The days are getting longer and warmer. We have had flocks of evening grosbeaks and redpolls at our feeders. Spring is here! It is a time of hope, of excitement, of possibility … And yet, the dominant emotions that I am seeing and hearing all around me are discouragement, sorrow and frustration. It is hard for many of us to see what we have because we are so acutely aware of what we are missing. Even Easter seemed to fall short of what it used to be. We celebrated to the best of our ability; and we were glad that we could gather this year. But with everyone spread apart and wearing masks, with no processions, with no sprinkling rite, with no choir, the joy has felt muted. As I sat down to read the scripture passages for this Sunday, I couldn’t help thinking that it was going to be hard to write a reflection because it doesn’t feel like the Easter season. And then I read today’s readings.
Somehow, in a lifetime of hearing these same readings every three years, I had missed the fact that they hold a space for a much wider range of emotions than I normally associate with Easter. Joy, exhilaration and excitement are natural and authentic responses to the resurrection, but these emotions alone are not sufficient to hold the fullness of the Easter story. In today’s gospel Jesus’ apostles and others are sharing accounts of seeing the risen Lord, yet when Jesus appears in their midst, it is not joy, but terror followed by doubt that fills them. And when they finally realize that it is Jesus and he really is alive, the conversation turns not to exuberant celebration but to a discussion of suffering that precedes resurrection and to a repeat of the proclamation that began the gospel, a call to repentance now paired with a proclamation of forgiveness.
I usually think of the call to repentance as a Lenten call, not an Easter call. But today, I realized that it is also the perfect Easter call for times like these. Easter repentance is not a call to see the faults; it is a call to compassion. Compassion is one of the great spiritual gifts that has been around forever but has recently been “discovered” by neuroscientists and healthcare professionals. The root meaning of the word compassion is “to suffer with.” Compassion requires three things: 1) awareness of suffering; 2) an emotional connection with the one who is suffering and a sharing/companionship in the suffering; and 3) a desire to reduce the suffering. Numerous studies show that offering compassion to others and to ourselves, has a significant positive effect on both our physical and mental wellbeing.
The risen Jesus is a visible reassurance that suffering will not have the final word. Therefore, rather than run from suffering, we can turn toward it and change it. To repent is to see the suffering, to see the suffering that causes us to make destructive choices and to see the suffering that is caused by those choices. To repent is to allow ourselves to truly feel the suffering, to open our hearts even in the midst of the pain, to love the one who is suffering. And finally, to repent is to desire to reduce the suffering, to offer comfort and connection. To repent is to follow Jesus through suffering to new life.
So back to the discouragement, sorrow and frustration that seems so prevalent right now. The Easter message is not that they have been eliminated. The Easter message is that I can meet these difficult emotions with love and compassion and I will find new life even in these difficult times.