I visited a congregation in New York’s Adirondack Mountains recently for a conversation about pastoral transition.
As I got out of my car, I looked around at the old graveyard surrounding the church building and snapped a quick photo with my iPhone.
Something about the near twilight time stirred something within me. Of course, a time for reflection was deferred, as a church meeting awaited, so I hurried inside.
I returned to the picture a few days later and pondered over the image. The old graveyard may not merit a second glance from some passers-by, a place so familiar and part of the local landscape.
Others perhaps drive into the yard so they can wander between the headstones and be among the generations of the dead.
Some folks go to cemeteries to remember loved ones, bearing flowers or perhaps some memento to leave there. Others avoid such places and shudder at the thought of stepping foot in a graveyard.
Death is part of life, yet too often, we try our best to pretend that death’s sting can be avoided or compartmentalized away. Death comes for us all, yet most of us hope to get out of death alive, somehow, someway.
Holy Week is a time to remember the last days of Jesus and retrace the fateful week that tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet, we try to avoid any talk of the fatal elements.
The Baptists of my upbringing tend to observe Palm Sunday (complete with small children armed with palm fronds to poke at one another).
We may gather for a somber Maundy Thursday (more likely with a jovial potluck dinner preceding any talk of a Last Supper). And then, we tend to spend the next couple of days planning for Easter Sunday.
Many Baptists and other Protestants of evangelical/Free Church background tend to skip Good Friday, and there’s no great thought given to Holy Saturday, when we are somewhere in the deep valley between Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Many Christians will observe the three days of Triduum, feeling the heaviness of the story’s crashing down as Christ breathes his last on the Cross and the Tomb is occupied, not immediately empty.
The stone is rolled over the doorway, and the followers of Jesus are trying their best to hide away.
Yet, in remembering, retelling and re-enacting the gospel’s final chapters, some Christians want to skip over the heaviness of Friday and Saturday for the Sunday festivities that include church and yet much, much more in terms of “fun stuff” (brunch, egg hunts and even a new bonnet or two).
Indeed, some folks may only associate this time of year with Palm processions and Easter alleluias, collapsing the narrative to the point the pain of the cross is forgotten just like we want our lives to be lived: away from the pain and finality.
Give us a triumphal word, but don’t bother us with the common and frank reality that awaits us all.
However, the graveyard is inescapable. Our names will be there inscribed in a memorial headstone. It’s not an optional part of life.
And as Christians who believe in the greater narrative beyond life and death, we can easily slide into a piety of “sweet bye and bye,” giving short shrift to the possibilities of a faith engaged as Jesus lived his own life: fully and with concern that faith is about engagement and bettering the world even as we talk of future reward.
Too often in our eagerness to talk of God’s future, we forget that the pain of the world needs us to live with humility and awareness about the world’s lingering at a Good Friday’s destruction or Holy Saturday’s desolation far more than in the giddy heights of resurrection morn.
Preparing to celebrate Easter, the day of resurrection, is not just a matter of festivities on a certain day each year.
The week that separates Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is meant to be a journey, each step of the way, not like some liturgical pick-and-choose where the heavier days are abridged or elided altogether.
We have to be amid the tombstones. We have to engage the world rather than shrink back from its heaviness or anesthetize/numb ourselves from any call to do something about the unjust circumstances of the global and local contexts we live in.
God does not mean for us to be mourners and pallbearers constantly, yet in the humility of realizing the fragility and finitude of our own existence, we might just gain some perspective on what it means to be in the here and now as a people carrying on Christianity’s past and present witness into the future.
We cannot just hurry into the church to do the “business” of faith. It’s time to linger at the lonely places. It’s time to gain some perspective so we remember that to dust we all return.
And in the meantime, it’s time to live life shaped by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. He blogs at Preaching and Pondering, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.