Today is Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar; Passover begins on Tuesday, and Good Friday (Holy Friday – thus the word ‘good’ meaning Holy.)
I want to offer a very brief review of Passover, Palm Sunday and Good Friday as a way of getting at the underlying theme of suffering and grief that weaves them together.
My working premise is that all of the religions of the world have the same source: the human experience…no, not just the human experience, but the religions of the world come out of the depths – the living of it, and the digging into those depths…of being born without your will and dying against your will…and all that happens between those two human events – living, struggling, failing, succeeding, suffering, etc.
The religions tell the universal human story in myth, legend and metaphor – those myths, legends and metaphor speak to us ‘out of the depths,’ and sometimes it’s so deep it feels like another voice.
The Passover story says that God ‘heard the cry’ of the Hebrew slaves’ suffering, so he sent Moses to convince the Pharaoh to ‘let my people go,’ as the song says. Suffering precedes liberation: ‘I have heard the cry of my people,’ the voice says. ‘I want them to be free!’
Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya remind us of the deep longing for freedom in the human spirit.
The ancient Passover story says that God had to send ten plagues to convince the Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people leave Egypt – to free them from their bondage.
He resists the first nine, so God pulls out all the stops and sends the angel of death to take the first-born in every household, but instructs the angel of death to pass over those homes marked with the blood of a spring lamb, thus the name Passover.
The old story says that the Hebrew people were in bondage in Egypt. The modern version is unfolding now in the recent freedom march to Tahrir Square in Cairo. The word Tahrir means ‘liberation.’It was officially named Tahrir after the Egyptian revolution of 1952 which changed Egypt from a constitutional monarchy into a republic.
The Jewish version of the Passover story says that a ‘spring lamb’ was to be sacrificed and the blood of the lamb smeared on the doorpost — the Christian version of the Passover/Palm Sunday/Good Friday/Easter story says that Jesus was the Lamb of God — the lamb that was sacrificed by God to free the people from their bondage to sin.
The blood that was shed was like the blood on the doorposts in ancient Egypt – in the Christian version the angel of death passes over the lives of the true believers.
One of the most popular lines in the Bible says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but shall have everlasting life.” -John 3:16 (King James Version)
It’s a summary of the Passover story – the ‘angel of death’ passes over those who are ‘saved’ (from death) by accepting the blood of Jesus as ‘sacrificial lamb.’
We Unitarian Universalists believe the Passover story and the Palm Sunday story and the Easter story are Truth stories, with a capital T – they are mythological stories used to illustrate what it means to be human – to be born, to struggle and to suffer and to die, and to experience the loss of loved ones along the way…to move through the grief of those losses
May Sarton expresses it in a poem she titled, Of Grief; she writes, in part:
There are some griefs so loud
They could bring down the sky,
And there are griefs so still
None knows how deep they lie,
Endured, never expended.
There are old griefs so proud
They never speak a word
They never can be mended
And these nourish the will
And keep it iron-hard.
Grief comes in all sizes, shapes and depths: ‘none knows how deep they lie,’ the poet says, but they must be endured. They are endured in silence and by finding words with which to express them.
The religions of the world tell the human story with their creation myths and explanations about our mortality, the reasons for human suffering and promises of immortality.
We often hear someone say, “I don’t believe in this or that Bible story,” when it might be more accurate to say, “I don’t understand how that story is about my life.”
The Passover story is about human suffering and the deep human need for freedom – the cost of freedom that came after the Exodus…the forty years of wandering before reaching the Promised Land, which Moses only saw from the distance, but didn’t live to enter, reminding us that life isn’t about reaching a particular destination – it’s about the journey we call life as we move through the days and nights, the heights and the depths along the way.
Palm Sunday is so named for that part of the story that says the people greeted the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by laying palms in his path as a sign of welcome. They shouted Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord…we praise you. It also means ‘save us…help!’
It didn’t take long for them to be disappointed – he didn’t free them from their political oppressors. Rabbi Jesus had no such intentions – his ministry was about the liberation of the human spirit. The story says that the people had high hopes and big expectations. Within a few days, the story says, they were sorely disappointed and shouted ‘crucify him!’
It happens so often in our very human relationships – we have high expectations of someone…like Obama, for example, then he doesn’t live up to those expectations and we move from ‘Hosanna!’ to ‘throw him out!’
So Palm Sunday led to Good Friday, or Holy Friday – the death of God, and his time in the tomb…and then it moves on to the Easter story…the resurrection of Jesus as God and his ascension into heaven. It’s the human story; it’s about the seasons and cycles of our own life.
