Preached on April 30, 2012 by the Rev’d Chris Bowhay (no audio)
“…ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”
Last month, as my family and I drove back from our Spring Break trip to Santa Fe, we passed through the Texas Hill Country. For the first time since we came to Texas twelve years ago, we finally saw the famous and gorgeous wildflowers. Somehow, probably because the wildflower season coincides the busiest season of the Church year, I had never seen them at their peak. We saw mile after mile of iridescent patches of exuberant color: yellow prickly pear cactuses, purple Missouri violets, magenta Firewheels, and, of course, Texas bluebonnets. As we roared past these blooming rainbows, I was struck by contradictory feelings of delight and sadness: the thrill of their beauty was framed by a sadness that they would only blossom for a few more weeks and die. The wildflower season of Texas is a mingling of beauty and regret: even while we enjoy their color, we are aware of their passing glory and impending doom. Spring and Autumn have their own kind of melancholy. In autumn we see tired leaves returning gratefully to the ground, to their Maker. In spring, each plant trumpets its glory with reckless abandon, strutting its stuff as if it were totally ignorant of the looming shadow that creeps behind it. Even in spring, the season of life, we hear whispers of winter and death.
I bring this up because it has something to do with today’s Gospel when Our Lord gives His farewell address to His disciples at the Last Supper. He warns them that “…a little while and ye shall not see me.” On the night before He dies, in His typically subtle way, He prepares them for His immanent crucifixion and death. The disciples, remaining true to form, have no clue about what Jesus means. To them, everything seems to be going so well. They had just marched triumphantly through the gates of Jerusalem and now sit with their Master to enjoy a meal. Why was He talking about loss and sorrow when He seemed to be so close to victory? We might ask the same question in the Church this morning. We have passed through our commemorations of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ and we prepare even today a Picnic party to enjoy time together. Why do we read about the events leading up Calvary now? Easter has happened, Christ is risen, spring is here, it is a beautiful day. Why talk about doom and gloom and sorrow and loss?
In the same way that a flower begins to wilt even while it blooms, and in the same way that our Lord warned His disciples that they would lose Him even while He was still with them, we need to confront the fact that in this fallen world, loss is a part of life. As we say at every Graveside service, “In the midst of life we are in death.” On this side of eternity, we constantly fight a losing battle with loss. Anytime we experience anything in life that is good, pleasurable, and enjoyable—a special gathering of friends, a sunset by the sea, the good health and life of family, even a great meal—we suddenly become aware that “these too shall pass.” If we can feel sorry about the loss of a flower, which, while beautiful, is relatively common, how much more do we mourn and fear the more precious losses of family, friends and loved ones? In a way, to be alive at all is to be aware of how life slips away like sand between our fingers, like tears washed in the rain.
If to be alive is to be aware of the fragile particles of life we are losing, then Christ, who is the King of Life, is also profoundly aware of what loss feels like. Like us, He is no stranger to loss. When He mounted the Cross, He took upon Himself every loss that mankind can ever know. He lost His friends, He lost His family, He lost His honor and reputation, He lost His strength and, as He was losing His life, He cried out in the most horrible, inconceivable experience of loss, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” God Himself, God Incarnate, suffered the loss of God. All the broken loss of humanity meets in the broken body of Christ on the Cross. This is expressed symbolically in the Eucharist during what is called the Fraction, when the Priest takes the consecrated Host and breaks It. At this point the brokenness of our life—the sorrows, the sufferings, and the losses that we endure—are offered to God and are wedded to the brokenness that Christ endured on Calvary once and for all because of His love for us.
This is all heavy stuff. Sometimes we do not want to think about it. As the Anglican poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Man cannot endure too much reality.” But we who are here today in Church know that life can get pretty heavy. Christians are a reality-oriented people. Because God is ultimate reality, and because we want to know the truth about God and ourselves, we do not flinch from any reality, even the real horror of loss. If everyone we love and every good thing in life is doomed to fade like springtime wildflowers, why do we love or live at all? In the face of all this loss and horror, what comfort do we receive to keep going, to dare to love, to choose life? The one thing that frees us to believe in life even in the face of death is the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ from His tomb, three days after His death on the Cross. I cannot tell you that believing in the Resurrection of Christ from the dead will make you feel better about the all-too-palpable pain that comes from the real losses that we face, but I can tell you that without that faith there is absolutely no hope for a life that is honest and sane, much less lovely and lively. Jesus did not promise His followers that they would not sorrow when He left them; He promised that their real sorrows would be turned into joy when they saw Him again. Like the birthpangs that every mother endures when her child comes into this world, our occasional but real sorrows in this earthly vale of tears will be swallowed up by the joy we will experience when we see God at our Resurrection, and when we see Him remake His fallen world into the paradise He intended it to be.
In the Eucharist, after the Fraction, which re-presents the Crucifixion, the Priest places a particle of the Host in the Chalice, which re-presents the Resurrection. The Body and Blood of Christ, once separated at His death, are reintegrated and transformed at His Resurrection. In the same way, our sorrows and losses in this transitory life, having been joined to His, are reintegrated and transfigured. In Jesus’ death and Resurrection, all things are made whole, the whole creation is made new, and our sufferings and sorrows are turned to joy. The victory of Jesus’ Resurrection offers us the joy of Heaven, not only after we die, but mysteriously even now as we receive the comfort and strength to live and love through and beyond our sorrow. In this life, whether dealing with flowers, family, or friends, we cannot prevent loss. But, because of the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead, we are free to love, because we trust that no one and nothing is ever finally lost to God.