For 13 million years, since the Big Bang until now, death has been part of life. We know that, and as Christians we believe that death is the prelude to new life. We call it the Paschal Mystery. But what do these words, Paschal Mystery, mean, asks Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner?
BY Patty Fawkner SGS*
I’m a bush walker – have been for years. On the first morning of a recent summer holiday, I was keen to explore a coastal walk in a National Park.
The track began in the hinterland of beautiful, soldier-straight gums and then gently snaked down to a secluded bay. The weather was balmy, the turquoise ocean and honey-coloured sandstone rocks were picture perfect. How happy was I, until…
Until I had to scramble over the rocks. My spirit was willing, my experience impressive, but my body balked. I, who, à la Superwoman, was once able to leap tall obstacles in a single bound, who once climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, found that my clambering days were over – gone.
“You’re not as young as you used to be,” the rocks mocked me. Somehow, tediously, I managed to inch my way over the rocks to a stretch of sand, more suitable for a woman of my ilk to navigate.
I feel keenly the loss of my agility. “It happens to all of us,” a friend reminds me. She’s right. It happens every day. These daily ‘deaths’ are inscribed in life. I don’t get that promotion, I feel betrayed by my Church, I discover my darling child is on drugs, my hearing lessens, I am “de-friended”…
For 13 million years, since the Big Bang until now, death has been part of life. We know that, and as Christians we believe that death is the prelude to new life. We call it the Paschal Mystery. We celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection liturgically from Good Friday through Easter; we celebrate it in every Eucharist. It’s the central belief of the Christian faith.
But what do these words, Paschal Mystery, mean? What do they communicate? Are the words yet another example of religious language that alienates or is unintelligible to all, save a tiny religious elite?
Would talking about the Paschal Mystery pass any ‘pub test’? Methinks not. Yet, I have found one explanation of the Paschal Mystery which certainly speaks to me – even helping me come to terms with the grief I feel for the loss of any physical prowess I once enjoyed.
Canadian priest and author, Ronald Rolheiser’s best-selling book, The Holy Longing, has a chapter entitled “A Spirituality of the Paschal Mystery”. I read it years ago when I had a newly-minted theology degree under my belt. The book helped me understand the Paschal Mystery pattern of life in a richer way than many of the academic tomes I had been studying.
The Paschal Mystery, explains Rolheiser, doesn’t conclude at Easter. There are five key moments or events that form an organic process – that of Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the 40 days after Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Rolheiser offers a colloquial rewording:
Good Friday: the loss of life – real death
Easter Sunday: the reception of new life
The 40 Days: a time for readjustment to the new and grieving the old
Ascension: letting go of the old and letting it bless you; the refusal to cling
Pentecost: the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living
Like Jesus, we too shall die, and, because of him, we are able to pray that our earthly life will also be transformed. Yet our own paschal mystery is not a once-off end-of-life experience. With eyes to see and faith to believe, it can be recognised as the pattern of all life.
The decline and deaths we endure – our Good Fridays – are many and varied. We suffer the loss of our youth, our dreams, our wholeness, the hopes we have for our family or community, the images we hold of God or our loved ones, and our trust in our institutions. No honeymoon lasts. Like an old fool I can cling to realities that have died, just like the caricature of the mid-lifer whose clothes and newly-acquired younger partner display a futile attempt to halt the ravages of time.
So focussed on our loss, we can miss noticing, let alone appreciating, the new life we have been given. We are like the disciples who failed to initially recognise the Risen Jesus on that Easter morning. “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene. In other words, don’t cling on to what I was. “See I am doing a new thing. Can you not see it?” (Isaiah 43:19).
The “40 Days”, Rolheiser suggests, is a period of grieving for what we have lost and adjusting to our new reality. Religious people can deny or repress this step by rushing to “spiritualise” the human experience, pasting over the ache and bewilderment of loss with pious platitudes such as, “God only takes those he [sic] loves”. Our culture, too, entices us with drugs, alcohol and every conceivable distraction to anaesthetise the pain of suffering and loss.
We need to grieve and to grieve well. We need to lament. The people of ancient Israel knew this; there are more psalms of lament – cries of anger, protest and doubt – in the Book of Psalms, than hymns of praise. Lament, it has been said, means to “taste the tears of God”. How then do we come together to communally taste the tears of God and taste the tears of children betrayed and abused while in the Church’s care? “Mourn, my people, mourn,” pleads Henri Nouwen. “Let your pain rise up in your heart and burst forth in you with sobs and cries… Mourn the way you were robbed of your innocence.”
Good grieving means not just coming to terms with what has died and gone, but allowing it to bless us. This is Rolheiser’s Ascension moment. To paraphrase Jesus: “It’s actually better for you that I go away. Yes, you’ll be sad, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go away, you won’t be able to receive my spirit. Don’t cling; I must ascend” (cf John 16:7; 20:17).
Good grieving allows me to experience the sorrow of my losses but also the pleasure of what I still have. Instead of being embittered by my ageing body, can I modify my expectations and goals and continue to enjoy the delight that a walk in the bush can give? Can I be grateful for what my body can do, rather than what it can’t do? I may not be able to scramble, but I can certainly stroll. And I can recall and allow the wonderful memories of all that my younger body experienced and enjoyed, to bless me for the life I’m living now.
I need a new spirit for my life with its constantly-changing circumstances. At this time of my life I know I need the spirit of graciousness, patience (still!) and courage. I need the grace to manage and accept the ‘unfixables’ of my body and within my life. I need the grace to resist playing the ‘if only game’. If only I was more mobile. If only I was more appreciated. If only I had made a different choice. If only…
All of us are in need of Pentecost to gift us with a new spirit and the particular graces to live the life we’re actually living now – a life different from the one we lived, say, one, ten, 20 or 60 years ago.
The Gospel is indeed Good News and God is indeed gracious. We see this in the post-Resurrection stories where Jesus graciously comes to each person as they need it – to a weeping Mary Magdalene, to two dispirited disciples walking to Emmaus, to a doubting Thomas, to a mortified Peter, and to hungry disciples after a night’s fishing.
During the coming Easter break, perhaps we could find a moment or two for some quiet reflection about our lives in all their changing circumstances. What is it that has died? What am I finding hard to let go of? What sprigs of new life can I perceive? And I do not have to do this alone.
The Paschal Mystery is the promise that our loving God enters into our lives, recognises our need and transforms our brokenness. Our gracious God is constantly doing a “new thing”, giving us the Spirit to live our life – not as it should be or could be – but as it is now. Amen!
* Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.
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