joy, meet relief

Can you hear it in their voices?

Once you cut through the baffled wonder and divide the nagging disbelief and set aside the stuttering astonishment, there it is: relief.

He is risen. He is risen? He is risen! It’s not a matter of simple punctuation. There are a thousand reactions to surprising news, and the Gospels cover nearly every one. Mary thinks she’s talking to the gardener. John and Peter race each other to the tomb. Thomas can’t believe his eyes.

But by the end of each of their stories, there is always a category shift.

The turn to joy.

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Happiness is often distinguished from joy. One is fleeting; the other is lasting. One is surface; the other is depth.

But here’s a difference I hadn’t noticed until this Easter.

Until I nursed the baby in the wee grey hours of Sunday morning, the baby who had slept all night, finally, blessedly, miraculously slept all night after months of terrible waking. Until my only thought as my whole self relaxed to let him feed was relief.

And then I remembered how joy can come from relief. 

It is not exactly happiness, because we are so worn out that we cannot smile easy. And we are changed by what we have been through, wrung from worry and exhausted from fear. But we still feel this deeper exhale, this turning back toward trust, this unspoken knowledge that we will carry with us a wider, wiser, richer understanding because of the dark slog we have trudged through.

A loved one waits for test results. All signs point to the worst. Then the doctor calls to say, “All clear.” We sit stunned. We exchange glances, barely believing. Then we start to let down toward joy.

The joy that knows this could have ended a thousand different ways, all of them terribly. Yet it didn’t.

The joy that embraces not only a good ending, but a new beginning.

. . .

Each time I birthed my babies, I felt this joy-from-relief, overwhelmed in those spinning moments after delivery, surging with intensity that words fail to capture, a swirl of pain and exhilaration, delight and delirium, disbelief and astonishment. And always joy.

Knowing this moment could have ended a thousand different ways, so many of them badly. Knowing the stories of strangers and friends for whom death met birth in heart-breaking ways.

But then realizing with my own heart, seeing with my own eyes, whispering to my stunned self, that it wasn’t. That we were here and safe and okay.

Deep joy pulsed in each of those delivery rooms, bustling with nurses I barely saw and bright lights that paled around me while I watched a brand-new face blink open to a new world.

I wonder if Easter morning was like this, too.

Running from an empty tomb, scrambling to tell someone else, racing to see a body gone, feeling that heart-racing thump of no, no way, really, yes is this real, can this be? Desperate dreams and wildest prayers and all of them answered – he is not here! he is alive? – but not in ways any of them could have imagined in a million years.

His friends knew the joy that comes from relief. From knowing it could have, should have, would have been so different. Yet here they are. Life is categorically changed, and they are reeling from deepest joy.

Two thousand years later and we are still puzzling to parse out the meaning of that day. I still don’t understand this – the turning inside out of everything that makes sense, the upheaval of existence itself, the strange promise that a shadow of the same waits for each of us.

I do not understand it but I believe it in my bones and every time I feel my body release into the joy that flows from relief, I wonder if maybe we all know what it means to witness resurrection.

To sink into a possibility that you never dared to let yourself imagine, and to discover that it was exactly what you hoped all along.

baby’s first holy week

Sweet boy, here we are. In the holiest of weeks.

It all started on Palm Sunday. You solemnly gumming the long green palm in your father’s hands. Your brothers waving their palms wildly around the air (bonus points for whacking a sibling in the eye). Me watching all of you, half wondering why we bother to bring you to church, half realizing that the wonder of Holy Week is to see it through a child’s eyes.

We will take you three boys to church three times this week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. I will prepare for each outing as I prepare for nearly everything as a mom of littles: with low expectations and plenty of snacks. As always, Holy Week will be nothing like what I envision and exactly what I need.

But here is a small secret I will share with you and only you. (Because you are new and mute and thus good at keeping secrets.)

You already know what this week is about. 

. . .

On Holy Thursday we wash feet. You know about this, too.

You know the warm water into which you stretch your wriggling limbs, your eyes darting to bathtub tiles as if you remember this sensation from long-ago, the wet dark warmth of womb. You are slippery in my arms holding you fast over the awkward tub ledge, laughing as your feet dance through clouds of bubbles.

