I haven't dealt much with death, apart from a few goldfish, a puppy, and a great-grandmother I hardly knew. So every Lent and Easter season, from the day I don the ashes upon my forehead until I shout "Alleluia", I am capable of acknowledging that we are dust and to dust we will return, that our beloved Lord died a bloody death, and that His victory over death is cause for celebration, but I have never known what it is to mourn death or fully appreciate the meaning of its defeat.
This Lenten season started differently, however. Just a few days before Ash wednesday, I learned that a sweet woman with whom I'd studied in Tanzania had passed away. Suddenly, on that bleak Wednesday night, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" brought stinging tears to my eyes. Just two years earlier Bonnie and I stood in our African classroom together as we took the ashes on our foreheads. For her, these words had already been fulfilled. "How fleeting are these days," I thought, "we never know when ours will come to an end." Little did I know that before our fast was up, I would also say goodbye to yet another beloved friend of mine.
Bonnie and Emma were two women so incredibly different than me. Our friendships would probably never have grown outside of the contexts in which we met.
Emma, a hilarious, music loving Brit, lived with her family on a hospital ship in West Africa. We met five years ago when I joined Mercy Ships in Benin, she was a senior in high school and I a recent graduate. She shared with me her intense battle with depression, and for weeks leading up to my Maundy Thursday departure, I sat with her late into the night laughing, praying, and hoping that enough love could make her depression disappear. Over the years we had our spats, the last much worse than any of the others. Despite our lack of communication, we both knew that we still loved each other deeply and shared a critical role in each other's life stories.
Bonnie and I met on the opposite coast of Africa. She'd grown up as a missionary kid in Nigeria, she loved Africa with all of her being. We disagreed on plenty of things, we got under each others skin. We argued, only half-joking, as we laid in our bed-bug ridden sleeping bags at our host-home in the mountains. But Bonnie loved without abandon and although we expressed it much differently, we both knew that we shared a deep love for Christ and His Church and desired to see others bask in its life-giving beauty.
Even as I write about them, I cannot believe that their presence no longer graces this earth. I cannot fathom the intense pain they endured in their last months until their fights against their illnesses could not be won. I prayed for them both throughout that time, believing that God's power would be manifest through their healing. I prayed for life, because that is what I knew. In death, I thought, the depression and the brain tumour would win, but in life it was God who won. Wasn't that the power of the cross at work? In Christ's defeat of death, we all find life.
Last week, as I listened to Emma's father speak at her funeral, I realized that Christ's defeat of death is so much grander than my scheme of understanding. As he relayed to friends and family a vision that he'd seen, of a beautiful Emma filled with joy, enrobed in the arms of the living Christ, I realized that in fact the prayers of all who loved her had been answered -- in her death she found life in Christ, not healing in this life on earth, but a deeper healing and a deeper happiness than she could ever have possessed in her twenty-two short years.
So today, as I celebrate the risen Christ, I celebrate the fact that these beautiful women are standing beside Him bursting with freedom and joy. I celebrate the fact that one day I too will join them, and all of our prior disagreements will be meaningless. I celebrate that in Christ's death we find life everlasting.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia, alleluia.