Good Friday, good grief

(Unsplash/Jordan Bauer)

Most years when the Passion is proclaimed on Palm Sunday, I start out with the best of intentions only to notice halfway through the familiar text that my mind has begun to wander. This year, true to form, my attention began to drift just as Jesus goes up to the Mount of Olives to pray.

However, as the narrator recounted Jesus' return to his dozing disciples after a period of intense prayer, my ears perked up at a line I'd never noticed before: "He found them sleeping from grief."

Sleeping from grief … how had I missed this until now?

Perhaps I've never needed to notice it as much I did this year. Grief, it seems, has been an ever-present companion lately. Our community has buried 10 of our sisters since the New Year, including a vibrant and beloved younger sister whose death left us stunned. On a daily basis my work reminds me of what essayist Fred Bahnson has appropriately called "the ecological Good Friday we are inflicting on the world."

It's no wonder that particular line hooked me this year. I get it. I understand why the apostles are sleeping. While my experience of grief is less acute and certainly less tinged with fear than I imagine theirs was, the brief mention of "sleeping from grief" was enough to pull me right into the garden with them. And I'd guess I'm not the only one.

I can imagine a few explanations for their slumber. For starters, maybe they were simply too exhausted and confused by the events of previous hours to carry on. We've all needed to collapse into the restorative power of sleep when grief runs its course through us. From both a physical and emotional standpoint, this is good and necessary.

But there's another possibility here, one which I suspect is also true: maybe the apostles were just trying to escape it all. Who hasn't wanted to curl up for a good nap (or Netflix binge) when the pressures of life seem too much? It can seem easier and more appealing than prayer on the hard days.

Perhaps the disciples' slumber resonates with me because it illustrates what Francis Weller describes as "the two primary sins of Western civilization: amnesia and anesthesia — we forget and we go numb." While Jesus prays fervently only a short distance away from them the disciples, having no Netflix at their disposal, escape into a nap.

When Jesus rebukes them ("Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray"), I can hardly believe he is faulting them for acquiescing to a biological need. Rather, his message seems more nuanced: This is no time to numb out! We're all hurting here. Wake up; now is when we need each other more than ever!

I find myself weirdly grateful for, and convicted by, Jesus' rebuke. Like so many, I have often tried to avoid the reality of grief, whether by keeping busy, distracting myself or powering through. But, at best, this only makes me feel like a robot. Naming grief isn't easy in a culture that would rather ignore it altogether, but I'm learning that it's necessary.

I'm learning the paradoxical truth of the human condition: that unless we face, experience and give voice to sorrow, we cannot experience true joy.

Rather than a misnomer, "Good" Friday is in fact a profound profession of belief in that paradox. It is "good" only because it leads us to Easter. And on the flip side, there can be no resurrection without first passing through death.

I find myself surprisingly grateful for a liturgical calendar and rituals that carve out time for collective grief and repentance before leaping into Easter joy. This is not some masochistic desire to wallow in suffering; rather, it's a recognition that in opening our hearts to the crucifixions of our world, we can let Christ lead us through them to resurrection. After all, as Francis Weller writes in his book on sorrow, "to honor our grief, to grant it space and time in our frantic world, is to fulfill a covenant with soul."

In a world that condones plundering Earth's resources and victimizing the poor for the convenience of a few, we need the unapologetically earthy ritual of ashes at the start of Lent. It is a humbling reminder that we belong to one another. And in a world that would like to find immortality by simply ignoring death, we need the time-out of Good Friday. It only deepens the scandalous promise of resurrection.

Our Lenten journey is almost over. The Resurrection is near. But today we are given some final moments to hold our grief — and one another — gently. Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray.

[Christin Tomy is a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. While living and working in Central and South America, she discovered a passion for ecological work, and she currently ministers as care for creation coordinator at Sinsinawa Mound.]

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