I will never forget the look on my mother’s face.
We had just sat down for lunch at a restaurant after a morning of shopping, and the tables around us buzzed with conversation and laughter. When her phone rang, she noted, surprised, that it was a family friend, who was skiing that day with my father and younger brother. After the customary greeting, the next words from her mouth were, “Oh my god.”
Sitting across the table, I watched her gaze fall and her face twist in panic. I watched her eyes dart around the table as they welled up with tears.
“What is going on?” I begged her. I waited in silence while she listened intently, her body shaking there in front of me.
Those thirty seconds felt like a thousand years to me, every single moment of which was weighted with the question, “Is this the worst day of my life?” What had happened to my brother? Or to my father? Is this the worst day of my life?
Crises have a way of unraveling us—our presumptions, our expectations, our plans. Out of nowhere, they can suspend us in a helpless state of unknowing. What is happening? What will come of this? Is this the worst day of my life?
Many of us know this unraveling firsthand, unfortunately. Yet I find that Christians often forget it when we recount the story of Christ’s passion and crucifixion.
We forget it because we know how the story ends—not with a body in a grave, but an empty tomb. So when Holy Week arrives, we listen to this familiar narrative, we move through our ritual remembrances of Christ’s final days, but we know, all the while, that that happy ending is immanent. Why grieve at the cross when we know how it ends?
Why linger over the unraveled lives in today’s Gospel? Over Peter, who the late Bible scholar, Dan Harrington, called a “tragically overconfident” figure throughout Matthew’s passion narrative. At every turn, Peter’s expectations for Jesus and for himself fell apart. When the cock crowed, how devastated Peter must have been, fearful for his friend and undone by this confrontation with his own fragile loyalty. He thought he knew who he was.
Why grieve with Judas, whose life unravels in every way across the arc of this Gospel. His risky deal with other religious leaders reflects a personal desperation about which we can only conjecture. Perhaps he saw his betrayal of Jesus as an escape to a new life. In the wake of Jesus’s condemnation, however, Judas realizes that though his plan succeeded, it would not ultimately deliver on whatever it was that he had hoped for, and a way beyond this catastrophe was imperceptible to him. This was not the ending for which he had hoped.
So many lives unravel across this first Holy Week: How Mary and Martha must have felt, looking on from a distance, as they watched Jesus breathe his last breath, the title, “King of the Jews” hanging over his head. And how baffling his death must have been for those who, at the start of the week, sang, “Hosanna!” in the streets. Crucifixion was not the fate they expected for the long-awaited Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Distraught at Jesus’s death, none of them could have fathomed how all of this would end.
But we can, right? So why we sit with these sorrows, when we know how it ends, and when our contemporary ethos disposes us against it? Pope Francis laments this in his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exultate, where he writes, “The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them.” “The worldly person ignores problems of sickness or sorrow in the family or all around him; he averts his gaze” (#75).
Why should Christians do otherwise?
When we avert our gazes from the usurped expectations, undone identities, and shattered plans that compose this last week in Jesus’s life, we set ourselves up to misunderstand the resurrection—the resurrection that we await this week, and that we await every day in our own world.
Our penchant for happy endings and our inattention to the sorrows of history can lead us to believe that Christ’s resurrection softens the blow of the tragedies that preceded it. As if, knowing how the story ends now, somehow, retroactively, makes the unsettling suspense and the unraveled lives of Jesus’s followers any less real.
But resurrection did not undo what had been done. And still today, resurrection doesn’t resolve the terrible tragedies of our world. It does not explain away or justify the uncertainty and fragility of living a human life. We do not know what is in store for our lives, and there are moments when this weighs heavy on our hearts.
When we haven’t become the parent or partner or friend we had hoped to become.
When we live haunted by abuse and in the wake of awful misfortune.
When we worry, uncertain of our children’s future, and the future of our planet.
When we live amid structural and cultural oppressions so pervasive that we sometimes despair at how the world might ever get beyond them.
When we’ve lost dear ones, and we don’t know how we can possibly carry on.
Resurrection does not erase the pain of our shattered plans and life’s difficult unknowing. Resurrection does not undo what has been done. Yet, when we refuse to sanitize the context of Christ’s rising from the dead, we open ourselves to another hope that is revealed in it.
Christ’s resurrection reveals that a transformation of our suffering and uncertainty awaits us. And like Jesus’s first followers, it is a transformation far beyond what we can fathom—whether at our best or at our most undone. We do not know when it will come, or what it will look like. We do not, in fact, know how this will end. But we profess that, by the grace of God, our unraveled lives will be transformed in glory.
It is transformation, not reversal or erasure, that awaits us this Holy Week. And if this is so, then our movement toward Easter morning should not be a movement away from the uncertainties and sorrows of our world. If resurrection is, indeed, a mysterious gathering up and transformation of them all, then we should spend these days present to the disappointments, tragedies, and uncertainties of our lives. Let us gather them up and bring them to the cross in hope of whatever it is that is to come.
Jessica Coblentz is a Catholic theologian. She is assistant professor of religious studies at Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame, IN), where her teaching and research focuses on systematic theology and issues of mental health, feminism, and the relationship of the theology and the psychological sciences. She earned a PhD from Boston College, an MTS from Harvard Divinity School, and a BA from Santa Clara University. Her academic writing can be found in Theological Studies, Horizons, Journal of Moral Theology, Journal of Catholic Higher Education, and Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and numerous volumes. She has also contributed to Give Us This Day, National Catholic Reporter, GIA Quarterly, and to collections such as Visions and Vocations(Paulist Press) and From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism (Liturgical Press). She is currently at work on a book, tentatively titled, Dust in the Blood: A Theology of Depression (Liturgical Academic).
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