Friday, 10 April 2020

The stations of the cross and the stages of grief

A sermon for Good Friday, 10 April 2020

In some Christian traditions,
            the journey towards the cross is marked by a process
            known as the ‘stations of the cross’.

This is a replication of the route Jesus was traditionally believed to have walked
            through Jerusalem as he carried his cross.

Pilgrims to Jerusalem continue to walk the way of the cross,
            or Via Dolorosa as it is known,
pausing at each of the stations of the cross to remember stories
            such as Jesus stumbling, meeting his mother,
                        having his cross carried by Simon of Cyrene,
            St Veronica wiping his face with a cloth, and so on.

This pilgrimage journey has its roots party in the scriptural stories of Jesus’ death,
            but also in the many traditions that emerged about Jesus’ final hours
            in the early centuries of the Christian tradition.

However, its historicity isn’t really the point.
            The power of the pilgrimage of the stations of the cross,
                        whether undertaken in Jerusalem or through the use of icons or images,
            is that it invites those doing it to enter into the story,
                        to spend time with the pain and suffering and death,
                        and to not rush too soon to the happy ending.

Baptists are not normally known for observing the stations of the cross,
            but I do wonder if at this time,
            we have something we can learn from this ancient pilgrimage tradition.

Sometimes, you can’t rush to the happy ending.
            Sometimes, you just have to stay with the pain,
                        and the suffering, and the death.
            Sometimes you just have to wait.

And this is not easy.

It’s not easy at the best of times,
            but it’s even more difficult when the pain, suffering and death
                        are visiting our own world, our county, our city,
                        perhaps even our families and friends.

Each of us is having to make our own, personal, journey towards the cross;
            and whilst we gather in online spaces such as this one,
nonetheless this year we are more disconnected, more isolated, more alone
            than any other Holy Week in recent generations.

And this is not easy.
            It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s painful.
Because this year,
            the story of the cross resonates so strongly with our own story.

We are not passive observers of the disciples, the women,
            and the crowds around Jesus as he walks the way of the cross.
We are part of the procession,
            we are making the journey ourselves,
            and we are feeling the grief, the loss, and the pain.

I’ve heard a few people in the last couple of weeks
            refer to the experience of the Coronavirus lockdown
                        as an experience of grief.

We may, or may not, have lost loved ones ourselves;
            but we are all experiencing loss.

We have lost our freedom, we have lost our normality,
            we have lost our sense of connection with others;
we have lost our place of worship, our place of work, our social lives;
            many are facing loss of income, loss of security, loss of independence.

And this is hard,
            and we are grieving the losses we have already experienced,
            and we are grieving the losses yet to come.

There is a process known as anticipatory grief,
            where you start mourning in advance for a loss not yet experienced.
It’s a kind of anxiety, and it can be all consuming,
            as our mind conjures worst-case-scenarios
            for us to obsess over in the dark watches of the night.

And, at the moment, the end, the exit strategy as the politicians call it,
            seems to reside in the far distance of an uncertain future.

We can feel trapped in our grief at all that has been lost,
            and unable to move on.

And so we experience, not only the stations of the cross,
            but also the stages of grief.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about these in 1969,
            and they resonate now as much as ever.

We will see them playing out in others,
            and we will (if we are self-aware enough) see them in our own lives too.

Some of us are in denial, carrying on as best as we can with normal life,
            telling ourselves that this is a temporary blip,
            and that we’ll all be back to normal in a week or two.

Some of us are experiencing feelings of intense anger,
            irrationally lashing out at others or ourselves
            as we process the frustration of the loss that has been thrust upon us.

Some of us are bargaining, possibly with God,
            seeking to lose ourselves in thoughts of ‘if only…’ or ‘what if…’,
            feeling guilt at the things we didn’t do whilst we had the chance.

Some of us are feeling depression,
            a fog of intense sadness that overwhelms our days
            and saps our ability to function.

And some of us are beginning to get hints of acceptance
            that this world of loss is something we will have to live with,
                        and so we are reaching out,
                        investing time in friendships and ourselves,
            listening to our needs and being gentle with ourselves.

And the thing is, these stages of grief
            are all a necessary part of healing after loss.

They are not experienced in order, or separately;
            they come at us randomly, furiously, like waves washing over us.

This is what it means to live in Good Friday,
            to weep at the foot of the cross,
to pause at the stations of the cross,
            to experience the stages of grief.

And without wanting to rush too quickly to Easter Sunday,
            because none of us are rushing out of this dark valley for some time yet,
            there is still hope in the distant future.

The co-author of The Stages of Grief was a man named David Kessler,
            and he has since written of final, sixth, stage,
            which he calls Finding Meaning.

He suggests that the end result of the experience of grief,
            can be a new meaning in life,
where peace and hope are found in the midst of grief,
            and begin to point to a new future.

The loss cannot be reversed,
            but the future is not hopeless.

So today, as we contemplate the cross,
            let us be alert to ourselves, and to those whom we love.
Let us be kind to one another,
            as we process our grief in different ways.

And let us hold fast to the hope
            that the Good News for all humankind
            is found in the horror of the cross of Christ.

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