I have been forced by circumstances to know more about death than I would like to know. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I managed a café in Dupont Circle, which is to DC what the Castro is to San Francisco, the center of the gay and lesbian cultural life of the city. Within the span of a few short years, we lost our head bartender, our chef, several waiters and countless customers to the dread disease.
HIV/AIDS was the Calvary of the gay community. I know some will be shocked by the comparison, but I stand by it. For these men, and it was mostly men, were struck down at a horribly early age and so their deaths lacked the naturalness by which Sister Death usually accomplishes her work, coming to those who have lived long and fruitful lives to be buried by their children. Here, the parents buried their children. At dozens of hospice visits, I saw living “pietas” as mothers comforted their dying sons. At dozens of funerals, the bewilderment and the fear that gripped the apostles was evident on the faces of the friends and families who gathered to bury their dead. And, the suffering was, as you can imagine, unimaginable.
I recall the funeral of Father Michael Peterson. He had founded and led the St. Luke’s Institute, where priests with drug and alcohol problems went for medical and psychological healing, and so he was very well known. In the last days of his life, he had written a letter to all the bishops of the country and to his brother priests, in which he stated that he was dying of AIDS, the first priest to publicly die of the disease. St. Matthew’s Cathedral was packed, with literally hundreds of priests in attendance: As we brought the body up the central aisle, the congregation and choir sang “O God Our Help in Ages Past” and I have never heard any hymn sung by so many voices at full throttle, the song giving voice to the prayer for divine hope amidst such a tragedy. Cardinal Hickey was not the homilist that day, but he spoke at the end of Mass. I have never found a copy of his remarks that day, but if I recall correctly he said something like this: “All my life I have prayed to Christ crucified, gazing at the crucifix in the chapel. But, these last few weeks, visiting Father Peterson, I have seen Christ crucified in the flesh.” Hickey, to his great credit, had visited Peterson almost daily in the hospital. Hickey, to his credit, was unafraid to identify Peterson’s sufferings with those of the Savior, and this at a time when some more conservative preachers were still declaring that AIDS was God’s punishment upon gays for their sins.
Later in life, I have experienced death as it normally and naturally presents itself, burying grandparents and uncles and aunts and finally my mother, visiting their graves, attending Masses for the repose of their souls. These deaths lack the unnaturalness of those from AIDS, but in both cases, the horror of death has shone through. The horror of death is its abysmal loneliness. Our loved ones are separated from us forever. Those upon whom we rely for our sense of well being and happiness, and in the case of one’s mother, those who gave us life itself, they are cut off from us completely and utterly. Listen to these words of St. Augustine from the Confessions (Book IV) in which he describes his grief at the death of the companion of his youth:
In our age, with its therapeutic sensibilities, we tend to avert our gaze from this “grotesque abode of misery,” we are counseled to recall the happy memories, we are encouraged to celebrate the dead person’s life when, in fact, the most obvious fact of the person’s life is that it has been extinguished. We need to recall the sense of desolation that Augustine had the honesty to admit if we are to truly grasp the meaning of Good Friday.
Jesus died alone. The Gospel accounts differ in the particulars. Only the Gospel of John, written later and with more obvious theological purposes, places Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom He loved at the foot of the cross. In the other accounts, the apostles fled. Some accounts have the women who followed Jesus watching the horror unfold before their eyes. But, all the accounts agree that the most prominent witnesses on that day were those who taunted him, divided his clothes, cast lots for his cloak, pierced his side, and nailed him to the tree.
We cannot escape the observation that those who taunted posed: If he is the Son of God, let him come down and save himself. The taunt was the most obvious question of the day – where was God? This Jesus had spoken of God with such familiarity, calling him “Abba,” and this Jesus had claimed for himself the power to forgive sins, a power that surely belonged to God alone. This Jesus had challenged God’s own law, relativizing even the Sabbath. On the Cross, Jesus repeats the plaintive prayer of the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus died alone, utterly alone. God did not come down and save his own.
We know how the story ends on Easter morning, but if we are to truly appreciate the joy of Easter, to experience that deep sense of awe and not just mouth the words, we need to place ourselves into the story of Good Friday and ask ourselves: Where was God? Why was Jesus obedient to such a harsh and unfair verdict? Why did the Father, Abba, let His son endure this suffering? Why does He let others endure suffering? Why must those we love die? What, in the final analysis, have we a right to expect from life? These are the deepest questions of the human heart. And the story of Good Friday sharpens them into very existential questions for those of us who invoke Jesus’ name.
Each of us must ask these questions and come up with our own answers, although the answer will not be a syllogism but a person. In Christ crucified, we see that suffering and obedience in the face of horror are beautiful. In Christ crucified, we see that self-abnegation is the first fruit of the faithful heart. In Christ crucified, we see that suffering is always the face of love in a world marked by sin and death. In Christ crucified, we see that faith does not always call us to happiness or self-fulfillment, but to pain and anguish and confusion and doubt. In Christ crucified – today, before Easter – let us have the honesty to admit that all is in doubt, all the claims Jesus made, all the teachings about forgiveness and kindness and justice and liberation, all the examples and the stories about the Prodigal and the Good Samaritan and the mustard seed and the pearl of great worth, all are in doubt. And, not just in doubt, but in disgrace. Really – does not the crucifixion expose him as the imposter and blasphemer the Sanhedrin thought he was? Have any of us gone to Death Row recently looking for wisdom or salvation? Today, let us stand with the apostles, and admit our desire to flee. Today, let us admit that we, like the centurions, tend to mock results we do not like. Today, let us weep, like the women of Jerusalem, confused and bewildered. Today, let us sit with the emptiness of the day which, like the emptiness of the Tabernacle, shows us what life without God is like. Let us contemplate the abysmal loneliness of such a life.