An open-ended closure

audio for ‘an open-ended closure’ by Martin Malina
Dochart Creek flowing to the Ottawa at Braeside-McNab, photo by Martin Malina April 2022

Maybe there is a part in all of us, if you are little bit like me, happy that we are soon coming to the end of the Lenten season. Enough of the self-examination, self-limiting, fasting, giving things up—I want to be free again to do anything I want to, whenever I want to do it. If you are like me in this way, we are so ready to dive into the Easter season and message of new life, new hope, new beginnings, and get on with living! Amen?! 

Maybe there is a part in all of us, if you are a little bit like me, fed up with the prolonged, never-ending pall shrouding our existence in the pandemic, in the never-ending war in Ukraine. We are so ready to move on and get past this tortured period of history that still hangs heavy over us.

Good news and bad news. Bad news first …

The transition that is Holy Week does not offer a clear-cut change-over. Holy Week has ‘ambiguous’ written all over it.

First, we witness the crowds on Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna and praising God in Jesus.[1] These are the same crowds who a few short days later condemn Jesus to death, shouting “Crucify Him”. What a flip-flop! Human nature is anything but consistent, clear cut, cut or dry, either-or. 

Second, “Good” Friday? Why is it good? Jesus dies. Jesus is defeated. Jesus becomes the laughing stock from the perspective of power, command and control over any mission we might envision. Of course, believers will know why Jesus’ death led to something good, indeed something very good – just stick around till Easter. But the juxtoposition of good and bad so close together makes telling this story a challenge. It’s not a straight line.

And finally, why do we even do this year after year: Lent, Holy Week and Good Friday? Isn’t Jesus alive? Wasn’t Jesus raised from the dead over two thousand years ago? Why bother dragging ourselves through this ambiguous, ambivalent, topsy-turvy exercise year after year? Aren’t we, after all, post-resurrection Christians?

All of these ambiguous notions makes this celebration for Christians not really popular, for Protestants at least, unless we just make it an Easter bunny holiday complete with coloured eggs and chocolate. We would rather tell a story with a straight line, something certain, and certainly not a story rife with ambivalent disciples, fickle crowds and an almost compulsive fixation on death.

Yeah, bad news…

The last two years has been like a bad dream in which we continue to move forward without really feeling like we are gaining any traction at all. In the changes we have had to face, consciously or unconsciously, we have lost so much: The death of loved ones whose burial rituals have been anything but uniform; The loss of jobs, friends moving, relationships changing, health deteriorating, family ties rupturing. We have been dragged through a time whose suffering is anything but over, as much as we might delude ourselves into believing otherwise.

And we may even fall to the temptation of simplistically asserting it is over and we should act as if it is. But denial will only lead to more problems down the road.

Holy Week is an ambiguous observance by the church. But it also reflects the ambigious nature of life today. And therefore this time in the church calendar can be very helpful.

The Passion of Christ, at the foot of the cross, is according to Martin Luther the place where God is revealed to us. The Cross is central to God’s revelation. And this poses serious problems for us. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, this is a hard, counterintuitive, instinct for us – to find God not in the glory of the days, not in getting everything I want, not in success and accomplishment and feel-good circumstances upon which much of religion even our piety is based.

It’s so hard to hold the ambiguity of it all in our hearts: On the one hand, a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing; and, on the other hand, who hangs on the cross of death and human defeat. A God who created all things beautiful, but who also bleeds, who is bruised, who is broken and gasps for breath in the throes of death.

Confronting the suffering of Jesus is like dealing with our grief. We would rather bypass the pain of it. And so we tend to deny our grief, and our losses. And we idealize ‘bringing closure’ even though we know deep down that there is no timeline for grief.

I hear echoes in how we have reacted to the ‘ending of the pandemic’. We have heard those announce it was a hoax, that there was no danger, and therefore no need to wear masks and staying away from large crowds. Even now with COVID protections legally lifted, refusing to abide by such protections suggests, does it not, a strong desire to be done, once and for all, of this pandemic – case closed, no danger, absolute thinking?

But the truth is, it is not emotionally nor spiritually healthier to close the door on our discomfort, our suffering. It is better to face it and learn to live with it. How so?

Here’s a bit of good news: Good Friday comes on the calendar every year. It’s as if the practice of our faith gently and regularly invites us to a healthy rhythm for life, the healthy truth of not denying nor avoiding the grief, the loss, the suffering of life for too long. Not denying the grief we continue to bear even life in Christ Jesus who suffered and died before rising to life. We cannot spiritually bypass the enduring and ambigious truth about grief, especially the longer we live.

Thank God Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday come around every year. Because even though Jesus is alive, Jesus gives us permission and a place to express honestly and with integrity the ongoing grief and losses of our lives. Because there is no such thing as ‘closure’.[2]

To varying degrees we live always with the pain of loss over the course of our lives. In truth, to resist our grief is the cause of suffering. But, to accept and to learn to live with the ambiguity of it all, to hold both our grief and our hope together, this is true faith.

To accept our losses-that-never-end is also to acknowledge grace, love and forgiveness where and when it happens. When we expect perfection, or when we place pre-conceived conditions on how something has to happen, we miss a great opportunity. We, in effect, reject an invitation to experience yet again God’s grace and love. 

For example, if a gathering can happen only if certain conditions that we set are met (if large numbers of people are desired, for instance); if a gathering of loved ones or of worshippers can happen only if our individual ‘wants’ are achieved, we lose big time. I tell people that when an opportunity to meet presents itself, then take it. And take it now. We don’t know what life may bring down the road. And when we take the risk … it won’t be perfect. It will not meet all our expectations. We will not get all that we want.

But those who are there, whom we meet, in that moment—the people, the family, the individuals, the strangers—they are God’s presence for you. God is revealed not in the glory of our imaginations nor in the fantasy of perfection born out of our minds. God is revealed in the imperfect, yes even in the suffering of the less-than-ideal.

The cross, as Martin Luther so profoundly explained, is where God is revealed to us, and offered to us. In the small numbers, in the small gifts of the moment, in the humility of meeting, in our self-limiting-for-the-sake-of-the-other, here we find and can receive the precious gift of Christ present.

God is here in the moment that is imperfect, humble, yet faithful. It is out of the ashes of grief and loss where pinpricks of light emerge and out of which, in the promise of days-to-come, we will bask in the glow of Easter joy. Again.

[1] A variation of the final, triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the Gospel for today, from Luke 19:28-40. Read the whole Passion story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

[2] Pauline Boss, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2022.

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