major loss when the man I had intended to marry died suddenly. Most of us, if we have lived long enough, are, like Jesus, men/women of sorrow, well-acquainted with grief. Grief and suffering are very real and inevitably a part of the human life in which Jesus came to earth to share with us.

This is where deeply surrendering to the experience of the Easter Triduum and walking through the Paschal Mystery can be restorative. If we are open and ready to accept the message that the love of God for us is so strong that Jesus, by his dying and rising changed human death forever, we can receive healing of those deep wounds that grief impresses on the heart.

As usual, what we pray in the liturgy throughout the church year, especially in the celebration of funerals, is what we believe.
In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned,
that those saddened by the certainty of dying,
might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come.
Indeed for your faithful, Lord,
life is changed not ended,
and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust,
an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.
(Preface for Christian Death I)
For as one alone he accepted death,
so that we might all escape from dying;
as one man he chose to die,
so that in your sight we all might live for ever.
(Preface for Christian Death II)
Even more impressively, in Preface V, we have this:
For even though by our own fault we perish,
yet by your compassion and your grace,
when seized by death according to our sins,
we are redeemed through Christ's great victory,
and with him called back into life.
We don't even have to go to a funeral or memorial Mass to hear this reassurance of eternal life. It is, of course, embedded in the prayers of every Mass. However, at the Masses of Easter we will hear it reemphasized:
For he is the true Lamb
who has taken away the sins of the world;
by dying he has destroyed our death,
and by rising, restored our life. (Preface I of Easter)
Through him the children of light rise to eternal life
and the halls of the heavenly Kingdom
are thrown open to the faithful;
for his Death is our ransom from death,
and in his rising the life of all has risen.  (Preface II of Easter)
What is the message? HOPE. In the midst of the suffering of this world, we have the promise that this earthly life is not all there is. Hearing this message over and over again, for all the years necessary until we each are ready to let go of tears for our beloved dead and can instead manage to see their faces as "the children of light" and feel their presence around the altar at every Mass - this is the power of the Eucharist to heal the effects of grief. 

Each person heals from a great loss at his/her own rate. I cannot pretend that grief ever really goes away. Anyone who has walked its dark corridors will tell you it's a myth that time heals it all. Grief always lurks behind that closed door of the heart, waiting to ambush us when we are "triggered" into remembering, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote so perceptively:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
For me, preparing to enter the great mystery of the Three Days is a reflective time for emptying myself and reaffirming that the reason we can find joy in celebrating these intense days of walking with Jesus Christ through suffering and death is that he has indeed risen from the dead and offered our deceased loved ones - and us - the gateway to eternal life with God. 

When the words of the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) ring out in the darkness at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, I will be there trembling with barely suppressed joy because I truly believe that  "This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld."  Because of what Jesus did, death can no longer conquer us. It is not the end. Our loved ones are alive in him.

As Christians, we must each, whenever we are ready, climb out of our personal despair from grief at the death of those we love. We can, through faith, join them around God's altar when the earthly liturgy meets the heavenly liturgy at every celebration of the Mass, knowing that someday, we too will be rejoicing around God's throne, united with them in him, for all eternity. 

Today, I pray for all who grieve and for all those facing the certainty of the death of those they love, that they may receive the gift of faith that I have been granted, and through the power of the liturgies of the Three Days, come to know the truth that for their beloved ones, that "life is changed, not ended."

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