Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Great Easter Vigil

There is an ancient Christian tradition of keeping vigil on the Saturday night before Easter. Although many Protestant churches, in the Reform tradition, celebrate Easter with sunrise services, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Episcopal Church all celebrate the Great Easter Vigil beginning on Saturday night. They follow a custom that began in the first years of Christianity, in fact, probably with the very first Easter.

And tonight, Terri Schiavo’s parents, her husband, Michael, and many of those who have followed Terri's situation are keeping another kind of vigil. A deathwatch for Terri.

The irony of all this occurring during the Easter season has not been lost on many of us.

Easter is a holiday that emphasizes fresh beginnings, resurrection. Indeed, the entire season of spring is a time of rebirth. Most of the world’s religions have a holiday to mark spring.

For Jews, Passover is around the corner and it commemorates the liberation of the ancient Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. That holiday stresses the meaning of freedom from bondage, both the national bondage of the people and each one's personal bondage and liberation. So, Passover is a holiday of renewed hope for those who were once enslaved.

The ancient pagans and modern neo-Pagans celebrate the rebirth of nature at spring equinox. Indeed, the holiday Easter is actually named for an ancient German goddess, Eostre. And the great celebrations to the Greek god, Dionysus, were held in Attica at springtime. Dionysus, by the way, was a god who was believed by his followers to have died and been resurrected too. His central myth was acted out in rituals during his annual festival and became the great national dramatic theater festivals at Attica. It was at the Dionysian festivals that the Greek tragedy was born.

And so, at a time of year that stresses the beginnings of life, regardless of one’s faith tradition, Terri Schiavo’s family must wait for her death.

However, Easter, in Christian tradition, also teaches a universal truth that is appropriate to keep in mind during the tragic vigil for Terri Schiavo. Without death, there can be no renewed life. Indeed, Jesus taught that one must lose one’s life in order to gain eternal life.

Usually, of course, we interpret that figuratively not literally. We take it to mean that one must turn away from one’s old and sinful ways. One must repent and then be reborn to a new life in Christ. However, it is also literally true that one cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven while still alive. And for Terri, that is her best hope now.

In today’s Washington Post there was an article on the front page about the reaction of churchgoers to the events surrounding Terri Schiavo, including their opinions of Congress’ actions. Most of those interviewed felt that Congress had overreached and intruded into what should have been a private family matter. And most felt that were it their family member, they would take him or her off life support as Michael Schiavo has been seeking to do.

Only two of those interviewed disagreed, both Catholics. One said that people in our country had forgotten how to suffer and so preferred death to accepting the inevitably of pain. He also cited the Pope as a noble example of somebody who is suffering with dignity and purpose. The other, a Catholic woman, also stated that she was simply opposed to assisted suicide because she was pro-life.

While the man was right about the Pope, he could only be opposed to removing the feeding tube by misreading the situation and misunderstanding Terri’s true condition. Both the Catholics did. This is not an assisted suicide. This is not about the refusal to suffer or the denial of the value of suffering. This is about keeping alive a woman who cannot suffer, cannot feel, and who cannot recognize meaning and purpose. It’s about keeping alive a body whose brain has died and whose consciousness is gone. As I’ve said before, Terri doesn’t live here anymore.

And so, it is appropriate to begin the sad process of letting her go at Easter, to keep the Great Vigil, and to commit her into the arms of a loving God who can restore her consciousness, but not on this earth. In his Kingdom, every tear will be wiped dry.

Good-bye Terri. May you finally find peace.

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