Handel’s Messiah was performed for the first time on April 13th 1742. Easter Day was towards the end of March and the premier of the new oratorio fell within the 40 days of Easter celebrations. Its majesty and scope take the listener from the words of the prophets, to the incarnation and on to resurrection. Hearing the work again this year the words that stood out for me came in the text of the prophet Isaiah chapter 53 verse 3:
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief
Grief seems an apt emotion in the continuing turmoil of Covid-19. It is grief at the loss of human life; the devastating impact on economic activities; dramatic social change and physical isolation; the severe restriction on cultural life and sporting events. The world has been put on pause. For the moment, we have come to grief.
At this most peculiar Easter, churches cannot even offer the consolation of people gathered together to say familiar words or sing joyful music of celebration. Much will be done on-line and not in our usual places of worship. For some even the theme of Easter Day may jar. The suffering and isolation of Good Friday echoes our experience, as does the absence and silence of Holy Saturday. Resurrection hope may seen a remote expectation for many. The greeting between Jesus and Mary in the garden, a wishful reunion of the dead with the grieving; the lost with the living.
The biblical accounts of Good Friday describe events that shake our taken-for-granted certainties. For the bystanders, soldiers and scattered disciples, the experience of the young rabbi’s death disturbs every complacent truth. The solid earth moves; the daylight is darkened; the dead do not rest at peace in their tombs. Profound grief, the loss of someone through whose eyes we saw and made sense of life, can shake and break and darken every point of reference that gives us our sense of place and purpose. As one person said to me about her partner: ‘he was the landscape in which I lived’.
Many times I have stood or knelt beside those whose mourning is forever tied to a day when others are celebrating. The times I have been in a delivery suite or neonatal unit on Christmas Day. The conversation with a woman one Good Friday when her terminal diagnosis had re-framed the world and she found herself in that strange land between knowing an event is coming and the time of its arrival. Grieving suddenly for all those moments of which she would never be a part – mourning the impending loss of what it means to be alive. This Easter, perhaps more so than in previous years, many people will be reminded of the confluence of a special day and the experience of loss.
We can never move from Good Friday to Easter Day at a prescribed pace. Telling the tidings of resurrection when people are still living with the pain of crucifixion or the absence of a loved one is worse than folly. These journeys are made at their own speed, and for some it may never arrive in their lifetime. For them it lies on the other side of mortality when ‘death thy endless mercies seal, and make the sacrifice complete’.
Easter is celebrated because of the one who was ‘acquainted with grief’. It is marked by those who place their faith in a good shepherd who was killed without good reason. A faith which should have remained shut up in the garden tomb; sealed and guarded against any possibility it would ever again see the light of day. Yet I am sitting here, writing this, a disciple of a faith that was destined to die two thousand years ago. Still believing that there is more to life than what we see; following in faith and doubt a path trodden by countless people before me. Not perfect souls – people acquainted and damaged by grief – who dare to hope that when we least expect it, we are greeted by a moment of resurrection.
At dawn the women made their way,
with spice and sweet perfume,
to where their Lord and Saviour lay
enshrouded in the tomb.
But, wonder and amazing grace
to those whose hearts were grieved –
they saw their Saviour face to face,
and with their love believed.
Mary Louise Bringle