I’m not going to lie, Easter is my favorite feast. The drama of Holy Week unfolds into the Vigil, where the smells of fire, incense and lilies pierce through the darkness with hopes of resurrection. The old stories are told, the ones where God walked with his people in the garden, in the wilderness and with each in their own sinful state, constantly calling and comforting them into deeper communion with him. Finally, we get to the point where alleluia is said – no, it is shouted – by gladsome hearts long burdened with Lenten self-denial. The bells ring, we keep the feast by singing with joy, “Alleluia, Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us!” What is not to love when you’re reenacting the slow, but quickly dawning salvation of our souls on a Saturday night?
But, then, there is always that moment a few minutes after the Mass that is always the most shocking. A few minutes after your awesome Church organist finished playing the Widor Toccata, you have step outside the house of God and back into the world: the world of twenty-four hour cable news; of nuclear meltdowns, joblessness and bubbles; of traffic lights that were specifically timed so you have to stop at every single one of them; of people who will always disappoint you; of keeping the peace even when you don’t want to; of broken hearts, closed minds and fractured spirits. We just spent hours proclaiming wholeness, return of the lost son and resurrection – only to return to a world of brokenness, proud prodigals and death.The world where the resurrection of Christ has no purpose. This return to the world is almost disheartening.
Whenever I think about this dichotomy – this oddness of suffering in the midst of new life – I can not help but think of that ancient procession of Bishops to the First Council of Nicea. The Council was called a little more than twenty years after official persecution of Christianity ended; most of the Bishops present were alive during the persecution by the wicked Emperor Diocletian, the fiercest of them all. Some of them were bruised, some were missing an eye, some were missing a leg, they should signs of beating, of being scourged and of being burned. Wearing their tall miters and their bejeweled copes, you could see eye patches and crutches as they hobbled in a grand procession, perhaps being aided by young, fresh-faced Deacons who would never know what it meant to suffer for the faith. Here, they are beautifully broken — echoing the words of the lover, “I am black, but I am comely.” (Song of Solomon 1:5).
Interestingly enough, Julian of Norwich envisions heaven in almost the same way. Heaven, she believes, will be this great party for us thrown by Christ. Our heavenly Host, however, will not sit up on high at the Host’s table, but will meander among his guests. Christ introduces us to each other by sharing what we suffered for Him. “Andy!” Christ will say to me, grabbing me by my hand and leading me through the party, “I want you to meet Bernadette, she was made fun of by her entire family and village because I gave her a vision of my mother.” She and I speak for a few moments before Christ grabs me again and says, “Andy, you absolutely must meet Thomas! He suffered for me by losing his head because he wouldn’t back down from the truth – he went toe-to-toe with a King for me!” In the resurrection, Lady Julian supposes, we will know each other by what we suffered. Yes, indeed, in the resurrection, we will be black, but comely to Our Lord.
On Feasts like Easter, when the timpani sound, the organ blares and the sopranos roll up into the heavens, we often asked ourselves, “What does any of this mean?” or, perhaps, “What difference does the resurrection of Christ make in the world?” We know the disheartening difference between the Vigil and the rest of the world. Some have answered this by saying that Christ suffered for us, therefore we do not have to suffer. These might say, He bore what we deserved, so we can live in this newness of life. Others, simply smile and keep signing ignorantly, “Alleluia!” – how dare we try to ruin their joy! These all cover their scars with make-up, pretending they don’t exist; they cover their tanned skin with white cream, so they can appear to be what they think Our Lord finds as comely.
What we must realize is that Christ showed us how to suffer and through that suffering which we share with Him, the world is being redeemed. Death is the gateway to resurrection, suffering the door to new life, an argument is the start of reconciliation, the prodigal leaving is the first step of his eventual return, a broken heart is the prerequisite to wholeness and birth-pangs are the sign of a quickly coming childbirth. We can’t have one without the other! Christ sanctified suffering, so that our brokenness, our prodigal natures and our death are – through Him, with Him and in Him – gateways to eternal life and the Kingdom of God. This is the what Easter means; this is the difference that the resurrection makes; this is why our Easter flame is set up in the middle of this darkened, disheartened world world of ours.
We echo those words of the lover, too, for we are black, yet we are comely — even in the midst of our Easter triumph. We hold before our risen Lord: broken hearts, marriages and friendships. We carry before us: minds choked with addiction, hands covered in blood and spoken words that have murdered the souls of many. We show to Jesus the scars of hatred, that our eye-sockets are emptied because of envy, and that we lost our leg because of greed. We hobble onwards in hope of resurrection; we sing, “Alleluia” even though we can only muster a whisper; we grieve and we doubt. Even though we might never speak a word of it to anyone, we, too, are tanned by trials and we are black, yet comely.
And we shall join that procession to the wedding feast of the broken, yet whole. Those old Bishops of Nicea will be dressed in white with crowns adorning their brow, yet will hobble to the table on crutches. St. Thomas a Beckett will be washed in the blood of the Lamb and dressed in his finest, yet holding his severed head before him. St. Bernadette will be shimmering like a bride of blinding white, yet carrying on her person those mocks and jokes that were made at her expense. So shall, we, too come to that great wedding feast with our formerly broken hearts before us, our shattered minds in our hands and our doubts in a glittering little box. Our suffering will not be wiped away but find that singular, eternal purpose for it from the beginning: union with God. And, Christ shall point these all out to the other guests with great pride, saying, “Look, this is what you did for me. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Let us never forget that we follow a wounded Lord whose wounds remained as the true signs of his true resurrection. We are black, yet comely to you, O Lord of Life.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!