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This holy week, we will slip off shoes and tug off socks and pour warm water over each other’s feet. There is so much of God in this simple truth of washing. How we serve one another in the most basic and bodily ways. How we help to transform dirty into clean. How we bend low to hold what is holy.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Thursday we break bread. You know about this, too.

You know how to lunge for a crust of whatever we’re eating, chasing crumbs around your highchair tray with pudgy fingers. You join us at table now and open your mouth wide for a share of our food. And when you corner a big-enough piece and carefully connect hand to mouth with concentration, satisfaction stretches across your plumpest cheeks.

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This holy week, we will cup our hands to receive the One who came to be bread. There is so much of God in this simple truth of feeding. How we feed the least among us first. How we break ourselves open to become love for each other. How nourished we can be by the smallest taste of the divine.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

 . . .

On Good Friday we kiss what we love. You know about this, too. You are besieged by brotherly affection: kisses smacked on the top of your soft head, arms wrapped fierce around your tender neck, small hands tugging your toes. You erupt in grins when I cuddle your chin and you nuzzle your nose into my shoulder when I kiss you goodnight.

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This holy week, we will wait in line to bend down and venerate a stark wooden cross. There is so much of God in this simple truth of loving. How we lift up what the world overlooks. How we let what is soft meet what is hard. How we give daily thanks for life, even its sacrifices.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we wait. You know about this, too.

You are already resigned to the fate of third children, waiting while someone else’s need is greater or screams are louder. Your wide eyes soak up your surroundings while you wait your turn for attention, quietly filing away whatever you glean from the chaos around you.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of waiting. How we must keep faith through long stretches for a dream to grow. How hope can be the heaviest weight to bear. How love wins despite evidence to the contrary.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we tell stories. You know this, too. You grab clunky board books at naptime as I whisper well-worn words in your ear. You bat the pages back and forth, and a knowing smile curls across your cheeks as we rock to the rhythm of rhymes I memorized ages ago.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of telling stories. How stories make us who we are. How the divine mystery speaks through holy word. How sharing long-ago tales makes them real again before our eyes.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Easter Sunday we sing and we feast. You know about this, too.

You clap your hands for lullabies and Old McDonald, each new verse like an Alleluia of joy. You gulp down sweet peaches and smooth pears, devour messy scrambled eggs and slimy avocado chunks. You delight in music and meals, whatever sweetness is offered to fill you up.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of singing and feasting. How celebration sets all five senses on fire with joy. How we are an Easter people, hard stones of our hearts rolled away to find an empty tomb echoing promise. How we cannot keep from singing.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

This is a hard and holy week. This is a hard and holy life.

What a gift to share it again, anew, with you.

labor’s stages: a triduum

A journey of four days, each unique.

Holy Week reveals itself in new shades every year, shadows of dark and light. It pushes through the broken, cold dirt of Lent’s long winter with a fresh green curl of hope.

With only a few short weeks to go before baby’s birth, I see these feasts through a new slant. Each like its own stage of labor, particular and progressing. Anticipated but still unexpected.

The gentle beginning.

The increased pain.

The powerful transition.

The final push.

The question is how to journey through all four, patient and present, without wanting to skip over all that comes between.

. . .

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When you know you’re in labor, call me, she says, a steady confidence behind her steely grey eyes that have seen thousands of babies birthed into the world. We’ll meet you outside the hospital so we can walk and talk and decide when you want to go in.

And we’ll go get you some food first, she adds, turning to pick up the Doppler to check my baby’s heartbeat. You’ll need to keep up your strength for what comes next.

Thursday is washing and feeding. Prepare your body: eat and drink. Let your feet be washed. Bend your own knees to serve others. Try to steel yourself for what comes next, the sacrifice and the suffering.

Except you can never ready yourself for what Friday will bring. It will catapult you back into the arms of God.

. . .

IMG_6136An empty due date comes and goes. I am the only one who notices.

Alone that night, I light a small candle. Another baby kicks and squirms inside me. Is it worth mourning when my body is rounded and ripe again? Of course. The heart once wounded never heals the same.

I remember how it broke me open, the birth-that-was-not-birth. When I walked into the hospital a month ago for routine tests, my whole body tensed at the memory.

