I minister among many people who feel undeserving of joy. I encounter in the dimly lit confessional not only the darkness of sin but people’s reluctance to accept healing and forgiveness. Joy eludes many people who have been beaten down by physical and emotional abuse and the many years of depression that follow. Joy never finds a home in people who blame themselves for being abused. Joy is seldom experienced or grasped for some people who have found their only identities at the bottom of a booze bottle. God’s healing rarely finds a home in people who live in the darkness of blame, fear and doubt.
I see the consequences of a joyless life standing at the altar on Easter day. These Easter texts of the preface express the absolute joy of the Christian. Jesus becomes the Christ is his passion, death and resurrection. Joy among our parishioners is rather muted, reluctant and seems only to belong to the wealthy or educated or some unknown stranger. Many members hesitate to rally around Easter because they are still without the basics of life, still hunger and still feel unloved in their present circumstances. I know deep within my life and in the lives of all people, Christ is sharing the gift of new life and healing in the simplest of ways. Risen life cannot help but break through the savage pain of any heart that clings to faith.
The prefaces of Easter claim this story in the human voice of the priest. Christ is still offering his life for people who seek the joy of resurrection. Many sinners find a home in the sacred forgiveness of the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation. The wall of sin is easier cast down than the wall of self-hatred and shame for a life that feels undeserving of anything that is good, loving or holy.
Seeking forgiveness of God for our own sin and living that forgiveness among all of our relationships is Easter joy. The reality of forgiveness is seen off the altar in the human turmoil of our lives. Joy happens when we bring that grace to worship and the altar of God is seen as Christ offering his life for us always.
I remember facilitating one of our Personal Poverty Retreats several years ago. The retreats are a thirteen-hour immersion into the issues of long-term poverty, mental illness and the devastations of addictions. There were seven people in that particular group. The core of the day is to share our own personal poverty, our own need for God. In the afternoon we shared our experiences of working in our morning hospitality center. This open discussion among us brought a great gift.
Out of the seven people on the retreat, four people confided that they all had children who were homeless, mentally ill and addicted. The conversation became intense; the silence of grief and sadness overwhelmed all of us. Each participant shared the grief of letting go of control of each child. One participant told the horrific story of her son’s suicide.
Phil began to share his story of his addicted son. Phil’s face was creased with worry. His voice was angry at years of trying to fix his son’s addiction. He became enraged because he felt he had done everything to change his thirty-something son. After Phil finished his story and sat silently, I leaned into the group and asked him, “Phil have you ever tried just loving your son?” Phil’s face began to relax and it was as if someone had raised the shade of darkness from his life. Phil replied to me with tears streaming down his cheeks, “No, I’ve never just loved my son.”
After that retreat, Phil searched for his son. He found him living in an abandoned car next to an old building. He slowly began to just listen to his son, Matt. Trust began to be built after years of tension. Phil and Matt started to do simple errands together and have lunch. After a while of sorting through their relationship, Phil invited Matt to the next retreat at the parish. They shared their stories together for the first time in the small group of the retreat. They told the stories of how healing happened between father and son and how reconciliation and joy slowly returned to their lives.
Last Lent, Matt died of his long-term addiction. I went to the funeral and the priest preached about how Matt and his father were reconciled at a retreat at our parish. I wept sitting in the pew over the new life that happens in the tension of forgiveness, over the often hidden redemption of fathers and sons.
Jesus defends us and pleads our cause to the Father. Grace never gives up even in death. Love triumphs even when hidden in small groups or abandoned cars. This is paschal joy celebrated at Easter, the hope that even long term suffering gives way to the Kingdom of God. The heavenly powers proclaim this on altar tops and in the hearts of fathers willing to try one more time to love a son.
The Easter preface speaks boldly about what is lived in silence and often without notice. Old orders of life can be destroyed. Life lived amid years of depression can be clean of self-blame and a lack of trust. The heart cast down by poverty, mental illness and hardship is lifted out of the tragedies that keep us cast down. On the altar of Easter sits the cup of blessing and bread of life that overcomes the aches and pains of relationships well beyond the sanctuary of our churches.
I pray this holy text on Easter hoping that I will see for myself the integrity of life being restored in Christ Jesus. I know that this prayer is not about what Jesus did for us. This prayer as is the Eucharist itself, is about what Jesus is doing now in our midst. The grace of integrity is not only about the past, but also about every relationship that bears the weight of our wanting to give up on love.
Our renewal of baptism on Easter allows us to resist again the power of evil in our relationships. Even though people present at the Eucharist may be baptized in the new life of Christ’s resurrection, people may feel they have been passed over by God. The Passover of Christ, his death and resurrection, brings us all to new life no matter the sin, the hurt or the suffering. I experience all the angelic powers of love when I stand at the altar and become aware that grace is working in the hidden life of the Church.
These holy prayers challenge us to discover joy at Easter. The prefaces teach leaders of the parish to invite people into what the prayer texts say even to people who refuse to accept God’s forgiveness and peace. We do not blame people for their poverty nor do we blame them for the abuse, depression or mental illness they experience in life. Easter must find a home in our conversations and ministry among people who feel excluded from hope, insecure about relationships and threatened by possible damnation from God. Love in the womb of the altar table is birthed on Easter morning in honesty and genuine hope. We are followers of the One whose tomb was empty but whose life is filled with love.
So many people do not realize that the love of God is a free gift. The reconciliation of Christ among us overcomes everything within us that separates us from the Father. People with emotional injuries have a difficult time receiving this gift because they still think the do not deserve such a treasure. They wait for the emotional and mental put-downs from us, the Church, that they are not worthy. They wait for more abuse. The gift of God’s love and joy is free. This gift is given to all of us to make sure we do not control it, suppress it or cause more people deeper pain. Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection are joy for all acclaim the Lord.
On Easter morning we really offer our suffering to the Father in the name of Christ Jesus. We gather around the altar table aware of the misfortunes of people’s lives and the heartbreak that keeps joy at bay. Last Easter, I prayed with a lump in my throat on Easter morning. I remembered the story of Phil and Matt. I prayed that healing might become visible for us all. I also prayed embracing all the stories of the silent confessional. I prayed recalling that healing and redemption happen in our community even though so many of us may never find the joy we long for. I stood at the altar of God with my hands extending in cruciform believing that we are all being raised up, all finding our home in the empty tomb. This hymn of God’s glory never ends. We sing in common voice from our common humanity discovering again Christ’s paschal joy.