Easter becomes more powerful in the context of human suffering

As I embark from the school bus at the mouth of the Guatemala City cathedral, I am enveloped by its cavernous darkness, alleviated only by a few lone candles burning on the altar.

The light flickers, transforming the solid pillars into dancing columns of light and shadow. I kneel in a pew half way down the aisle, strain to hear the Spanish prayer solemnly intoned by the cantor and listen to the Old Testament reading, the sung psalm and the epistle.

After a pause, as if on a divine cue, a cacophony of bells ring. Light blinks on, then blazes, flooding the cathedral with light, mingled with the peals of “Alleluia, Alleluia.”

In the midst of the light and glory, my mind flashes back to a week earlier. In the patio behind my Costa Rican host family’s house, I sit transfixed, reading articles as preparation for my study abroad group’s upcoming trip to Guatemala. I barely remember to blink as I read of the horrors that litter Guatemalan history: rampant poverty, government-sanctioned massacres and suffering to the point of nausea. It is overwhelming.

The serenity of normalcy suddenly seems surreal in a world where young men and women are dragged from their beds to face firing squads. In that moment, the philosophical question of evil becomes glaringly literal, fleshed out in human cruelty. “Is there hope for such a world?” I whisper.

Days later and miles away, I join my voice in singing “Alleluia” with men and women whose relatives and friends were very likely the victims I read about.

In the same way that good old peanut butter and jelly tastes like filet mignon at twilight on an all-day hike, the truth of the empty tomb takes on a dramatic new beauty when juxtaposed with the relentless agony suffered by the Guatemalans.

Of course, we do not invite suffering in order to experience a more magnificent Easter, but the harsh presence of pain strips away any illusions we entertain about participating in Christ’s resurrection in any other way than through His cross.

In fact, I venture to say that it is easier to skim over the passion narratives en route to Easter Sunday if the unwanted guests of death and pain do not drag our eyes to the sorrow borne by the Suffering Servant. Hence one of many reasons that liturgical wisdom devotes Good Friday to recalling the suffering and death of our Lord. In the Catholic tradition, the crucifix is draped in blood-red fabric.

After the priests enter, they prostrate themselves at the feet of the image of Christ crucified, a powerful and physical lament for our sin that brought Christ to the cross.

To make the drama of redemption even more personal, the Good Friday liturgy vocally recites the entire crucifixion narrative, casting the congregation in the role of ‘the crowd’ who shouts “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Hearty observance of Lenten discipline and celebration of Good Friday prevent Easter Sunday from seeming like the disjointed end of a story without a beginning; a resurrection means nothing without a preceding death.

The unfolding of Jesus’ trials throughout Lent, especially during Holy Week, prepares us to welcome the risen Christ on Easter as the disciples must have welcomed him on the third day, with red-rimmed eyes bleak from weeping, and with weary bodies taut with fear and sorrow.

Seen with recent memories of genuine agony, Easter dawns with almost unspeakable exhilaration. He is risen! Death, where is your sting? Until that blessed day when justice and peace shall kiss, I will remember the glory of Easter celebrated in Guatemala.

Bethany Musser is a senior majoring in theology and minoring in Spanish.

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