I worry that contractions will trigger the fear and grief again. I worry that we could lose, again.

Friday is suffering and sacrifice. Step into a bare church, stripped stark of its presence. Listen to stories of hearts and bodies breaking. Remember the physical pain of love.

But do not forget that Saturday still waits. Dawn’s first hints that despair and loss will be overshadowed by strange new hope.

. . .

Baptism has many symbols, he explains, ticking them off on his fingers while the couple in front of me fuss over their newborn in the car seat carrier.

Water. Light. Oil. A white garment. And one more in our church that you won’t find anywhere else. Can you guess what it is?

IMG_6137My head snaps back to attention, lulled into laziness by baptism classes before and graduate studies before that. I wonder what our deacon means.

The tomb. Next time you walk by our baptismal font, take a look at its shape. It looks like a tomb. Or a coffin. Because we are baptized into Christ’s death before we rise with him to new life.

And we want our wriggling newborn to be plunged into precisely that, I think. Could anything sound crazier? Starkest darkness before the light.

Saturday is waiting and transition. Pause for a moment between death and life. Sit in the tension between agony and delight. Hold a candle to welcome the newest Christians, the ones who shape their lives to a tomb filled in sorrow and opened in surprise.

So do not give up when you fear you cannot make it through. Transition means the joy is almost within your grasp.

. . .

Do you know what you’re having?

Again and again, perfect strangers pose the question. I have to bite back the sarcastic reply before it slips past my tongue – I think it’s a baby – and respond with a kinder smile. We’re keeping it a surprise.

After Easter Mass the gathering space swells with people swarming into pews or spilling out into the parking lot. The grandmother of the family who often sit behind our motley crew reaches out to grab my elbow as I pass.

Remind me, are your boys getting a brother or a sister?

We’ll have to wait and see, I tell her. Not much longer!

She nods, satisfied. And turning to go, she adds, It will be a blessing for your family no matter what.

SIMG_6139unday is rising and revelation. The miracle bursting forth. What seemed impossible is now before our eyes in flesh and blood. Letting loose an Alleluia we have waited long to hear.

But still we hold traces of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in our Sunday grasp.

To remind us how the journey that brought joy was a winding road through mystery and death. This year, as in every other year. This birth, as in every other birth.

the forgotten days of holy week

Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. How easily we pass over them, eyes set eagerly on Easter Sunday. Or anticipating Thursday’s opening of the Triduum.

Our first half of Holy Week probably looks a lot like yours. Work. School. Kids. Meetings. Chores. Bills. The lackluster pregame show before the big kickoff. The forgettable prelude before the fanfare. The ordinary before the extraordinary. 

But the church’s calendar claims these three are holy, too.

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The earliest days of the holiest week are in-between: not quite Lent, not quite Easter. It is a time of anticipating what is right around the corner, practically within reach. We are almost there.

The Main Event looms large on the horizon. All signs point toward its arrival, but the journey here has been so long – can it really be coming?

Ahead of us lies both pain and joy, suffering and peace. How can we possibly prepare for all that? How can we hold all this tension at once?

These are the last days. They matter.

Soon we will remember how everything changes.

. . .

The end of the third trimester is a strange part of pregnancy. The eagerness of almost, the frustration of not-yet.

Like Holy Week’s emotional extremes, this time swings wildly: something to celebrate, something to endure, something to savor, something to push through. Both quiet and flurry, both calm and storm. Each day adding to our anticipation.

My mental countdown clicks steadily. Five more midwife appointments. Five more prenatal yoga classes. Five more weeks to finish all those pressing work projects.

Each Saturday the nesting instinct kicks in with greater intensity. Scribbled To Do Before Baby! list in hand, I clean out closets and drawers, watch the boys build the crib with their father, wash baby blankets and fold diapers in neat stacks.

Ready and waiting.

Every friend and stranger I meet asks how much longer I have left. Around us bubble joy and anticipation. A growing readiness to be done. An impatience to discover what (and who!) comes next.

I wonder. Have I done enough? Yes. And no. Like Lent, this journey of expectation is always bigger than me, beyond my personal penances, my tries and fails, my awareness of my own limits. I am carried by forces greater than my own.

