The COVID-19 pandemic has changed just about every aspect of our lives. From the way we work to the way we grocery shop; from the way we interact with friends and neighbors to the way we worship. As I thought more about it, I couldn’t name a way in which my life hasn’t changed, except maybe that I still get to sleep in my own bed. On Sunday morning, Cassie’s aunt died in Florida after a lengthy illness, and yesterday, I performed a graveside burial service for one-time Christ Church member, Charles Davenport. These two things have made me keenly aware that our practices around death have profoundly changed. As a family, we are unable to gather together to mourn the loss of a loved one. Text messages, Facetime conversations, and notes of encouragement help supplement, but they don’t take the place of families gathering to share stories, to hug and cry, to laugh and reminisce.
Mourning the death of a loved one and the burial habits that are a part of that process of grief were understandably close to my mind as I read through the Passion narrative from John’s Gospel. It isn’t hard to notice that things are quite different than our normal arrangements. Rather than our usual pattern of Christian burial here in the United States, which can take a week or more and include various visitations, all kinds of family gatherings, large funeral services, and graveside ceremonies, the standard Jewish customs around death and burial feel quite rushed. All the way in Deuteronomy, we read the requirement that burial is to take place as quickly as possible after death. In the case of the death of Jesus, the process was necessarily made to work even faster.
Jesus died on a Friday afternoon, which meant that the Sabbath was about start. As a result, important steps were skipped in the burial process. Dating back to Abraham and Sarah, one of the key elements of the Jewish burial rite is the Eulogy, but they are forbidden when the death takes place on a Friday. It isn’t mentioned in John’s Gospel, but in the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention that this Friday was also during the Feast of Passover, in the month of Nisan. This means there were three reasons why the Eulogy would have been skipped. Time was of the essence as the sun sank low in the western sky. There was barely time for Joseph of Arimathea to get permission from Pilate, for Nicodemus to bring the spices, and for Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses to anoint his body before it was whisked off and laid in Joseph’s tomb.
Mary and Mary did what they could, given the time constraints, but they knew that this would not be the last time they would see their Rabbi and friend. As the sun set on Friday night, they began to prepare the ointments for a proper burial for Jesus, but that would have to wait until Sunday. I wonder what was going through the minds of those women that evening. It seems there wasn’t a thought in anyone’s mind that they’d find anything other than a dead body, laying on a slab of rock, come Sunday morning, but in the utter haste and mind-numbing confusion of the day, had they even begun to process what had happened? Was there even room to grieve, or was it just shock and fear and anguish?
I wonder the same for us? In the utter haste and mind-numbing confusion that has surrounded one life-altering change after another, have we made room to grieve? As Mother Becca pondered on her blog this week, have we given ourselves permission yet to say, “I’m not ok”? Whether we have lost a loved one, or a job, or a way of life, or an assumption of safety, or trust in the systems of this world during this pandemic, just keeping the plates spinning, the bills paid, and food on the table is enough to feel overwhelming. Has there been any room to feel the feelings of grief? Maybe today is that day. Maybe these next 46 hours, between noon on Good Friday and 10am on Easter Day, there will be time to slow down, just enough to begin to grieve. To grieve the sins of the world that took our Savior Jesus Christ to the cross. To grieve all the events of the 30 days since Governor Beshear first recommended that congregations cancel in-person worship, and later suggested schools close, eventually extending an order to all non-essential businesses. To grieve the lack of hugs and handshakes, visits to grandkids and trips to the park.
John’s Passion feels like it ends rather abruptly. Jesus is hastily laid in the tomb. Period. End of story. But that’s only because the next word is one of hope. We need space to grieve, but we do so, knowing that a better day will soon be here. Amen.