What’s it like to read the same story over and over again and know the ending? Children seem to love this. My daughters each had a favorite story that they insisted I read them repeatedly. Each time I read it they were wide-eyed with wonder as if it were the first time they had ever heard it.
I feel like this about the movie “Somewhere in Time”. I watch this movie repeatedly with hopes that it will end differently. No, he won’t find that copper penny in his suit pocket. No, he won’t be forced back in time! No, he won’t die of a broken heart! No, dammit, no! And, I weep every time I watch it. I’m sorry, but it’s no comfort to me that Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve reunite in heaven! I’m heartbroken as the film ends.
Thinking on the beliefs that I have taken for granted, I have recently come to the story of the life of Jesus. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make any bold proclamations, but I have been thinking about his life…and death. I wonder if it’s easier to live life for a time with little theistic awareness. Perhaps it’s not. It’s just a question I have. I have always asked questions of ontological significance, and I’ve always been a theist. Since my earliest memories. Since I was three. At times it has felt quite burdensome. Other times, it has sustained me.
When I was 13, I was forced to participate in confirmation classes at an orthodox Lutheran church. I think my mother was performing penance by making me go. It was there that I learned the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed. On Confirmation Day, I had to recite the creeds for the congregation. I received my Book of Common Prayer and silver cross necklace. Everyone looked upon the new “official” members of the church with such pride. I was just glad to be done with the classes to be honest.
Knowing now the history of the Council of Nicaea, I find it easy to feel somewhat uncomfortable with the entire confirmation process and the Nicene Creed. It is what is though, isn’t it? As I repeat the creed’s words in my mind, I stop short at the idea that Jesus was buried.
Historically, we know that Jesus was a real person, and he died. I’ve never really thought about that. Sure, I know that he was crucified. I’ve spent a great deal of time studying crucifixion in the past. Mel Gibson even brought us The Passion of the Christ to allow us to experience that event in real time. A lot has been discussed in terms of the manner of his death and even the reason for it. But, I don’t think I ever just thought about the bottom line–he died. Why? Well, I didn’t because everyone always skipped ahead to the next part–the empty tomb.
I stopped. I am thinking about his death. He was dead for three days. What does that mean? More specifically, what does that mean for the people who loved and knew him? Or even followed him around? What do those three days mean for you or me? Why does it matter? You have to go back in time into the story to make sense of these three days.
Who was Jesus to the twelve disciples and Mary Magdalene? For John, he was a best friend. For Peter, he was the long-awaited Messiah and close friend. He was a leader. He was a teacher and prophet. He was The Dream. And they all watched their dream die right in front of them. It’s one thing to watch a beloved friend die which he was to them. It’s another thing to helplessly watch a treasured mentor be tortured and finally expire which he did. But, to watch your dream die? The symbol of everything that you’ve ever hoped for and loved? Just…die? Before your eyes and you are completely unable to do anything about it?
That’s what I’ve been thinking about. Jesus died like that. This is what happened to his best friends. They watched their hope die, and for three days they lived in despair. All was lost. They didn’t know that it was only going to last for three days. This is what I meant about reading the same story over and over again. We know the story and the ending. To them, however, this was the new reality. Confusion. Abandonment. Questions. Desolation. Grief. Profound emotional pain. Fear. It doesn’t matter what you believe about Jesus. Was he the Messiah? Was he just some guy? The story is still poignant.
Many of us know this. Life within the confines of The Three Days. We have watched something beautiful die. We have helplessly stood by while something that represented all our hopes withered away, and now we’re living in a weird purgatory of desolation, pain, and confusion. “What just happened? Is there no way out of this? I don’t think I can make it through this.”
The death of a marriage. Miscarriages. The death of a child. The onset of severe mental illness. Loss of love in marriage and the onset of loneliness and alienation. Debilitating illnesses. Financial problems that eat away at security and options. Unemployment. Sexual abuse. Domestic violence. Or, just a life poorly lived due to a consecutive loss of opportunities.
This is life within The Three Days. It feels like complete abandonment. Did God leave? What happened?! Thoughts like, “I think I was abandoned. Why do I feel so alone?” invade our mind, and hopelessness abounds. It feels like the desert of despair. I think of the Israelites in bondage to Pharaoh. Joseph was in charge, and the Jews were prospering. Suddenly, Pharaoh felt threatened by their numbers and wealth, and they were enslaved. God seemed to abandon them. It wasn’t until Moses and Aaron arrived to free them that their Three Days ended–almost 400 years later.
It seems that there is no knowing how long Three Days will be. Biblically speaking, we have quite literally three days to almost 400 years in terms of length of time. How’s that for uncertainty? I don’t feel comforted. At the same time, this does feel like the way it is, doesn’t it? Life is hard. When we get in there and really live life, we will get hurt. I recall watching Bear Grylls in an interview a few years ago. He said that he wanted to leave this life with scars. He wanted to have broken bones. It was a sign that he had truly lived and pushed the envelope. What else was he here to do? Some would say that he’s stupid to possess such a point of view. Others would call that courageous. Honestly, I think it’s admirable because he’s got stories to tell. He summited Mount Everest in his 20’s 18 months after breaking three vertebrae. That takes guts and determination.
So, what does this all mean? Personally, I think that it means that we will all experience those Three Days in our lives in some way, but I think it’s very important to see that, however long the time lasted, it always ended. This is, however, the way of life. The religious fairy tale that so often prescribes Actions X and Y in order to avoid various kinds of misfortune that will ultimately lead you to the desirable Outcome Z is false. Clearly, if the beloved friends of Jesus endured those Three Days, then who are we to suppose that we are exceptional? We will do it better and be exempted from suffering. We won’t. It’s in our pain that we are developed. It’s within those Three Days that we often become the very people that we always dreamed we could be. To bypass that process, that wilderness as it were, is to bypass the very journey that builds the road into the life we’ve always dreamed of having. We can’t get there without traveling through the desert.
My Three Days have lasted for years. There are days that I feel almost hopeless, but then I look back upon where I used to be, who I used to be, and I see purpose. I see growth. I see that I wasn’t alone, and when I draw a blank in times of immense pain I remember these words:
“So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the LORD your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
And, I don’t count the hours or days. I just keep going remembering that God heard the cries of the Israelites and ended their slavery. For Christians, the tomb was indeed empty. He is with me on my journey even though it feels lonely on most days.
He is with you, too, as you make your way through your Three Days.