Saturday, April 11, 2009
Alan at the Tiller: location, date, photographer unknown.
Here's this evening's homily. I love the Great Vigil and hate Easter Sunday morning -- there are too many people, and it's all too sickly sweet (not least because of the incense, which sets off my allergies) -- so I'll probably skip church tomorrow.
I've been going through Dad's photos, trying to find one of him on Red Jacket, but so far, no luck. There are lots of photos of Red Jacket, in various states of repair and lack thereof, but none include Dad. So I settled for this photo. Since the boat's actually on the water, and since the color scheme's yellow rather than red, this must be another boat, but I like the looking-into-the-distance wistfulness on Dad's face, which is a bit like how he looked before he died.
The woman who taught my preaching class always told us not to use personal stories in our homilies, because we're supposed to be talking about God, not about ourselves. But I got away from that rule pretty quickly, and nobody at church seems to mind. It seems to me that it's hard to talk about one without talking about the other, too.
The Gospel is >Mark 16:1-8. If you want to read the rest of the readings for the Great Vigil, you can find them here.
The Gospel of Mark, the shortest and oldest of the four Gospels, has three endings. Scholars believe that the Gospel originally ended with the passage we just heard, with the “terror and amazement” the women felt at the empty tomb. The second ending is a short paragraph in which the women tell Peter and the other disciples what just happened; it adds that “Jesus himself sent through them, from east to West, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” The third ending, the longest, describes post-resurrection sightings of Jesus, his final instructions to his disciples -- “Proclaim the good news!” -- and his ascension.
These three endings create a powerful portrait of Jesus’ followers struggling to make sense of a miracle. The first conveys the sheer bewilderment of the first witnesses to the resurrection, who went from the grief of the crucifixion -- an event they could at least understand -- to the terror of a world turned upside down, a world in which God has reversed death. In this ending, the women are promised that they will see Jesus, but they haven’t seen him yet. They’re left struggling with, and fleeing from, an impossible story.
In the second ending, we’re told that Jesus works through his followers, but we don’t hear about any post-resurrection appearances. The phrase “Jesus himself sent out through them” could, it seems to me, just as easily mean that they were inspired by his memory. Only in the third ending do we learn that the disciples saw the risen Jesus at various times and places, and that he spoke to them before being taken up into heaven. In this third ending, we see the Gospel writers making sense of that empty tomb, replacing terror and amazement with mission.
This progression feels very human to me, very realistic. When we are faced with miracles, with events that defy the rules we know, our first response is bewilderment and even fear. From there, we work to make sense of the impossible, to turn it into a story that will fit into and enrich our lives, that will give us purpose. And make no mistake, we see miracles all the time: resurrections from illness, from desperation, from despair. We catch a glimpse of the risen Christ whenever we learn that some ending we’re grieving wasn’t the end at all, that the story isn’t finished. A dead body on a cross is the end, but no, it isn’t the end. A tomb is the end, but no, this empty tomb isn’t the end. The women telling Peter what they’ve seen isn’t the end. Jesus’ ascension to heaven isn’t even the end. This story isn’t finished yet. It’s still going on, and all of us are called to proclaim the good news of the small pieces we have seen and heard.
To see resurrection, though, you must first confront death. That’s why Good Friday is so important, and it’s why the first witnesses to the resurrection, in all four Gospels, are women, doing the everyday and necessary task of anointing the dead. Miracles arise from the ordinary.
Many of you know that my father died three weeks ago this evening. Many of you also know that he was a committed atheist, fiercely contemptuous of God and church and religion, although his Catholic upbringing left him with a lifelong passion for social justice. He agreed with me, and with Jesus, that our purpose here is to love each other. He just didn’t see why anyone had to believe in “a fairy tale” -- his term for religious faith -- to figure that out.
In the last few weeks of his life, though, this decidedly unspiritual man began having the kinds of odd experiences that, according to hospice professionals, often occur before death. Several times I walked in on him when he was chatting with dead cousins. In the days before he died, he kept reaching out his right hand and making a movement that looked like turning a doorknob, and his gaze repeatedly traveled from the foot of his bed up to the ceiling. I asked him what door he was opening and what he saw, but he couldn’t tell me. I consciously fought the urge to impose my own story on these gestures. I knew what door I wanted him to open and who I wanted him to see, but I respected my father too much to force my beliefs into him.
On Saturday, March 21st, the hospice nurse told me that Dad had at most a week left. We moved him into a private room at the nursing home, and I decided to bring a camping cot to his room that evening and stay with him until the end. I sat with him that afternoon, trying to decipher his few words, which were fragmented by heart failure and garbled by morphine. But somewhere in there he said, very clearly, “He’s working on the boat.”
The boat was Red Jacket, the thirty-foot wooden sloop my father bought for $2,500 cash when he retired. At the age of sixty-five, he and a friend brought this dilapidated vessel, via rivers and inland waterways, from Chicago to the Gulf Coast. That trip was the grand adventure of his life, and the eleven years he lived on Red Jacket afterward were his happiest, even though the boat was in such bad shape that he never got her away from the dock. All of his time, money and energy went into repairing her. When his health got worse and he couldn’t live on the boat anymore, he sadly sold her to his burly, bearded friend AJ.
Sitting next to him in the nursing home, I said, “Who’s working on the boat, Dad? AJ?”
“Yup,” Dad said, his voice strong. “He’s working on the boat.”
A few hours later, I went home for dinner and to pick up the camping cot. When my husband and I returned to the nursing home, we learned that Dad had died peacefully half an hour before, while the nurses were turning him in bed. Hospice had called me, but I’d missed them.
In my shock and grief, I focused on the date. The days around the Spring Equinox have always been very hard for me. I’ve suffered many losses on, or around, March 21. Dad’s death was only the latest and most painful example of that pattern. The timing was not good news.
A few days later, Gary and I started going through the things in Dad’s apartment, and I tackled his file drawers. Naturally, he had a file devoted to Red Jacket. It contained the bill of sale for the boat. Dad had bought his beloved sailboat on March 21, 1988.
This is not an empty tomb, not a bodily resurrection. But it is a reminder that my father had his own story, very different from mine. In my story, March 21 is a day of dread. In his story, it’s the beginning of a grand adventure. He began one grand adventure in 1988, and I believe he began another three weeks ago. And while I know my father saw a strong, bearded man working on the boat, I’m not at all sure it was AJ. I think perhaps the figure was someone else, someone who knows a lot about boats and even more about facing death, and overcoming it.
Many people would call this sequence of events coincidence, instead of miracle. All I know is that I’ve been given good news: a new way to make sense of my father’s death, a new way to believe that his story isn’t over. If I had been unwilling to sit at his bedside as he died, if I hadn’t gone on to do the everyday, ordinary act of cleaning out his apartment, I never would have arrived at this new understanding. Only through Good Friday could I arrive at Easter.
I’ll miss Dad every day of my life, but now I can also imagine him sailing on Red Jacket, under clear skies with warm, following winds. The boat’s shipshape and seaworthy, as she never was while he lived. His companion on this voyage has the very useful skills of being able to calm storms and walk on water. And if I am once again imposing on my father a story he would have hated, well, at least the tale has given me a new sense of mission: to embrace grand adventures, even in unlikely circumstances, as exuberantly as my father did.
This Easter, may all of you find good news: pain transformed to praise, wounds healed by wonder, and grief lightened by grace.
Christ is risen. Allelujah!