The awareness of our mortality creates a certain underlying sense of sadness to life – a kind of grief.
In her poem In Blackwater Woods, Mary Oliver says, in part:
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Grief is painful; it is difficult; but it is ‘good’ in a couple of ways – first, it is good in the same sense as ‘Good Friday,’ – it is sacred or holy…it comes ‘out of the depths,’ as the Psalmist put it. It is good because it is a natural response to a loss – without love there is no grief. Love is ‘good,’ and the loss results in grief as the process of ‘letting go.’ But ‘letting go’ doesn’t mean ‘forgetting.’ Quite the opposite, in fact…it means a deeper ‘holding on to’ the precious memories of a life we shared.
‘Good grief!’ comes in many sizes and colors.
There is no ‘right way’ to do the work of grief. Some of the work must be done alone; sometimes it helps to have others to talk to – good listening ears and a caring presence – the ability to be present without the need to fix it. Some grieve by writing about it.
Joan Didion did that when her husband died. Her book, the Year of Magical thinking, invited the reader to live through that year of denial with her. Her book is a helpful, penetrating and powerful portrayal of her experience of grief at the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
Didion’s title, The Year of Magical Thinking, describes the first response to loss, denial, the mind’s unwillingness to accept the cold, hard, permanent reality. Magical thinking, or denial, allows the mind to create a tolerable alternative that unacceptable reality.
She says that writing this book was an attempt to break through the denial — the weeks and months of magical thinking. She says that she writes to “…cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness…about marriage and children and memory…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”
She writes to get herself through the necessary change in thinking – the transformation she needs to make, but finds herself resisting, unable or unwilling to accept it.
Joyce Carol Oates recently published her version in A Widow’s Story: a memoir of grief.
About the book she says, “I never set out to write a memoir – the book called A Widow’s Story is comprised of journal entries…I could not sleep well so I wrote the journal late at night…I certainly did not want to write a memoir – to shape into a coherent structure: what is called, so very abstractly, a ‘book.’ In a traditional memoir, chapters are written; in this sort of composed memoir, chapters are assembled out of small journal entries, developed or expanded a bit, or edited.”
She goes on to say, “The act of writing is an act of attempted comprehension, and in a child-like way, control; we are so baffled and exhausted by what has happened, we want to imagine that giving words to the unspeakable will make it somehow our own.”
She writes about her sense of guilt – survivor’s guilt, believing that there must have been something else. “I thought that people might be justified in speaking contemptuously to me – You! Still alive! What are you doing, still alive!”
“There is a strange sort of expectation that grief should conform to a general pattern or principle. There are even scientific polls of measurement – what is ‘normal’ – what is ‘extreme’ grief. As if individuals are not radically different…”
Another new book is reviewed in today’s NY Times – it’s by Meghan O’Rourke – a memoir she calls The Long Goodbye, about her journey into grief around her mother’s illness and death.
In response to the sermon title in Soundings one of our members, Alice Rago, wrote to me about her personal experience, saying:
“In a brief span of four years I lost my mother, my children’s father, my brother and my son…it has been devastating, horrific, sad, and very difficult. I’ve had a hard time getting through it. That’s what they say — you don’t get over it, you get through it. Frankly, I don’t think you even get through it.
“But what I have only recently realized is that I am doing much better, and the reason, I believe, is that I have finally accepted their deaths. Acceptance comes with time; for me, it’s been a long time, but it has finally come. One day I woke up and I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t so, so sad. I have finally accepted their loss which is a part of navigating this life. You never forget but you do accept.”
Grief is part of what we have to endure as we ‘navigate this life,’ as she put it.
John Morgan says it this way:
“Look, a big thing has happened. A big thing, a strange thing. Everybody look for a moment: my friend has died. My friend is not here — was here, and now is not, and I think somehow you should all turn and understand this and then think about us.”
The serenity prayer speaks to the need for acceptance:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference
May you find the serenity that comes with acceptance of what you can’t change, and may you have the courage to change what you can…then the wisdom to know the difference will naturally follow.
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –
I wonder if it hurts to live –
And if They have to try –
And whether – could They choose between –
It would not be – to die –
I note that Some – gone patient long –
At length, renew their smile –
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil –
I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –
Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –
The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
Death – is but one – and comes but once –
And only nails the eyes –
There’s Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –
A sort they call “Despair” –
There’s Banishment from native Eyes –
In sight of Native Air –
And though I may not guess the kind –
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –
To note the fashions – of the Cross –
And how they’re mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like my own –