Sitting with the Dying: The Midwifery of Good Friday

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A Good Friday sermon by Dr. Dave Daily…

From this pulpit we hear each Sunday the good news, the promise of resurrection.  Here we learn to see what is holy, to uncover evidence of Easter life found in the darkness of loss and suffering. But today, like no other day, we must place that darkness in the foreground of our attention.  Not because we abandon our hope for new life, but because we can truly know resurrection only by taking account of the stark and painful reality of death. 

A few years ago a minister was quoted in the Little Rock paper, talking about how he finds Good Friday services to be drab.   “It’s like they are trying to depress you through dark sermons and sad music.”  That reaction is understandable, I suppose.  It is tempting to treat this service the way we did things when we were kids, when we didn’t want to year what someone had to say, so we covered our ears and repeated “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you,” until everyone left the room.  Perhaps if we just daydream about something else long enough, the Passion narrative will be over, and we won’t really have to think about that

In spite of the fact that Good Friday iscalled “good,” it’s not a thing to like. But in the presence of the holy, what we may like or dislike dissolves into irrelevance.  We are left with nothing to do except let the mystery of Christ’s death wash over us in love.

There is a short story written by William Trevor about a woman named Emily who lived on a remote farm in Ireland with her husband (“Sitting with the Dead,” in A Bit on the Side).  After 23 years of marriage he died. Gradually we realize that he had been a hard man to live with, having little affection for her or anything else, really.

On the evening of his death, two women who were sisters came to see Emily.  They were the Garaghtys, and their role in the community—their ministry—was to sit with the dying.  When they arrived at Emily’s house they didn’t know that he was already dead.  There was nothing for them to do, it seemed.  The only thing left was for the undertaker to come the next morning. 

More than that, the widow Emily didn’t really know them, so she politely discouraged them from staying. But they stayed anyway, sitting with her throughout the night, as the man’s body lay above them in the bedroom upstairs.

And what the sisters realized as they sat with Emily was that even though Emily’s husband was already dead, it was also the case that Emily was dying in her own way too.  Not just of grief like that of any widow, but dying of heartbreak over 23 years lost to the loneliness of life with this heartless, distant man.  Dying, we discover, takes many forms. And those sisters knew how to sit through all of them. 

But by the end of the story, something surprising happens.  In the hour before sunrise, moments after the sisters got back in their car to go home, Emily became aware, the narrator tells us, “of a stirring in her senses.  Her tiredness afflicted her less, a calm possessed her….  She sat a little while longer, then pulled the curtains back and the day came in.  Hers was the ghost the night had brought, in her own image as she once had been.”

In sitting with the dying, it turns out, those sisters were in fact serving as midwives to the birth of Emily’s new life. 

Good Friday is a hard thing.  But it invites us into just this mystery of death.  It calls us to be those who sit with a dying Jesus, to watch quietly in the night, to bear witness to the power of death in our own lives, so that, as Easter morning dawns, we may sense the stirrings of new life.

Sitting with the Dying: The Midwifery of Good Friday
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