Practicing Hope, Choosing Joy

Practicing Hope, Choosing Joy

I see the Easter Season in a whole new way this year.

In the past, I’ve focused entirely on the joy of the resurrection. Easter signaled the end of sorrow and fear, the end of deprivation and limits. It was a time to celebrate, to gather with family, to spend a lot of time in church.  Alleluia–He is Risen!

This year, with the coronavirus pandemic, there was no end to sorrow and fear, no end to deprivation and limits, little time to celebrate while part of my family (my son and daughter in law) stayed away, safely practicing social distancing.  And the only experience of church was a virtual visit.  But I think I had a deeper understanding of what the disciples faced those many years ago.  And I am grateful.

To appreciate how I came to this place, let me share what’s been happening in my corner of the world since the beginning of Holy Week.  Usually during this time, my family practically lives at our parish church, singing at two Masses on Palm Sunday, squeezing in a choir practice early in the week, then singing and/or attending every service of the Triduum, plus two Masses on Easter Sunday. Even though last year I entered into Holy Week with a heavy heart, wondering if I could stay Catholic, by the end of the week I felt renewed and transformed. Holy Week has always been the highlight of my year, a time of faith and treasured community.

This year I needed the power of Holy Week desperately.  But because of the pandemic, everything had changed.   My husband, daughter and I “attended” church on Palm Sunday by watching a video played through my daughter’s computer on our living room television.  There was no choir practice this week, no time spent carefully ordering our music for the various services. But we did have two major cat fights interrupt our attention to the Sunday sermon.  We felt unbalanced by it all.

Some of the masks I was frantically sewing.

On Holy Thursday, I watched my parish’s celebration while frantically sewing masks, my iPad propped up right beside my sewing machine. With nearly every stitch, I prayed fervently for a dear woman I knew who was losing her battle with Covid-19.  My husband had asked me to watch with him, but I just couldn’t sit still and be only a spectator to the livestreaming.  I had to be doing something, however futile. No matter how many masks I made for others, they would not change the outcome.

On Good Friday, I was bracing myself for bad news, expecting to hear of the death of my church friend and also fearful of what might be happening in our own home.  My daughter’s beloved cat, Bono, had stopped eating and drinking the day before. She had taken him to our vet, dropped him off curbside to be assessed and treated. I knew how important Bono was to my daughter.  “He saved my life,” she had explained once, quite seriously. Jim and I were sitting in the living room, watching the livestreamed Good Friday service when Katie came into the room crying. She could barely speak enough to let us know that the vet had found cancer so advanced that there was no hope of recovery. She recommended that Katie euthanize Bono that afternoon.

Bono, of blessed memory

We all went to the vet together, Good Friday service forgotten.  We wore our masks and were thankful that the vet allowed all of us to go in so that Jim and I could support Katie.  The masks became impossible due to all the tears.  Katie was inconsolable. 

I have never felt so helpless, unable to comfort her and worried about how she would survive the loss of her beloved pet and emotional support animal.

On Holy Saturday, I got the news that my church friend had died. My daughter was barely functioning. I had hoped that we could do at least one thing “normal” to the season, decorate Easter eggs, but no one was interested in making the effort.  And on Easter Sunday, the three of us spent most of the day apart. 

Throughout this turmoil and the sad days that followed, I began to realize that, like so many other people across the world this year, I was truly living Holy Week and the days after Easter for the first time.  I wish it weren’t so, but I now can understand a bit better how the disciples felt once Jesus was arrested.  Despite the fact that they are often depicted as knuckleheads who didn’t really understand what Jesus was saying, they must have realized what was going to happen, that Jesus was going to die. Sadness, fear, anxiety over their own safety, futile prayers for a miracle–they probably felt all that and more.  I know I do.

In the face of certain death and excess emotion, it is not surprising that the disciples ran away. Only the women watched Jesus die, and they did so at a safe distance. And even after Jesus began appearing to Mary and the disciples, they continued to stay hidden, locked in rooms, fearing what might come next. Although our carefully curated liturgical texts during the Easter season focus largely on the joy of the resurrection, the signs of fear and confusion are clearly mentioned. And this year, in my own fear and confusion, I noticed them more.

Today, as the coronavirus threatens us all, those of us who can hide away, do so. We are protecting ourselves and others, “flattening the curve.”

Some days, it seems as futile as making fabric masks that won’t really protect us or our loved ones.

But then I see a piece of decorative art that I bought soon after we moved into our new home.  I bought it partly to fill an empty wall and partly to challenge me.  It says,  “Today I choose joy.”

The grumpy voice inside my head snickers and says, “Might as well say ‘Today I climb Mt. Everest.’  You’re depressed and you have every reason to feel that way.”

The other voice–the proverbial “better angel” of my nature–starts humming a hymn. And I cannot help but supply the words.

Three days our world was broken; the Lord of life lay dead.
“Take up your cross,” he told us who followed where he led.
Would we now hang in torment with thieves on ev’ry side,
Our Passover shattered, our hope crucified?
Three days we hid in silence, in bitter fear and grief.
Three days we clung together where he had washed our feet.

“Three Days,” by M. D. Ridge

I wrote about this song last year after the Triduum, focusing on the transformation at the end of the song.  But the first verse is bleak.  And rightly so. You don’t get to the final hope and transformation until you go through the crucifixion and the fear that confronts you when the world is broken. 

It is hard to face death and fear. Our world is currently broken and we cannot even really cling together with everyone we love.  But even though I now understand more fully what the early disciples faced when Jesus was arrested and crucified, I have one huge benefit over them. I know the end of the story.  Death does not get the final victory.  God willing, I will be around to see the end of this, but until that time, I need to try to choose joy, to practice hope.

It is a journey of little steps.  It is taking comfort in each meal we eat together, finding joy in working on a puzzle with my daughter, celebrating the days when the sun is shining, laughing at the crazy behavior of the cats.  It’s finding joy when my daughter sees me upset and asks, “What can I do to help?” And when she is down, doing likewise.  It is sharing a Zoom session with my son and daughter in law, another with my book club. It is thanking my husband for helping me cook dinner, and rejoicing when we can support a local business by getting takeout.  The list may be mundane, but it goes on and on. And I need to pay attention, to look for these blessings during the difficult times.  Because these small moments of joy and hope will sustain me.

Three days-and on the third day, the women came at dawn.
His tomb, they said, was empty, his broken body gone.
Who could believe their story? The dead do not arise,
Yet he walks among us, and with our own eyes
We’ve seen him at this table; we’ve share his bread and wine.
Hearts burning bright within us, we’ve seen his glory shine.

May you also find ways to choose joy and practice hope during the Easter Season and the challenging days to come. 

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