My apologies for how late this post is this week, Reader. On top of the usual reality that Good Friday is complicated for me, my car died Thursday. For a wannabe pastoral type, of course the best time to be without transportation is Maundy Thursday leading into the Paschal Triduum. Fortunately, my music director was willing to give me a ride to work, my coworker loaned me her car so I could get to class, and then Interpreter graciously ferried me around for the rest of the day and then on Friday. It helps that he and I were already going to the same places—it’s church week, y’all—but it was still a moment of grace for him to step in and for me to let him. It’s hard to be dependent on another; it’s hard not to feel like an imposition, a burden. But in letting that happen while I waited for my dear car to be resurrected (how apropos, no?) we got to talk with each other, break down events with each other, talk shop and not talk at all. We’re both introverts, after all, so sometimes we are perfectly happy just to pay attention to the road and say nothing.
I do now have my car back (thanks be to God, although my checkbook doesn’t agree) and that is good because I truly don’t live a life of a format or in a place that can count on rides from others and public transportation. But it was an unlooked for gift, I think, to have that time of simply being with a friend and of seeing the generosity of others.
So what does that have to do with the one remaining sacrament? Not much, on the surface. The anointing of the sick, formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction, is very much about humans and not cars. But it is (even still in the Catholic Church, though they’ve changed the name and broadened the parameters) about death. This sacrament was originally the last connection in this life to God’s grace; it served as an outward sign just before death that God was on both sides of that great divide with the person dying. Now it includes those who are very ill and may yet survive, but the concept is the same; “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
I saved this sacrament for last because I knew it would fall on this holy weekend, Reader. I realize that technically Lent ended Thursday night, but we are still in the wilderness. Perhaps we are even more so, because right now our tradition states that Jesus’s body, broken and bloodied and stabbed, lies entombed. Christ has died.
One of the most awful of the Seven Last Words to me is the one often left in Hebrew (or Aramaic, if you go with Mark): Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”) In the hour of His death, Jesus had no one to administer the reminder of grace; no priest hovered in the approaching darkness to reassure Him that the Light would not be overcome. He was Himself the Light, and He died.
I don’t say this to get into a theological argument of how God can desert Himself but to underscore that death is the one thing we can reliably count on to freak us all the hell out. It is the one thing that we concretely know happens and don’t know much about. We persons of faith have lots of ideas, sure, but we don’t know. We can’t. Death is beyond all of us; only One has ever come back from it, and He didn’t spend any time at all talking about what it was like. So to have a ritualized reminder that God is there with us even in that most unnerving of hours is an amazing thing; we are not left alone as Jesus was, we are not forsaken in that time of great need.
Because Jesus was.
Here’s the amazing thing I re-learn every Good Friday—Sunday is coming. Here on Holy Saturday when Jesus is not in the story, is not in this world, when His disciples huddle together in a room that holds memories now painful and stare blankly at each other wondering what they missed and what else they could have done right, there are birds chirping outside my window. The slowly dropping sun slants in through my front window and makes my silver-edged table shine, the empty glass on it sparkling in the light. Soon I will head out for an Easter vigil service and then wake far too early in the morning to go to a sunrise Easter service because Death did not win. Yes, Christ has died, but Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
If I don’t fully believe that, I need to start playing for a different team.
But in believing that—and doubting it and fighting with it and being totally confused by it and worrying about it and celebrating it—I myself am still confronted by Death. My best friend will die, my favorite uncle will die, my first love will die, my last grandparent will die. But in that space of standing on Death’s threshold and feeling his hand reach for ours, we do not have to be alone. In this sacrament or merely the spirit of it (for those of us who aren’t Catholic) we are reminded that Jesus has stood here and taken that hand and will come back for us every time.
So I know it’s a few hours early, Reader, but let me hear it all the way up here in the Land of Pilgrims: Christ has risen.
Christ has risen indeed!
And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. (Mark 16:1-2, AKJV)