Sunday, April 01, 2012

In the Midst of Death and Life

Grace Episcopal Church
Madison, NJ

The Messenger
Associate's Message
April 2012

In the Midst of Death and Life

The liturgies of Holy Week and Easter are rich and powerful, helping us through rituals, symbols and music to recall both the tragic last days of Jesus’ earthly life and the joyous surprise of Easter. Over the years I’ve heard parishioners share what they find most meaningful among the Holy Week services. Some love best the washing of the feet that we do at Compline for Kids on Wednesday evening, with parents and children imitating Jesus’ powerful act of servant leadership. Others are deeply moved by the almost unbearable sense of loss when we strip of the altar on Maundy Thursday. Many younger parishioners have wonderful memories of the lock-in when we have the privilege of keeping vigil at the altar of repose and of reading the Passion on Good Friday morning. Still others are fed best by the three-hour service on Good Friday, when we recall the final sacrifice of Jesus’ life and God’s bottomless love and forgiveness even in the face of our shocking cruelty and rejection.

My own favorite service during these holiest days is the unique service held on Holy Saturday morning. It’s very brief, and usually sparsely attended. I admit that part of what I like about this service is that I get to just sit in the pew and pray, rather than think about what I’m supposed to say or do next. But, it’s more than that. I love the simplicity of this service that consists of a collect, some Bible readings, the Lord’s Prayer and the anthem usually used at funerals that begins, “In the midst of life we are in death.”

But, mostly, I love the Holy Saturday service because it reflects the “in-betweeness” of our lives. During Holy Week we recall the tragic last days of Jesus’ earthly life, but all along we know how the story ends. We know that God glorified Jesus on Easter and continues to glorify him in the Church that is the Body of Christ in the world. We know that we live in the “post-resurrection” world. Yet, in the brokenness of our lives and the world, we also know that we’re not quite there yet. We know that God and humanity still have work to do to build the kingdom - the world transformed by love that God has always desired. We live in an in-between time, somewhere between the tragedy of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. Indeed, “In the midst of life we are in death.”

The brief and simple Holy Saturday liturgy reminds us of our lives in this often uncomfortable in-between time. Sometimes events in our lives can also remind us that we live in the midst of death and life. At the end of last month I had a couple of school-related experiences that, upon reflection, together feel like a kind of Holy Saturday.

Many of you have heard about (and some of you even participated in) the “Every 15 Minutes” program that was held over two days at Madison High School. The program takes its name from the horrifying statistic that, on average, every 15 minutes in the United States someone dies in an alcohol-related traffic accident. The program was remarkably complex and graphic, involving many people at the school along with police, firefighters, paramedics and others, including two members of the clergy, Msgr. George Hundt from St. Vincent’s and me.

In the morning we accompanied police officers and a man dressed as the Grim Reaper as one by one students were removed from their classes because they had been “killed” in drunk driving accidents. Our job was then to read aloud the obituaries of these students – that had been written by their own parents. It was a grim task and, although I knew we were acting, the reminder of senseless death and suffering in our broken world was all too real.

Then, at the end of the same week, I returned to St. Vincent Academy, a Roman Catholic all-girls high school in the Central ward of Newark where I taught in the 1990s. SVA is a remarkable school founded and still operated by the Sisters of Charity. When Newark nearly collapsed forty years ago, the sisters made a brave commitment to stay, educating young women for success measured by living lives of service.

One of the ways SVA accomplishes its mission is through “Students in Community,” a school-wide program that culminates in juniors and seniors spending the week and a half before Easter vacation offering service in schools, hospitals, day care centers and the like. I remember from my days teaching there just how powerful this time can be, both for the girls and for their teachers. It was a privilege to speak at their “Sending Forth” service. Standing before those beautiful students I was again reminded that we live in an in-between time, in a broken world. But, I was also reminded how God is at work through us, slowly but patiently building the kingdom right here and now.

I am grateful to be with all of you in this in-between time, somewhere between the tragedy of Good Friday and the joy of Easter, in the midst of death and life.