I turned our calendar to March to confirm the date of Ash Wednesday. I also noted that we won’t celebrate Easter until April 21. I used my words to offer a prayer of gratitude. Easter’s relatively late arrival allows me the time to catch my breath before tackling my abundant to-do list. In an effort to shorten that list, I read the scripture passages we hear today to prepare for this writing. As I read, I found that Sirach and Jesus (Sirach 27:4-7; Luke 6:39-45) had a good deal to say about the power of our words. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:54-58) chimed in to address the disbelief of some who questioned Jesus’ words. As I read, it occurred to me that I’ve put my own words to use in surprising ways over the decades. Though I hope my words have been positive for the most part, there have been times when their tone has been just the opposite. It was Lent 1987 when I expressed my dismay to God regarding Easter’s late arrival that year…
My stepdad had battled emphysema for some time and the disease finally threatened to get the best of him. Bill had become bedridden and my mom was heartsick. Caring for Bill at home would be impossible if he couldn’t walk. Though she was both a sturdy woman and a great nurse, my mom still couldn’t manage Bill’s six-foot frame without some assistance from him. Bill was heartsick as well. If he couldn’t go home with my mom, he wanted to go home to God. Bill didn’t use his words to express this. He simply stopped eating. He also kept his eyes closed except to glance lovingly at my mom when he thought no one was looking. I was heartsick, too. So it was that I repeated the same insistent prayer: Bill’s had a tough time. He’s suffered enough. Dear God, please take him home. My mom took great care of my own dad, and now she’s doing the same for my step-dad. You’re asking too much of her. Dear God, please take him home. Jesus cured the suffering who came to him. I don’t even want a cure. Just take him home! When my desperation hit its peak, I shamelessly added: You claim to be our loving parent. If Bill was my son, I’d take him home for Easter!
Lent 1987 seemed to drag on and on. Time always passes at a snail’s pace when our loved ones are suffering. I admit that I used the words of my mournful prayer over and over again throughout the majority of those forty days. As it happened, we celebrated my stepdad’s funeral the Tuesday before Easter. Later that week, I completed Lent 1987 by attending the Holy Week liturgies at our parish church. I missed most of what unfolded because I’d morphed from a weary and worried daughter into a weary and numb mourner. I didn’t use my words for much of anything after Bill’s funeral. It was during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday that I realized I’d been operating on autopilot. I felt exhausted and empty and I wasn’t sure of where to turn. As the deacon sang the Exultet to announce Jesus’ resurrection, something drew my eyes to the large crucifix over the altar. It had been covered with a purple cloth during Lent and I wondered why that purple remained. Suddenly, in the midst of an alleluia, the servers pulled some invisible wires which hung from the cloth. When that cloth fell, it revealed the most beautiful lilies I’d ever seen. Those lovely flowers covered the crucifix from top to bottom and from left to right. Their ivory blossoms glowed in the brightly lit sanctuary, leaving no hint of the suffering corpus hidden behind them. This amazing image took my breath away. Though I thought I couldn’t shed another tear that week, my eyes filled up. I felt alive again! Then it hit me. God had welcomed my stepdad home for Easter. Bill had been gone an entire week and I’d failed to use my words to say “Thank you!” Still, God welcomed me home as well. In spite of my ingratitude and my insolent tone beforehand, God gave me new life in the form of some well-placed Easter lilies. Those flowers spoke of renewed life to me and I couldn’t have asked for more!
Lent 2019 begins this week on Ash Wednesday. This year, we’re invited to use our words to help ourselves and those we’ve been given to love throughout our Lenten Mission. The words I chose to address our loving God on my stepdad’s behalf were clumsy at best. Still, they expressed my genuine effort to walk through my stepdad’s illness and passing in God’s good company. My words were also heard. God hears everything we say or think or feel or write. This is the reason our parish is providing us a little blue booklet entitled MY LENTEN MISSION. It is meant to guide all of us who’d like to use our words to find healing for ourselves, for one another and for our suffering world. We each approach Lent 2019 with a unique variety of burdens. As we deal with these things, we also search for ways to be productive family members, friends, coworkers, caretakers and to fulfill a multitude of other roles. Our mission booklets provide daily excerpts from the Lenten gospels and one or two related reflection questions. There is space to use our words to respond. Afterward, healing activities are suggested. The best part is that this booklet isn’t a homework assignment which will be graded on Easter Sunday. Rather, it is one small, but mighty tool which will hopefully guide each one of us on our mission toward a truly peace-filled Easter and a truly healed heart.
Though Lent 1987 remains etched in my memory, the words those Easter Lilies spoke to me are etched into my heart. My prayers have never again been quite so desperate because I’ve allowed God’s words to draw me closer, just as those lilies did. Perhaps Lent 2019 will reveal the healing we’re all searching for. Perhaps the lilies of Easter 2019 will speak words of new life to us all. Can any of us ask for more?
©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved
For those of you who don’t attend my church and won’t receive MY LENTEN MISSION, I encourage you take some time every day to communicate with God as only you can. The words exchanged between you and God are far more powerful than you’ll ever know in this life! Have lots of good talks with God!