Midnight has just passed and Easter Morning was still at its darkest. The phone rang, stirring me out of deep slumber. The voice on the other end told me they had tragic news. Close colleagues had just heard that their almost-20-year-old daughter had been killed in a car accident that day in Africa.
Eva (see photo) had just arived in Zambia for a three-week easter vacation with friends. The car she was driving in rolled after swerving to miss a pothole. She died of brain haemorraghing.
Eva would have celebrated her 20th birthday in Zambia on April 6. In fact, she did celebrate it with her family before she left.
The grief of her parents as I talked to them over the phone was far beyond my own exprience. No parents should have to bury their children. Yet this was the second child they had lost!
Sleep was far away now. My wife and I tossed and turned on our bed, unanswered questions keeping us awake. Why, why, oh why?
Next to the bed lay the book I had quoted from last week, Surprised by Hope, by Bishop Tom Wright. An hour or more earlier, I had contentedly finished a chapter on the resurrection, closed the book and drifted off to sleep. I had expected to awaken to a jubilant resurrection morning!
Now, suddenly, questions of life and death had become very personal, immediate and close to hand. The reality of our presently-fallen world where death had not yet been eradicated weighed suffocatingly on our spirits.
Frankly, on awakening, we were not up to attending the early morning ecumenical ‘paasjubel’-resurrection celebration-in the garden behind the town hall.
Yes, Christ was risen! Risen indeed! But emotionally we were still stuck in Saturday and hadn’t really woken up to the new day yet.
A phrase coined by Martin Luther filtered into my thoughts: Hidden Grace. For the disciples on that Saturday, nothing had made sense. They had watched in horror and bewilderment as the man they thought to be the Messiah, the Deliverer of Israel, had died a painful and ignominious death between two criminals.
This was not what they had imagined either. Their whole world had crumbled. There was no way they could understand that what they were witnessing was the very turning point of history. There was no way they could realise that the very act of witnessing that event would later qualify them to be apostles, eye witnesses firstly of the death, and then of the resurrection of this same man.
That resurrected body was not however the same old body as with Lazarus., who (presumably) died a second time. This recreated body was different! It was a prototype of the resurrected bodies all who die in Christ will inherit, raised imperishable, raised in glory, raised in power, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, bearing the likeness of the man from heaven.
But on that Saturday, there was no way they could see God’s Hidden Grace at work in the heavenlies. All they could understand was utter confusion, overwhelming grief and deep bereavement.
Later, as Philip Yancey describes it in ‘The Jesus I never knew’, the disciples would learn that when God seems most absent, He may be closest of all. When God looks most powerless, He may be most powerful. When God looks most dead, He may be coming back to life. They had learned never to count God out.
“The other two days have earned names on the church calendar: Good Friday and Easter Sunday,” writes Yancey. “Yet in a real sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name. What the disciples experienced in small scale-three days in grief over one man who had died on a cross-we now live through on cosmic scale.
“Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda, and inner-city ghettoes and jammed prisons in the richest nation on earth?”
And we can add: the untimely death of a vivacious young woman eager to serve Jesus?
“It’s Saturday on planet earth,” writes Yancey. “Will Sunday ever come? That dark, Golgothan Friday can only be called Good because of what happened on Easter Sunday, a day which gives a tantalizing clue to the riddle of the universe. Easter opened up a crack in a universe winding down toward entropy and decay, sealing the promise that someday God will enlarge the miracle of Easter to cosmic scale.”
Celebrating Easter Sunday is not just celebrating a past event. It is looking forward to when death will be no more, to when the books are balanced in history, to when there will be no more tragic phone calls after midnight.
But right now it is still Saturday on planet earth. We still need to comfort each other in times of wrenching grief. And the grief, the berievement and the heartache is real.
Yet in that grief and heartache, we still look forward to Sunday!
Till next week,