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God is love and love is stronger than death

Four Easters ago, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. This time of year, I am often unaccountably weepy and a bit fragile. Once I recall that it’s an anniversary, of course, I get it. Bodies bring anniversaries to mind, even when minds try to forget them.

The appointment with the haematologist was on Maundy Thursday - the day before Good Friday. For Christians it’s a solemn kind of day and in the evening, we go to a sombre church service of deepening shadows, where we remember the night before Jesus’ execution, when he was betrayed and endured all manner of anguish and humiliation.

The cancer my husband has is multiple myeloma, which is treatable to a degree, but not curable. The specialist didn’t sugar coat his news. Walking out of the surgery, not surprised but shocked and dazed, the only real information I retained was that we might only have him for another five years.

Dazed we might have been, but the show had to go on. My bloke is a Minister, and Maundy Thursday evening church was imminent. We called our adult kids; they descended from various parts of the state, gathering for dinner at our place without the man of the moment, who was at church doing his thing with an unsuspecting congregation and coming home, utterly spent, for hugs and a glass of red.

I made it to worship the following morning, and Good Friday has never felt so apt, so real. Our oldest and I sat holding hands and snuffling into sodden hankies. No one at church knew yet. Several parishioners commented afterwards that it was the most moving Good Friday service they had been to.

My clearest memory of that event was seeing my husband standing at the foot of the big cross in front of the sanctuary, looking very alone, and thinking, ‘This is the one journey I cannot accompany him on’. And I remember him quoting from one of my favourite passages in the Bible, from the book of Romans chapter 8, which reads, ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ I remember he stopped, recovered himself after a moment and repeated, ‘Nothing, no-thing can separate us from the love of God’.

That afternoon I experienced several hours of grief and despair so harrowing I could not get out of bed.  There was no shock, no denial, just raw pain. The words Jesus allegedly said while he hung dying, ‘My God my God, why have you forsaken me?’ played on a loop in my mind. One of the good things about being religious is that most faiths have a rich vocabulary for suffering and lament, as well as for life’s peak experiences.

But then I got up, washed my face and had a meal with a couple of the kids. Next day I helped another clean the house she was moving out of and life continued.

Four years on, we have had much waiting and anxiety and months of treatment and its medically complicated aftermath. But, while gruelling, the chemo and the stem cell transplant therapy have been effective – keeping the cancer at bay and giving us a bit more time, no idea how much. Life will never be the same, but is also strangely normal. And the time since Easter 2015 has been shot through with an abundance of wonder, delight, blessing and laughter.

Every religion has its own approach to the universal human experiences of suffering and death. I can only speak of my own experience of my own Christian faith. The story at the heart of Christianity is of the life and death of a first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. He revealed that the God who created the universe is the great, beating heart at its centre, the source of all beauty, wonder and love, and is also in and around us, in deep relationship with the planet and all its creatures.

The thing I treasure about the Good Friday-Easter Christian story is that it holds together the human experience of brokenness and beauty, of anguish and joy, of death and life. Good Friday and Easter are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other.

Good Friday, as a mate of mine once said, is where the rubber hits the road. It’s tempting to rush through the confusion and agonising wait of Maundy Thursday, the desolation of Good Friday and the fear and bewilderment of Holy Saturday to Easter morning with its proclamation of new life, its triumph of love over death. In a world that cries out for a grounded, realistic hope, however, that would be to sell the story short.

It’s hard for us, always viewing Jesus’ death through the resurrection grid, to imagine how lost, misled and terrified his followers must have felt.  Not to mention Jesus himself. I imagine Jesus had the profoundest faith in God and a sense that if he was faithful to his calling, that was all that mattered. But I doubt he went to his death thinking, ‘I just have to wait three days and it’ll all be fine’. If he was human, he would have felt confused and despairing. He wasn’t simply acting out a charade of death. He died. I find this picture of Jesus more helpful than an all-powerful, all-knowing divinity. When I read about the latest gun rampage or yet another earthquake in Indonesia, this is a God I can worship. A deity who isn’t up in the sky, benignly or indifferently looking down, but whose heart is the first to break when human beings suffer.

When people in my community are knocked sideways by early death, by the sundering of a marriage, by the mental illness or drug addiction of a teenager, I want to share with them this wounded, vulnerable God who has tasted some of the depths of human pain. When I myself have been plunged into the abyss of depression, I need to be reminded that the God I worship has descended into hell.

So, we need Good Friday. But we need Easter Sunday too. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t simply a continuation of the beautiful and miraculous cycle of life we see every time there is a bush fire – the new little pale green shoots bursting out of the charred wood of the eucalypts. Easter is a radical break with the life cycle. It is God saying not simply that life in some form will continue, but that God is stronger than death itself.

Clearly, God does not reach down and rescue one family from a flood, or shield one person from the blazing gun of a maniac. But I do believe that in the end, God will bring it all in, drying every tear, healing every hurt, making us whole, enabling us, at last, to be completely loving.

The message of Good Friday is that God is there with us in the worst that the world can dish up. The message of Easter Sunday is that God, who seems so powerless in the day to day tragedies of human life, is ultimately the end point of creation, of every life, every striving, every suffering and every human heart.

When the rubber hit the road for our family, when I lay weeping after my husband’s diagnosis, I needed a Good Friday God. But ultimately, we need an Easter God as well. It’s not as though we progress through Good Friday to some sort of permanent and triumphant Easter. Our lives are shot through with both Good Friday and Easter, over and over. The good news in that God in Jesus has been to both places. The good news is that the whole of our lives: the Good Fridays and the Easters, are encompassed by God’s love.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Easter Sunday

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Reader Comments (4)

This is a truly beautiful and powerful piece. Thankyou Clare

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Perrin

so well written, powerful and moving, Clare

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSally Manuell

Thank you so much for this article Clare. Our daughter has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer that has spread to her bones and liver. As we sat with her, her husband and 3 young children during our Good Friday service we too sat holding hands and snuffling into sodden hankies. ‘My God my God, why have you forsaken me?’ plays on a loop in my mind too but you reminded me beautifully that God in Jesus has been there too. As we journey on I'm sure I will re-read your article many times.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnthea Taylor

So real and beautiful - an embrace for all of it

April 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

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