And a calendar that presses ever onward, oblivious to the emotions with which I fill the hours.

. . .

I wonder how to honor this time rather than race too fast towards the end goal. How to see the holiness of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in turn.

I love Thursday, I lean into Friday, I learn from Saturday, I leap into Sunday. But right now are the days before. The days that ask me to pause.

These neglected early days of Holy Week are a different kind of preparation from the Lent that preceded. More immediate. Here and not-here. Upon us, yet still beyond our grasp. The mystery of the middle time, when we think we know what awaits us (all the Easters have we been through before), when we remember that we can always be surprised (each year bringing its own gifts).

Do I remember to reverence these almost-days, these overlooked ordinaries?

The Celts spoke of thin places, spaces and moments when heaven and earth seem to touch, only the slightest trace separating their realities. Perhaps Holy Week is a small hole through which we peer into the deepest mysteries of the life of God. We could never understand all that it contains. But each year we might nudge a little closer, if we try, to imagine what its truth might mean for our lives.

I watch and wait in this almost-time. It could be long weeks till everything changes; it could be mere days. But God is here, too.

And it is not only Easter morning which makes it so. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. All the ordinary days matter, too.

courage from the tomb

What took more courage: going into the tomb or coming out?

On Good Friday the thought of going into the tomb overwhelms me. Too much blood and betrayal, too much violence and grief.

I drag my feet, wanting to stay in Holy Thursday where we break bread and wash each other’s dirt away. Yes, there’s betrayal and violence that night, too, but something feels safer in the celebration of service than in the commemoration of death.

When I’m thrust into Friday, it’s painfully dark and the Gospel makes me squirm and can’t it be Sunday already so we can get this mess behind us?

So whenever I close my eyes and try to imagine how Friday felt, the mocking and the beating and the pounding of nails into flesh, I’m awash with wonder at the courage it took Christ to die.

The courage it took to enter the tomb.

But this Easter, sitting in a dark church flickering with small candles of hope, I thought about the courage it took to leave the tomb.

Saturday must have felt so quiet and empty after Friday’s passion. Alone and safe in a cold stone cave. At last. Away.

Was he tempted to stay there? To let the hard work be behind him and the protection of death’s distance keep him safe from those who hurt him?

I used to think resurrection was a fairy tale trick, a golden glimmer from a magic wand that spun breath back into dead bones with a presto-chango burst of brilliance. But maybe resurrection is much more real, much harder.

Maybe resurrection starts with the courage to forgive.

The courage to move past pain and violence and death. The courage to move towards love and peace and life. The courage to walk out of the tomb and embrace humanity again.

I wonder if this is the reason Christ’s friends couldn’t recognize him at first, when they saw him in the garden and met him on the road. Not because he was a magical masquerader, but because he was utterly transformed by the courage that is deepest love. The courage it took to overcome humiliation and abandonment and rejection. The courage it took to forgive.

He looked different because he was different. Love won.

And the life that came from that courage – the life and the love and the hope and the faith and the Spirit that is still humming in so many of our bones – it takes my breath away with its truth.

The way everything is transformed when we live as if love wins.

. . .

So often I’m tempted by the tomb, tempted to stay in the solitude of safety and selfishness when I’ve been hurt. I’m tempted to hunker down against a world that doesn’t understand, that never understood.

But the call to live as an Easter person – to live into resurrection, to say no to despair and say yes to love – is a call that transforms. A call to have courage and let love win and leave the safe quiet and step back out into the world again.

I think of this often when I think of my children. How life will inevitably hurt them. How friends will betray and companions be cruel. How accidents will happen and mistakes be made. How their hearts (and probably bones) will be broken. How they won’t make the team or get the job they want. How people they love will die or abandon them.

Of course it’s not my job to shield them from any of it – it’s never our place to shield from life itself. We cannot hide in caves away from the world outside, content ourselves with licking our wounds from a thousand small deaths. The only thing I can hope to help them see is how to get up each time, breathe deeply, forgive and love again.

Try to let love win.

So my Easter prayer becomes one for courage. To shape a humble life that shows my children something about courage and forgiveness. To bear my own witness, my own small flickering light, to the love that wins.