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Desperately seeking Easter

30 November, 1999

Jim Auer reflects on how all of us end up, like Christ, on Calvary, over and over in our lives; yet we can be assured that there is no dying without a rising, no Good Friday without an Easter.

Good afternoon. It’s five o’clock and this is your hourly news update. Following last night’s arrest and hasty trial, the controversial prophet Jesus of Nazareth was executed by crucifixion early this afternoon. We’ve just received a report that his mother and a few of his friends have secured release of the body from Procurator Pontius Pilate and are arranging a quick burial at this moment.”

Calvary – also known as Skull Hill. It’s not even a nice place to visit and you certainly would not want to live there! All you can do there is die.

Happy ending
“We realise that this news flash will upset many listeners, so I want to tell you the final outcome to avoid panic and relieve unnecessary fears.  We are pleased to tell you the story will have a happy ending.  The body of Jesus will lie in the tomb for perhaps 36 hours.  Then Jesus will be restored to life, rise from the tomb and appear to his friends.  Now the weekend weather…”

There’s the problem. You already know how the story comes out. That is, you know how it turned out for Jesus. It is a different story when you end up on Calvary.

And you will! You’ve been there before and you’ll be there again many times. So will your friends.

Karen on Calvary
Karen looks at the speedometer, then at her watch, then back at the speedometer. She can’t afford to be late. If only she hadn’t needed that extra few minutes this morning. If only the aspirin and other stuff would start working. Of all mornings to be sick.

She keeps hearing her mother’s comment to a friend. “We hope Karen does well in the exam.”

Barely on time, Karen arrives at the college where the exam is taking place.  As she parks the car her head is throbbing, cramps have taken over her insides, and she aches all over.

She knows the next hree hours are crucial. She needs to feel good, alive,alert, confident – not lousy!  It’s a bad case of the flu probably. But of all days…

“We’re hoping Karen does well in the exam.”

She did everything she could to prepare for this test. She doesn’t want to let her parents down. She wants to get a good job and make them even prouder of her.

“We’re hoping Karen does well in the exam.”

Karen rests her forehead against the steering wheel and cries for a moment before she gets out of the car. It’s not fair!

Death for Dan
Dan stares at the two photos he has just taken off the top of his dresser. They are lying flat on his bed. He’s fighting the urge to throw them as hard ashe can at awall and smash them.

Both the photos are ancient history – things that no longer exist. If the reality is gone, why not bust the pictures? But he just can’t make himself do it.

One photo is of Lisa, his girlfriend for the past two years.  They had been best friends too – or at least thought so.  Then with almost no warning, it was over – her decision. “Dan, this just isn’t working.  I think in time you’ll see I’m right.”

Well that hasn’t happened. He doesn’t se it yet, and he doesn’t think he ever will.

In the other frame is a picture of his parents. They’re busted too.

“Dan, you know your mother and I… we’ve been having problems. It’s no secret. We’ve really tried to get help and put it back together, but it’s just not going to work. We’re both sorry for the hurt this will cause you and your sister.”

One thing blowing up was bad enough. But two in the same month? Maybe that’s the story of life, Dan thinks. Nothing works, not really, not long enough to count on.

The only thing Dan is glad about is that his sister isn’t here to see him crying like a baby.

The pain is real!
Karen and Dan both know how the Jesus story turned out. They’ve both sat through religion classes. But right now the Jesus story doesn’t seem real. They figure maybe Jesus knew all along that his messy suffering and death business was going to straighten out soon.

That’s fine for Jesus, but what about them? They have also heard all the official things religious leaders and teachers say about suffering. Life isn’t fair. Bad things do happen to good people! But it isn’t helping. Karen and Dan are still hurting.

I’m sure you have those feelings at times too, times when it feels as though God took a big hike totally out of your life and left you holding a bagful of pain and confusion.

Jesus felt that way too. He wasn’t hanging on that cross thinking, “Okay, this will only hurt for a little while. I can handle that. Then I’ll be dead for a few hours, and I’ll come back Sunday morning better than ever. No problem!”

No, those are not the thoughts of someone who screams out, “My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me?” The monstrous injustice and pain of Calvary were real – they were not just for show!

Betrayed by love
Sandy is trying to put on a show, but it’s not always convincing, and people keep asking her if something is wrong. She says no, she’s fine, she’s just tired – and she tries to believe that. But reminders are everywhere. A guy with the same kind of haircut, the scent of his aftershave, date-rape stories on TV and in magazines. She can’t get away from the memory.

“If you’ll just relax, you’ll like it. Lighten up and just go with it, okay?”

She thought she knew him. She thought she could trust him. But he’d had a lot to drink. She’d had a couple of drinks too. She feels guilty about that and wonders if she was at least partially responsible for what happened. Without the drinks, would she have seen sooner the direction things were heading?

