Can these Bones Live? (A Holy Friday Reflection)

These are heavy days.

Sadly, this isn’t particularly different from any other time. We always seem to be in heavy days. There are always wars and rumours of war, political wranglings, and polarization of opinion. If there’s one thing people from all ages and places seem to agree on it’s that the world is falling apart. (I actually take some comfort in this!) Yet there are times when the world feels a lot heavier than others. And for me the past few weeks have felt particularly heavy, grievous and sorrowful.

I was pondering this as I was waking up this morning, when the words “He chose to bear our griefs and sorrows” came to mind. I recognized the exact wording as coming from Eucharistic Prayer 2 in the Anglican Book of Alternative Services, which I probably hadn’t heard or prayed in over eight years. It is a reference, suitably enough considering today is Holy Friday, to the Servant Song in Isaiah 53:

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

 But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

From the very beginning, Christians have seen Isaiah’s Servant as pointing forward to Jesus and the cross. Much of this association has revolved around the second of these two verses quoted, but on this Holy Friday, my thoughts linger on the first, on this Servant who bears not only our transgressions and iniquities unto the cross, but also our griefs and our sorrows.

We’re used to remembering Jesus as one who ate and drank with outcasts and sinners, who identified with the weak over the powerful, with the sick and wounded as much as with the well, and who died as a cursed exile, rejected by his people and abandoned by his God and Father. But perhaps we have given less thought to this Jesus who identifies with those who grieve and are sorrowful, those of us whose mourning – whether for lost loved ones, lost identities, lost homelands, or simply lost opportunities – is particularly burdensome. This is the Jesus who blessed those who mourn (for they shall be comforted), and who wept with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus.

I find this reminder very profound. We live in a culture where we aren’t allowed to be sad, to express loneliness or need, where a basic human phenomenon like grief is now seen as a diagnosable psychological disorder. Christian churches are particularly notorious for this kind of unspoken requirement to put on appearances that all is well. But griefs and sorrows, no matter how great or how petty, are real. To deny them is to deny reality.

I’m reminded of a story about the Dalai Lama, who candidly told a reporter about an incident many years earlier, when a monk for whom he had great respect committed suicide after misinterpreting something he had said to him. The reporter asked him how long it took to get over this, to which the Dalai Lama – a man who had dedicated his life to seeking clarity and equanimity – told him bluntly that even after many many years, he still grieved the loss of his friend and his unwitting role in it. Grief is an inescapable part of life, even for great spiritual masters.

Since grief and sorrow are inescapable, we have no recourse but to experience them, deeply and fully, but also knowing that our Lord is not one who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but, rather, surely chose to bear our griefs and sorrows, who blesses us when we mourn, and who weeps with us when we hurt. As someone whose adult life has been marked by false starts, confounding disappointments, and far more loss than love, this is surely comforting to remember. And yet we also believe that the cross – our sin, our abandonment, our rejection, our weakness, our grief and our sorrow – is not final Word. Hope, no matter how faint and distant it seems, is always around the corner.

One of the things I miss most about Orthodox Holy Week is the services for Holy Saturday (which are always served on Friday). These services, which follow the story of Jesus’ burial and Sabbath rest, are certainly solemn, yet contain an irrepressible sense of anticipation. Even in the midst of the deepest lamentation, hope cannot be held back in these hymns and readings, like an overheating boiler rattling and shaking before it bursts, or an egg moments before it hatches, or perhaps even more like a small child too excited to keep a sworn secret. The night culminates in the reading of the prophecy of the Valley of Dry Bones, in which God tells his prophet to proclaim new life to his people, who – like many of us – cry out “Our bones are dry! Our hope is lost! And we ourselves are cut off!” The reading ends with the Lord, speaking in the first person, telling his recreated and restored people “I the LORD have done this.”

I can’t help but bring these two strands together in my thoughts today: that the Lord who gives new life to his people and says “I the LORD have done this” is the same Lord who, bearing our griefs and sorrows, says from his cross, “It is done.” We surely grieve and mourn in this world, but we are not alone. And, new life is just a Word away.

[For perhaps a more theologically interesting reflection on the cross, here’s what I wrote last year.]

 

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