Our community has gone through a lot of grieving the past months. How can one share a message deep enough with people who have suffered greatly due to the loss of a loved one? Anything I say will just be a platitude or a cliché and I might even diminish those who grieve? Nevertheless, let me share some thoughts on Lent and Easter, the feast of Jesus’s resurrection, and perhaps bring another perspective on God’s loving presence in the “here and now” to ease the pain of those of us who grieve or are lonely.
The season of Lent has the richest significance among the Christian liturgical seasons. Lent means the lengthening of days, the arrival of Spring. It begins before the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere (March 21), when the length of daylight hours equals (thus the word, equinox) the length of the hours of the night. And Easter, with its message of “ birth of new life,” is celebrated when the dark nights are overtaken by longer daylight, on a Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. This natural event has a special significance for Christians—the victory of light over darkness, linked to our belief in Jesus the Savior who triumphed over death, assuring our own resurrection.
Despite the Christian doctrine on resurrection, many fear dying. Many of us may not remember how young we were when we first became aware of the reality of death. I do not remember how I learned about the certainty of dying, but I do know that my awareness about death and salvation was deepened by the presence of a small cemetery (removed 30 years ago) behind our house in my hometown. It was the designated burial place for non-Catholics and those who took their own lives as the Catholic church refused their burial in the main cemetery. Here I would witness the burials of persons of other faiths accompanied by weeping loved ones. At six-years of age when I was allowed by my mother to play with the neighbors’ children outside our home, I would join them in playing inside this cemetery. So at that age I grappled with the salvation-related question on whether or not non-Catholics and those who died from self-inflicted wounds would be in eternal darkness. And so on Saturdays, whenever there was a burial taking place, I would push my way through the crying relatives to throw any flower in the open grave to accompany the departed. It was a child’s simple farewell to deceased strangers who, I prayed, hopefully would still be admitted into heaven.
The awareness of mortality and the evanescence of life became stronger in high school as we read elegies and haikus. I was unhappy that my teachers discussed death and dying when we were looking forward to adulthood. But in hindsight, it was good that we were thus taught because I realized that Death is not an enemy, but a lifelong friendly shadow walking along with us reminding us how to live life meaningfully and fully.
Later I would learn about immortality, not brought about by the final resurrection, nor through the fountain of youth, but through other means: through writing timeless works about the human situation, by creating music and other forms of art that help one experience God’s presence or through improving humankind’s quality of life through education, inventions, and the healing touch. Reading and music have thus become means to commune with great souls.
I experienced the immortal presence of such persons in Vienna where we lived for almost six years. It was a good coincidence that I chose an apartment overlooking the Vienna Woods that was within a five-minute walk to the resting place of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. Kilometers away in Simmering is the Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof) where most of Austria’s great men are buried in special sections: from Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms whose compositions are enjoyed any day and anytime by millions over the internet, to Viktor Frankl, neurologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Ludwig Boltzman whose works on the kinetic theory of gases established the second law of thermodynamics, lies there too. Though they passed away hundreds of years ago or just the past century, their works live on making them “immortal”. They continue to live beyond their physical death through their works. By these works we discover the grandeur of creation through thousands of musical notes arranged in perfect harmony or through words rich in insights and meaning or through physics formulae on things unseen like gases. We can experience vicariously their joy in feeling God’s presence or their anguish over life’s vicissitudes, and feel awed by the magnificent orderliness of the cosmos whenever their compositions are performed or their works discussed.
For ordinary mortals like us, we look forward to another kind of immortality made possible by the saving grace of Jesus’s life and sacrifice, which Lent reminds us about. We just have to keep on inviting God to abide in us through meditative praying—daily and often. Many of us have experienced God’s loving presence and energy during special moments of meditation and prayer. And the experience has given us such a feeling of exhilaration and intense awareness that we hear Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” in our head or a simple Petula Clark song: “Why is my heart so light? Why are the stars so bright, why is the sky so blue since the hour I met you?”. As Paul McCartney observes: “There were bells on a hill but I never heard them ringing, Oh I never heard them at all till there was you.” ( Original song by Sue Raney, American singer in the late 50s) We just have to think of God as the “you” in these songs to capture the joyous feelings of loving and being loved by God And during our moments of pain and confusion, we could hear God’s soothing voice: “I am with you. This, too, will pass and all will be fine.”
When we experience being in (not just being aware of) the energizing presence of God’s love and grace, we see more the beauty around us and hear the sounds of nature clearly. Having God’s presence in us also gives us the energy to go through the trials of life and the drudgery of work. Love makes us do things that otherwise we may be too lazy or indifferent to do. It also makes it easier to give and to forgive.
The idea of immortality and Easter come easily together. Easter arrives at a beautiful season in temperate countries when nature comes back to life. All the flowers start appearing one by one, according to the lengthening of days—first the crocuses then the forsythias, daffodils, tulips, carnations, azaleas, hydrangeas, etc. One can witness Nature waking up the flowers week after week in colorful order culminating in the arrival of big bright roses in the summer. In the Philippines, Easter is the time when the branches of fruit- bearing trees become heavily laden with fruits, appearing in succession like a fruit parade through the months of March to July—first the caimitos or star apple then the santols and the mangoes followed by the jackfruits, duhat, siniguelas, camachile, casuy, melons, and the watermelons, with the lanzones and rambutan catching up in September. It is a season of plenty in different refreshing and exotic flavors that God lovingly sends abundantly to comfort us as the warm season’s temperature steadily rises while we wait for the year to bring the cooling raindrops.
Living within God’s energy every moment helps us be grateful for each “present moment’, be it in pain or joy. The energy also lends the “spring” in our steps as we extend God’s love to others who carry such heavy life burdens that they don’t feel God’s grace and providence at all. In sharing with them the gifts of Nature’s sustenance and the message of hope that the Easter celebration renews every year, we help intensify the divine energy around us . The season of fruits or flowers at Easter underscores God ‘s constancy that sustains us through the darkness of grief and pain that come with living A heartfelt acknowledgement of this life-sustaining Love can change our painful experiences into feelings of peace (Psalm 46:10 Be still and know that I am God).
And meanwhile, until the time comes for us to be welcomed by our Creator and Savior into another life beyond this earth-- into an endless state of freedom, joy, and peace with those we love—no matter the season, let Chopin’s music remind us of Easter and make our hearts and spirits sing.