On Friday, I found out that my college roommate’s 9-month-old son was undergoing a heart transplant that morning. My own heart was heavy, torn between grief for the donor’s family and hope/fear for my friend’s family.
Thousands of miles away, the even-younger son of the sister of an acquaintance of mine (a.k.a. we do not know each other, but I have been following their story via Facebook) is struggling to survive. Oddly enough, he was born with the same rare heart condition as my college roommate’s son. Sadly, he has not done quite as well and his parents are facing decisions that range from terrible to worse.
Almost once every week or two, we will get texts that Grandpa is going to the emergency room again. I remembered him today, taller than me, driving Grandma to all the piano recitals, taking us out to dinner. He was a bottomless font of perseverance, strength, opinion, and of course (it seemed to us), money, supporting us as we learned piano and traveled the world. He allowed us to play with him, he allowed us to move him with our music. He would listen with eyes closed, but would always insist that he wasn’t asleep, just listening. And when he met my future husband, he was one of his biggest fans right away, making him feel right at home in the family. But that person I remember already seems faded and frayed, difficult to detect in the person now struggling to keep breathing and maneuvering the bottom floor of his beautiful home in a power wheelchair.
And the work I am now doing often feels overshadowed by death and suffering, as I transcribe details of patients’ lives and medical histories.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated Pascha (Orthodox Easter). As the priest reminded us many, many times, the crowds of Palm Sunday quickly dispersed, abandoning Christ until only a handful of disciples remained to witness his death at the end of the week. “Don’t desert Christ,” he admonished the congregation, “Walk with him faithfully through Holy Week.” On Thursday evening in church, we read every Gospel reading pertaining to the Crucifixion. The priest carried the large cross from behind the altar into the center of the church and hung the icon of Christ upon it, then we were invited to come and kiss His feet. On Friday afternoon, we were there when the priest removed the icon from the cross, wrapping it in a white cloth. By all appearances, death had swallowed up Life.
But Saturday morning the church was brilliant in white. Because even though Christ’s body still lay entombed, He was already trampling the gates of hell. Life has defeated death.
Skip ahead to today.
In the brief memorial service that followed liturgy today, the priest reminded us that even as we grieve the loss of those we love, we are passionately hopeful. Christ’s resurrection changes everything – even if I forget to live as though this were so.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24 ESV)
I feel as though we are left living in a strange space between death and life. It feels overwhelmingly narrow and dark, living in this cycle where all life ends in death. And yet…
It also feels incredibly expansive and blazing with hope, for we are living toward a death that is swallowed up in life.
My heart is still heavy. All the words of truth in the world could not heal the grief of having to decide if it’s time to bring your little one home to die. I am empty of reassurance for my grandpa as he faces the reality of his own end of what is known.
Somehow it is reassuring to me that the Gospel reading at the final service of Holy Week, on Pascha Sunday in the afternoon, after everyone comes back together one last time after celebrating the Resurrection at midnight Sunday morning, feasting until the wee hours, and going home to rest, ends with Thomas saying:
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Jn 20:25 NIV).
I do not know why this is the final Gospel reading of Holy Week.
But somehow, it reassures me and fans my little flicker of hope. After all of that, Thomas? You’ve been with Christ in person, your fellow disciples have seen Him alive again, and still you doubt? And yet, Thomas became the apostle who carried the Gospel to India and died there. Maybe I am reassured because I feel so small to be entrusted with such a vibrant hope of victorious Life. Maybe I am reassured because I too have tasted this Life-that-swallows-death and yet I do not know how to live honestly and hopefully here in the shadowlands.