March 19, 2008

Turning Sacred Corners

Elizabeth and I recently watched Waitress, an oddly endearing, sometimes bawdy story about Jenna—a poor, pregnant waitress trapped in a terrible marriage and an inexorable life. Mostly because her days already seem so controlled by others' infantile demands, the news of her first pregnancy brings her little of the customary maternal expectation and joy. In the months leading up to the birth, as she writes to the baby in a journal for expectant mothers, she apologizes in advance that she will be unable to bond with the child and, frankly, that already she resents the arrival of one more person who will take but not give. Whereas she had earlier considered leaving her controlling husband (who demands, "I want you to promise me right now that you will love me more than this baby!"), now she has to stick around and become even more dependent on a selfish spouse who is hopelessly stuck in adolescence.

Right up through the delivery, Jenna is the epitome of stoicism. She is determined not to fall for this baby, not to get entangled … that is, until she lays eyes on the child. "Oh my God," she says, as the nurse hands to her the latest unrequested demand on her energy and affection. As she cradles her lovely, helpless child, you can feel the months of resentment and fear melting away. And right there, the entire movie turns a corner: It is as if, in handing Jenna her baby, the nurse has given her a new vision for her life, and the strength to go and get that done. (You cannot help but smile as Jenna, holding her new baby, finally musters the courage to tell her monster of a spouse where he can go.)

Kerri Russell's excellent portrayal of Jenna turning her corner—fearing the pain, yet surprised by the joy—in a way reminds me of Holy Week. After all, who wants to give up a Friday night to come and hear again about the sad sufferings of a first century Jew? Who needs to be told even more bad news, yet another tale of a blessed thing ruined by the fears and insecurities of the powers that be? Who would cozy up to a story that ends, at least on Friday, in a heinous crucifixion? Every year, we Christians are tempted to pass stoically over Good Friday, holding our breath and hoping not to get entangled in the mess. (Let us note, however, that it is not really Jesus' death we fear, but our own.)

But then comes a corner, a sacred turn. You walk into church on Easter morning, and if the stunning flowers and the ardent music don't assault your senses and melt away your restraint, surely the strange and wonderful tale of an empty tomb and a living, liberated Jesus will. "I have seen the Lord," Mary exclaims to the others, and you cannot help but feel that in some real way you have, too. Even more, hearing again about the unfettered new life of Christ seems to have a way of throwing a new light on yours. Things once deemed impossible seem possible in the light of this impossible day. The faithfulness of God in raising up Jesus makes it possible to imagine the faithfulness of God amidst our own tombs—actual or symbolic. (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Concerned that Easter hope might lull Christians into a detached triumphalism, our 1998 catechism asks, Does resurrection hope mean that we don't have to take action to relieve the suffering of this world? Answer:

No. When the great hope is truly alive, small hopes arise even now for alleviating the sufferings of the present time. Reconciliation -- with God, with one another, and with oneself -- is the great hope God has given to the world. While we commit to God the needs of the whole world in our prayers, we also know that we are commissioned to be instruments of God's peace. When hostility, injustice and suffering are overcome here and now, we anticipate the end of all things -- the life that God brings out of death, which is the meaning of resurrection hope.

"The life that God brings out of death" … Turning a corner … A fresh vision for living … New life equals new courage. It is the stuff of Easter Sunday. For fictitious Jenna, it was a delivery room; for us, the sanctuary space long dedicated to telling this wild and wonderful Easter story. Maybe we should all show up this Sunday in hospital smocks, ready to practice our heavy breathing, ready for new life to appear. Perhaps the gowns would be a bit much, but know this: One good look into that empty tomb, and everything will be different. Together, we pray, "O my God." Together, we turn a sacred corner.