She doesn’t know.

All she really knows is that now her life is measured in terms of before and after that night – and the time after has been mostly rotten.

Sometimes Calvary happens to you. Unfair things and rotten breaks come your way. Your first reaction is, “I don’t deserve this!”

All those nice things about God raising you up on eagle’s wings, holding you in the palm of his hand, taking care of you and protecting you forever; they can seem like empty, distant words, warm religious fuzzies that people who aren’t suffering like to sing about.

But wondering if, even in a small way, you were even partially responsible for putting yourself on Calvary can be soul-crushing.

Tried by guilt
Finally, knowing for sure that you put yourself on Calvary is the worst!

So this is what it’s like, Glen thinks. It’s a little different from the way they do it on TV. But that’s with adults – maybe it’s different in the Juvenile Detention Centre.

Then he realises he’s trying to cope with what’s happening by pretending he’s outside it… merely observing what it’s like when a 17-year-old gets arrested. And it sinks in again, a little deeper this time. This isn’t a TV show; it’s his life. He’s been arrested, he’s in very deep trouble, and he caused it.

He might have known better, should have known better, did know better – and yet he did it anyway.

If only he could turn back the clock, there’s be no way he would do something so stupid. Life could just go on the way it had been instead of being totally wrecked.

Glen sees the policeman picking up the phone to call his parents. He wonders if they’ll be more angry than hurt or more hurt than angry. He doesn’t want to face either one.

Knowing as Glen does that you caused your own suffering, your own messed-up situation – and that others will suffer because of it – is the real bottom. When something bad happens to you, something you didn’t deserve, you can get ticked off at God and say, “Why did you let this happen?” That’s at least having a relationship of some kind with God.

But when you screw up, a nasty little voice says that God is disgusted with you. The thought of praying makes you feel like a perverse little kid who opened a box of sweets that was off-limits, ate himself sick, and now is running to Mammy and Daddy to ask for something to make his stomach feel better.

That idea seems so stupid you don’t turn to God at all. You feel as though there’s nothing much left of your relationship with God at this moment anyway. It’s difficult to identify with the pain of Jesus. He felt pain even though he was sinless. You’re feeling pain because you’re sinful. There doesn’t seem to be a connection.

For every dying, a rising
These examples from teen life are major ones. They are not rare – they happen more often than they should. But if you haven’t encountered anything that heavy, that doesn’t mean you haven’t been to Calvary. Teens are regulars on that hill.

Being excluded by friends for some stupid reason or because you choose to do what’s right; not making the team or the cast in spite of hours of preparation; putting off study until a D-plus is the best you can do in the time that’s left – these are all crosses. They are all Calvary experiences. Some are heavier than others. Some just fall into your life. Some you make for yourself.

What do they have to do with Jesus?

Every single one of them – major, minor, and midway; yours, mine, and ours – every cross Jesus carried two thousand years ago.

Sounds like one of those cute official things religious people say when sin and suffering hit, doesn’t it?

But what if it’s true – what then? What does that mean?

It means just this – the rest of the Jesus story will happen to you too! It means the pain you are in is not just what it seems like or looks like or feels like. It means that for every dying you give to Jesus, there will be a rising. You’ve heard this before, I know. Sometimes that’s the trouble, so stop for a minute and ask yourself the question again: What if it is literally, totally real and true that what I am suffering now Jesus has already brought to Calvary? What’s the bottom line?

The bottom line is this: now you can say to anything that happens, “This hurts, but it can’t destroy me.”

Learning faith
It takes a long time to learn how to say that and fully believe it. Faith takes a lot of time.

Until we learn it, we usually want faith to be something else, and then we’re disappointed. We want faith to be a painkiller, kind of a spiritual spray anaesthetic. Spray a little faith on anything that hurts and it won’t hurt anymore. Or we want faith to be a crystal ball: look into your crystal ball of faith and get a detailed full-colour picture of exactly how and when God will turn this current crop of garbage into a harvest of joy.

That isn’t how faith works, of course, but if you’re like me and you haven’t completely learned that yet, here’s a prayer for the Calvary times of your life… times when the hurt and confusion and discouragement are piled so high around you that you can’t see over them.

“God, I know I should believe I can rise from all this, that good things can come from it, because Jesus rose from the dead. I suppose I do believe, but I’m not sure. I know I don’t feel it. All that stuff about Jesus conquering death and sin and suffering – I really don’t feel it. I need something to hang on to, so help me to believe it because you are all I’ve got.”

Maybe that doesn’t sound like the prayer of a veteran saint. Do we really think that’s what we are? We pray from where we are – God handles the rest.

There’s never been a Good Friday without an Easter.

This article first appeared in the Liguorian Magazine and is republished here from Reality (April 1997), a pubication of the Irish Redemptorists.

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