By: Candace McKibben
As a Christian minister, Holy Week has been forever changed by the deaths of my parents during Holy Week four years apart. In 2015, my sweet daddy died on Holy Wednesday and, last year, my dear mother died on Holy Monday. For many of us, the loss of someone we deeply love stirs questions about the meaning of life and death, what happens to us after we die, and at least for me, where our loved ones now reside if we believe they live on in some way. When these questions of bereavement coincide with the week in which Christians contemplate the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, there is opportunity to reflect personally, deeply on the Easter message. Frederick Buechner, who is a remarkable preacher and mentor to many ministers, says that to him preaching means, “To try to put the Gospel into words not the way you would compose an essay but the way you would write a poem or a love letter—putting your heart into it, your own excitement, most of all your own life.”
Reflecting during the Holy Week of my father’s death, I realized that the week had been holy in ways I had not anticipated. Though his death had been anticipated for years, his final turn to face it seemed determined over the course of a day. His parting seemed so natural. He was surrounded by loving family, all praying the Lord’s Prayer together. We had told him that we all loved him and were so grateful to him for all that he taught us by his remarkable life. We shared stories and wiped his brow and rubbed his feet. We told him we would miss him every day and be forever grateful for all that he gave us, but we wanted him to be at peace now and rest as he entered the presence of his heavenly father. And with the same dignity and grace that he lived, he died. It was a sacred moment and we all knew it. Though I had imagined I could not bear the leaving of my sweet daddy and might howl at his departure, by God’s grace and tender mercy, I did bear it. We all did.
And part of what made it tolerable, even somehow beautiful, was the blessed assurance I felt in that sacred moment that whatever happens at death, and wherever my daddy has gone, he is in the presence of a loving God who tenderly cares for him. Words I have used to offer comfort to families at bedsides and in funeral services about relinquishing our loved ones into the loving arms of the God who created them, were words I felt true deep in my bones as I stood at the bedside of my own still and silent daddy.
My mother’s final turn toward death was not as rapid as my father’s. Her slow decline over eight days gave me more time to sit with my feelings about her departure, more time to reflect on our relationship as mother and daughter, more time to search my heart and soul about what death means to me, more time to sit with the mystery of faith – that new life is possible even amidst the finality of death.
The possibility of new life is the message of Easter. New life, not just after that final death that my parents experienced and we all will face at some point, but after all the deaths that come to us on life’s journey. Easter invites us to look for resurrection when the death of dreams, of our spirit, of our lives as we have known them, seems imminent. When a pandemic threatens to rob us of hope.
Hope is not only an Easter message. It is the proclamation of Passover that our Jewish friends and neighbors have been observing through the unprecedented accommodation of video-conferencing since Wednesday past. A key portion of the Haggadah, the sacred text Jews use on the holiday, resonates with our experience in COVID-19, “This year we are enslaved, next year we will be free.” It is a hope we all share.
In some ways, the timing of this pandemic, if it had to happen at all, feels cruel, disrupting Passover and Easter. But in other ways it feels comforting to know that people of faith around the world are making connections between the most important holy days in their traditions and the meaning that can be wrested from COVID-19. Perhaps these holy days are just what our spirits need to be reminded that there is hope for liberation from disease and from the bondage of death, in whatever ways we may experience it. I pray that the joy of Passover and Easter will help sustain us as we continue to adjust to a new way of life fighting this pandemic together.