During the Second World War, an English priest was given the unpleasant task of telling a widow that her son had been killed in action. She had already lost her husband during the Battle of Britain; the priest knew that this newest piece of information would be completely devastating. He knocked on the widow’s door and held his breath as he waited for her to answer. As she answered the door, she saw the priest’s clerical collar and knew that the news would not be good. Tenuously, the priest said, “Madam, it grieves me to inform you that your son has been killed.” The widow’s response was surprising: “Won’t you come in for a cup of tea?” As the pair sat at the woman’s kitchen table, munching on biscuits and sipping Earl Grey, the priest observed quizzically, “Madam, you seem to be coping with this loss remarkably well. I certainly would not have felt able to invite someone over for tea if I had received the news you just received.” The widow mused, “I always have a cup of tea at this time. I’m told that when one faces devastating loss, one should strive to keep one’s routine. It’s the only way I can move forward.”
Today is Holy Saturday, the day that we remember the uncertainty that followed Jesus’ death. It is the day that we remember the grief of those closest to Jesus: the sorrow of his mother, the dejection of his friends, and the uncertainty of his disciples. In the liturgy for the day, we say the words of Psalm 130: “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning.” Holy Saturday is a day of mourning and waiting. Yet it is also a day of routine. It’s striking that in the accounts of Jesus’ burial, a primary concern of those who mourned Jesus was to ensure they observed the Jewish burial customs, that they did the same thing that their ancestors had done for hundreds of years. Even more striking is how careful they are to observe the Sabbath, to take the day of rest appointed by Jewish law, to do the same thing they have done week in and week out for their entire lives. In the face of their grief, in the face of their uncertainty, in the face of the fact that their world had crashed down around them, those who mourned Jesus fell back on their routine, because that was the only way they could move forward.
There is a wisdom to routines. In the face of uncertainty and pain, routines can be an enormous comfort. Even as our world crashes down around us, we can cling to our routines and they can sustain us as we carefully move forward. But even as we return to our routines, we must always be willing to be surprised, to be jolted from complacency by a truth that transcends even the grief and uncertainty of this day. In the meantime, we are called to return to our routine, to gather in hope, and to wait for the Lord.
In 1980, a musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables took the world by storm. Written by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, Les Miz (as it’s known to its myriad devotees) conveys the drama of Hugo’s novel with stirring chorus numbers and emotional ballads. Though the show occasionally leans toward melodrama (evidenced by the many parodies that have emerged in response to the recent film adaptation), it has some truly powerful moments. Toward the end of the show, one of the characters sings as he mourns the friends he has lost. Walking through a deserted inn, Marius looks around and reflects about the empty chairs where his friends once sat: “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken; there’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables; now my friends are dead and gone.” In “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” the audience is reminded that sometimes a person’s absence can say as much as his presence.
As most of you know, the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, officially retired last Thursday. Traditionally, the death of the Pope marks the beginning of a period known as sede vacante (lit. “empty seat”), a time when the Bishop of Rome’s cathedra (which is just the Greek word for “chair”), the primary symbol of a bishop’s authority, is vacant. Ostensibly, this period is meant to give people an opportunity to mourn the former pontiff and also to give the cardinals time to meet in conclave and select a new Pope. Given the unusual circumstances of the current papal transition (there hasn’t been a living “former Pope” for more than six hundred years), one might wonder why the Roman church is still observing this time of sede vacante. After all, there was no need to make sure there was time to mourn and they’ve already had several weeks to prepare. Why not pick a Pope while the incumbent was still in office so that he could hand over the reins to his successor immediately?
One of the interesting dynamics that has emerged from the coverage of Benedict’s retirement is the mainstream media’s frequent failure to grasp the nuances of life in the Church. Most media outlets have expended so much effort hypothesizing about the political motivations behind the Pope’s retirement that they have forgotten that the Church is a different kind of organization than those that they are used to covering. In a corporation, someone needs to be in charge, someone always has to be be sitting in the chair. But in the Church, the empty chair says much about the person who is going to fill it and, more importantly, the people he is going to serve. As Christians, we do not believe that God operates on our timeline. In fact, we believe that God exists outside of time. In order to hold eternity in mind, therefore, we wait quietly and intently for the movement of the Holy Spirit through the Christian community as we strive to discern what God calls us to do. As a result, life in the Church can be frustrating for those who are used to “getting things done.” Sometimes, we can be so process-oriented that we forget there is a goal in mind. Nevertheless we are called, especially during Lent, to pause, to take time to listen for God without anticipating a result, and to consider how our spiritual lives can be informed by an empty chair.