Have you ever felt like you were being followed? I have a distinct memory of an experience I had when I was in seventh grade. I was walking home from volleyball practice on a November night, about 8:00, so it was dark but not too late.
I had been slightly delayed because of a most intense 13-year-old conversation with my friend about a particular boy in our class. My house was about three blocks away from the school, and the walk was one I took multiple times a week — a comforting kind of walk, actually, with neighbors who knew me and a neighborhood that was home.
This was a time long before cellphones or "find my friends" apps or GPS or anything like that, so what my parents knew about my whereabouts was what I told them. It was a time when we trusted more, I think. If my parents didn't hear from me, they assumed everything was fine, and on the night in question, I had no reason to call them to indicate otherwise.
So, on this particular autumn evening, walking home like I did practically every evening, all I had on my mind was the hope of ice cream before bed and the disappointment of being benched at the weekend game because of my poor overhead serve. That was what was on my mind when I noticed the sound of someone following behind me.
Now, I was old enough to feel a little nervous about the nearing presence of what sounded to be like a heavy adult man walking behind me, but I was too young to think about what options would be best in the situation. All I knew was that I was close to home and I was afraid. I didn't know who was behind me, I didn't know if it was friend or foe, and I certainly didn't know whether I was safe or in danger.
My pace picked up a bit, my heart rate rose, and I remember thinking, "Should I run?"
In my imagination, this time of uncertainty and fear lasted quite a long time, but in reality I'm guessing it only lasted a minute at most, because I soon heard the voice of my dad behind me, calling my name. "Virginia, is that you?"
Fear instantly turned to relief. Not only "friend" ... but father. He who loved me had come to get me.
"You weren't coming home. Everything OK?"
"Yes, Dad, I was just talking with Leigh after practice about boys."
"Ahh, I see. Something important."
"It's all right, but your mother and I were worried, so I came to make sure you were OK and walk you home."
I don't remember if my mother was as caring — my instinct tends to believe she was tougher on me about being so inconsiderate of my dad's propensity to worry. And I don't remember how the rest of that night or that week or even that volleyball season turned out. But somehow, that memory of my dad has returned to me lately ... and for good reason.
I have felt recently like I am being followed by death. Within one week's time, my little world of religious community and family has experienced an emergency room visit, a deathbed vigil, a sudden death of a vibrant young person, and a terminal diagnosis of a dear friend. Four different people, four people quite close to me.
Death has been following me, a nearing presence that evokes fear and an instinct to run. Is this friend or foe? My faith tells me that death is not the enemy; my human instincts tell me the opposite. Religion tells me that death is a beginning; biology tells me that it is an ending. My heartache indicates that death is a source of suffering and loss; my experience recognizes my heartache as the price tag of love.
Is it death that is following so closely ... or is it God?
"Virginia, is that you?"
Death has no voice. What speaks out of the darkness, the voice that calls my name and instantly abates my fear — this is not death. This is no foe; this is Father. "I came for you to make sure you're OK and to walk you home."
The night my dad came for me was a kind of gospel. He who loved me came for me and when he called my name, I knew I was safe and that my journey home would be one of comfort, peace and safety. Before I heard his voice, I was filled with fear and dread, believing that I was in danger and that something terrible was about to happen. Once I heard his voice, an instantaneous relief washed over me and I knew all I needed to know — I knew who he was, I knew that I was safe, and I knew where we were going.
We are all being followed, each and every day of our lives, by a loving God who recognizes the things that might cause us fear or danger — death among them — and he makes his presence known in order that we might be less fearful and more certain of where we are going and who is taking us there.
We are in the midst of Lent, a time of preparation for the holiest of our weeks in the Christian faith. In reality, Lent is a time when we are preparing for the events of Jesus' crucifixion and death. It is one of those liturgical seasons that few people enjoy. Most of us reluctantly endure these 40 days. No healthy person goes joyfully into the experiences of betrayal, agony and death that will end our Lenten journey.
We are not a people who find value in suffering simply for the sake of suffering. So why can we speak of "celebrating" Lent? Because it is a journey that takes us not to Christ, but with Christ to the cross — and beyond. It's the "beyond" that makes Lent meaningful.
Good Friday has no value except in relation to Easter Sunday. The crucifixion of Jesus gets its meaning from the Resurrection. Our story doesn't end at Golgotha; it ends with the empty tomb after Golgotha. "He is not here." We are on a journey not to the cross, but to the empty tomb by way of the cross.
Make no mistake — our Christian story will involve the Good Fridays of suffering and pain; but our story doesn't end there — our story ends with the Easter Sundays of transformation and redemption. Every tomb will be emptied and every wound transformed. We are an Easter people on a Lenten journey.
"Virginia, is that you? I'm here to walk you home." Yes, Father, it's me. I believe that you are with me — every step of the way — but call my name often to remind me that you're there and that you've come for me. It can be scary out here in the dark, on the way home. We all need the reassurance of your voice reminding us that are we safe and that when we get home, there will be ice cream.
[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has master's degree in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial for the United States province of her community.]