I did not fully understand the term “Paschal Mystery” until I read “A Holy Longing” by Ronald Rolheiser. In Chapter 7 “A Spirituality of the Paschal Mystery” Rolheiser writes that “No spirituality can pretend to be mature without grappling with the timeless, haunting questions of suffering and death.”
I recite “Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again,” at each mass I attend, but most of the time I am barely conscious of what I am saying, never really feeling the full weight of these words and what they mean for all of us.
Jesus repeatedly taught that we must die in order to rise again. Just as the grain of wheat must die to become food for many [John 12:24], just as the tiny mustard seed when planted (and dies) becomes a tree to shelter birds and give shade, [Mt 13:32] just as the vine must be pruned (branches cut off to die) in order for it to bare much fruit [John 15:2], so too must we die in many ways before we can rise in Christ and be fruitful, give new life and be food and shelter for others.
We all have experienced deaths in our lives. Some deaths come in the form of physical infirmity and pain, or losing loved ones too soon. We may have to let go of our old ideas, allow them to die, so we can rise to new ways of living. Just like the apostles and Mary and the women who stayed at the cross, we may experience extreme grief and agony with absolutely no hope while death overwhelms us. But our belief in the Paschal Mystery says otherwise. That there is always light after darkness. Always resurrection after death. Freedom after imprisonment. We may not see it clearly, or believe it, but the Resurrection is always there. It may be Good Friday now, but Easter is coming.
I experienced this absolute Joy and exultation at Easter Mass one time many years ago and the only reason I was open for this Resurrection experience is because I truly went to the cross on Good Friday. I did not do this by attending a Good Friday Service and being moved to deep sorrow by the reading of the Passion, nor did I spend any great amount of time contemplated the execution of Jesus on the cross two thousand years ago.
What I did do was walk with another person to the cross where I wept with him over the deaths of two persons he loved.
In January 1981 my husband’s Aunt T. (his mother’s youngest sister) committed suicide at the age of 36. She left behind five children ages 6 to 20 and a grieving husband. Aunt T. had been struggling with depression for over five years, a depression brought on by the death of one of her children. Ten year-old R. was hit by a car in April 1975. Aunt T. had picked up her children at school and was driving home when the car sputtered to a halt, out of gas. As she and the children were walking along the shoulder of the country road, R. was struck from behind by a car coming around the bend. Aunt T cradled the bloodied broken body of her dying child in her arms until the life squad arrived. “Dead on the scene” the report read.
I was home with my children that Good Friday in 1981, (my husband was at work) when I decided to Call Uncle O. to see how he was doing. I expected to speak to one of the older children and ask how they all were, and how their father was coping. What I got instead was a long conversation with Uncle O. When I asked how he was, he told me and as he talked, he began to weep. He told me how he blamed himself for his wife’s death, how he tried to help her, how he begged her to get help, how he never blamed her for the death of R. He was inconsolable. And so I cried with him. I went to that place of total despair and pain. That place where no one or nothing can touch you. I had no words of comfort, no pat responses, “She’s in a better place,” “She’s at peace now,” or “She’s’ in heaven with R.” None of these would be any consolation to a grieving broken heart. I too had my doubts about a loving God and wondered how he had forsaken this family, allowing such tragedies to destroy them.
After some time we managed to say good bye and when I hung up the phone I had nothing left. I was emotionally spent. I tried to pray, but my prayers felt hollow, worthless for the pain this man was in. I stayed in a funk all weekend. Saturday was bleak and dreary and I couldn’t get Uncle O. off my mind as me and my three little girls dipped hard boiled eggs in colored water.
Easter Sunday I went to Mass with my children. Walking into the beautifully decorated brightly lit sanctuary felt like a betrayal to the pain of Good Friday. But as the Mass began and the Gloria was sung, the Alleluias and Easter anthems rang out, my heart soared. My whole being began to hum with Joy. I wanted to shout and dance. Unabashed, I had tears of joy running down my cheeks. I think my girls felt it too. They didn’t bother me as I stood in awe praising the Risen Christ.
I don’t remember much else about that Easter. I suppose we went home, had Easter dinner with my husband’s parents, who lived next door to us.
And I’m sure we hid colored eggs in the yard for our children and their cousins, who most likely came over. But nothing will ever shake the memory of my experience of the Paschal Mystery. I walked through the valley of death with another soul and came out on the other side to experience resurrection.
I wish I had followed up and called Uncle O. on Easter Monday, but I did not. I believe he would have told me that he too experienced the Resurrection that Easter Sunday, that as he sang Alleluias at the Sunrise service in his little Pentecostal church that he beheld the risen Lord and was immersed in Joy. I know it could not be otherwise.
Uncle O. remarried a wonderful Christian woman a few years later who helped him raise his children. We are separated by the miles and years now, only sharing the yearly Christmas card, so I don’t know the details of his life. But I do know that he is a grandfather and great-grandfather many times over and I know that he has lived the Paschal Mystery, for Jesus promised “Those who mourn will be comforted.” [Mt. 5:4] Amen! Alleluia!!