Christ is reigning from the tree.
Come let us adore him.
When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to play a game as rode in the car. If we drove past a cemetery we’d hold our breath. Where did that game come from? I don’t know.
Maybe we got it from an old superstition, not wanting to breathe in bad spirits or the spirits of the dead. Maybe it was a way for the young to flip our noses at death. Maybe it was a way to take our mind off of the fact of death itself. In all honesty, I think we just wanted to see how long we could hold our breath.
But I think there was more to it than that. I say that because I have done a lot of breath-holding in my life...especially around death. Games in the car are one thing, but the time came for me to confront death head on.
Still, breath-holding happens, sometimes in strange ways. I remember once being asked kindly but firmly by a physician not to go around the hospital wearing my clerical garb of black shirt and dog collar. “People might think when you come in that they are dying,” he told me. I didn’t ask if he held his breath whenever I walked past as I used to do when driving past a cemetery.
There have been moments in my life when I have been witness to death, where I have been called in to be the priest, the witness to God’s grace and the church’s representative to a person who is dying or has died and to loved ones. Sometimes I’ve been present when the person who has died is surrounded by family and friends and we prepared for that moment in prayer, in story-telling, and in tears.
There have been other moments when the person was alone, virtually unknown except for perhaps a name on a license in a wallet or purse. People who have died violently, or suddenly, or was suddenly stricken with no one to help, for whom the only witnesses were an EMT or a nurse or a police officer. It is these people I think of when we say the Great Litany and we pray “From dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.”
For some of these, frankly, I would still hold my breath. I’d keep these deaths at arm’s length with a cool clinical eye. Yes, my heart would tug, but these—especially in hospital ministry—I would attempt to keep at a safe distance. If you don’t, you go cuckoo.
But sometimes you can’t hide and you can’t hold your breath. The ones that took my breath away were the deaths of people close to me: my parents and family members, my friends and people in my parish. These were different to me. These were stark in their immediacy and impossible to hold at a clinical distance. This was when I could not hold my breath because there was no breath to hold. We will all face death—and not just our own!
We are told death is part and parcel of living. Jesus died.
That is why we are here tonight. Jesus died.
It is important for me to say those two words in all their stark brevity. The bumper sticker tells us that Jesus died for our sins. We say that in our collects, prayers, scripture and story; and that is true. That is why he died. But when Jesus died there were no slogans, no anthems or hymns, no bumper stickers. In that moment it was just this simple fact: Jesus died.
We are tempted to jump past this moment and go straight to Easter. We are tempted to hold our breath and drive around this truth. It is like whistling in the dark—that nervous act of apparent confidence in the middle of the unknown. We do that when we are faced with a hard fact of life that we do not want to deal with. We hold our breath. We whistle in the dark. We cover our ears and hum. But no amount of avoidance can dodge this fact: Jesus died.
Jesus did not pretend. He did not hold his breath and wait till it went away. He died.
If we forget that he died, or if we hold or breath or whistle past it, then we forget that Jesus lived, breathed, ate, loved, worked, grew as much as he taught, healed, preached and touched. Jesus had family and he had friends. He had enemies as well as people indifferent to his existence. He lived. Just like us. And he died.
I am told that in earthquake ravaged Christchurch, New Zealand…whose “Big One” happened about a month before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan…that many churches are uninhabitable. Many are so damaged that repairs, if they can be repaired at all, could take years. So there are a lot of congregations without homes. These communities have had to learn to improvise. The big Presbyterian in Christchurch called Knox Church will hold their Easter day worship in a nearby funeral chapel. Their pastor, the Reverend Dr Geoff King, said "I guess it is ironic to be having a resurrection service in a funeral chapel."
I don’t know where they are holding their Good Friday services, but whether they go to the funeral chapel or not, they will find themselves in the same place as Jesus on the day of crucifixion…in the place of the dead. I sure hope they don’t hold their breath to keep death away.
Whistling the dark won’t make it go away.
Jesus died. And so we live.
Christ is reigning from the tree. Come let us adore him.