Easter aboard USS Hue City CG-66 off the Horn of Africa 2002
I find Easter to be an interesting time. I tend to get reflective and while I do joyfully say “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” I also tend to be somewhat subdued. By nature I am reflective person, I like to watch, observe and think. I am not into big Easter productions and extravaganzas. I prefer much more simple expressions of the Risen Lord. I think that Jesus would go along with me on this as he spent that first Easter walking with friends, who failed to recognize him, and then breaking bread, he celebrated the first Eucharist after the Resurrection at Emmaus.
For me my most memorable Easters have been connected with my life in the military. They have almost always been simple affairs, and most involving the liturgy somehow. I think the first Easter that I remember was at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines, it was seeing the Chaplains in their Summer White uniforms that still stands out to me today. I remember a Easter Sunrise service at Naval Station Long Beach and looking in wonder at two “mothballed” carriers of World War II vintage, the USS Boxer and USS Princeton moored near the site of the service on the waterfront. When my dad was in Vietnam and we had been made unwelcome in a civilian church, we attended Mass at the Quonset hut that served as the Chapel on the little Naval Communications station. In my senior year of high school I made a cruise on Navy ships to and from Pearl Harbor Hawaii. During the week at Pearl I made the trip to the Arizona Memorial on Easter Sunday. For some reason that experience reverberated as loud as any church service I have ever attended. When I was a young Army Officer running from God and hiding in the Chapel, the Deity Herself patently used the events of Holy Week to “rend my heart” so to speak. I left the Good Friday Tenebrea service praying that Easter would come. Our good Lutheran Chaplain, Lee Rittenbach had driven home the reality of Jesus’ death so well that I really started to understand what the disciples went through. When Easter came I learned to say “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”
After that I went through kind of a spiritual desert as far as Easter was concerned. In seminary I was attending mega-churches which did nothing with Holy week, and made a big evangelical production of Easter, complete with overly loud and insipidly shallow “worship” music and laborious preaching. I have to say that these big productions were more of an ordeal than a celebration for me. During seminary we were going through sickness, financial disaster, loss of our home, cars and struggling to survive working multiple jobs while being a full time student. How we got through seminary I will never understand, other than that the Deity herself provided for us through a lot of wonderful people. The “happy talk” at church, the prosperity Gospel, focus on signs and wonders seemed to reflect almost a gnostic other worldly view of life that I did not see in the Scriptures.
Academically and from a theological point of view Easter began to rally take shape for me. Reading the Church Fathers as well reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Emil Brunner’s The Scandal of Christianity, Alister McGrath’s The Mystery of the Cross, Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian and Jurgen Moltman’s The Crucified God brought me to greater understanding of the connectedness of Easter to the Incarnation and the Passion. One of my professors, a kindly gentleman named Yandall Woodfin, made a comment in his Philosophy of Religion class: “We do not do Christian Theology without coming to grips with the reality of suffering and death.” That comment was at first offensive to me because my mega-church pastors all focused on the Resurrection. Death to them seemed to be a bother. One pastor said in a sermon how he did not do visits to the sick. When asked by someone how sick they had to be for him to see them, he stated “You don’t want to be that sick.”
However, what Dr. Woodfin said planted a seed in me. This went from an academic question, to daily reality during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland hospital. Doing various Holy Week services there, in the midst of the amazing amount of pain, suffering and death in that gargantuan Medical Center brought into focus and made real what Dr. Woodfin said. At Parkland there was no avoiding death or suffering, and what Dr. Woodfin said was right. We don’t begin to do Christian theology until we we deal with suffering and death. Easter and the Resurrection don’t happen without the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus. Easter disconnected from the reality of suffering and death is nothing more than a “happy thought” or escape that avoids the the great Mystery of Faith: Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.
After Parkland my understanding of Easter grew as I was immersed in the liturgy, began to observe the liturgical year, and occasionally “clandestinely” attend Anglican churches during Christmas and Easter. During this time Judy became Roman Catholic, something that accelerated what was already going on in me. During my formation process and following my ordination to first the Deaconate and then the Priesthood, the understanding deepened as I saw how the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. As an Army Reserve chaplain serving on active duty I experienced the life of a parish pastor at a small base in central Pennsylvania. There I saw how the how the liturgical year and life are so intimately connect. In life and death, in sorrow and joy, in good times and bad, the Holy Spirit touched people.
Easter became even more part of my life when I became a Navy Chaplain and left the Army in the “rear view mirror.” Here I began to see how wonderful Easter is when you do not have all the “smells and bells” “praise teams” or great music or facilities. It goes back to simplicity. On Easter Sunday 2001, I was on the USS Frederick, LST 1184 with my Marines going from Korea back to Okinawa. It was on Frederick 23 years before that I had first felt the call to be a Navy Chaplain during the trip to Pearl Harbor. In 2002 I was deployed on USS Hue City CG-66 at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. Off the Horn of Africa we had both sunrise services as well as a morning Eucharist on our flight deck. While with the Marine Security Forces I spent an Easter celebrating Eucharist on the fence-line adjoining Communist Cuba. I now have come back to critical care hospital ministry in my ICUs. Here we live Good Friday every day. For me Easter is not just a nice thing to observe, but a necessity in life.
This morning I attended the early Mass with Judy at Ascension Catholic Church. I love the church, though it is a bit big and busy for me now after Iraq. So I found me a corner near the choir where I could sit with my back against the wall, an emergency exit to my left, and where I could observe what was going on. Yes I was having a PTSD moment, but I got through it with the help of the Deity herself and a little ant-anxiety medication. But the really cool thing was seeing a man who was one of our patients on the ICU a couple of months back. A man who almost died on us several times, and his wife. We had grown close during that 2 1/2 weeks and he made it through. He looked great this morning. We all hugged and talked of how good God is before Mass, exchanged the Peace and then spent some time together after Mass. That was really cool. What a way to celebrate Easter.
Life and death, pain and suffering, healing and resurrection. Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!