by Larraine Lauter, OSU
Water With Blessings
“It is finished.” ~John 19:30
No words. A friend writes that short sentence whenever she posts some witness to a grief, an injustice, a wound that is beyond the comprehension that words attempt and imply. “No words,” and she, an accomplished journalist and storyteller, thereby signals her deep bow of honest respect in the face of what cannot be comprehended … and the grief that stirs in her own tender heart.
No words. Tony Sizemore, pictured in the Washington Post (above), stands as a man at the foot of a cross. His partner Birdie Shelton was the first person in Indiana to die of COVID-19. Tony, as the photo plainly shows, is stunned, a man fighting to stay on his feet against the merciless blows of grief, a man struggling to make sense of what has passed upon him: “She’s dead, and I’m quarantined. That’s how the story ends.” Birdie’s death involved days of agony for both of them, and it seems clear that Tony’s mind is seared, as with a branding iron, by the memory of what he has seen.
For days I’ve kept the page with Tony’s picture open in my browser, a holy, haunting image of humanity. In prayer, I’m drawn to Tony, to his honest, raw face, his simple, unposed stance like that of a fighter who has managed to pull himself back to his feet. I’m drawn to this photo as one is drawn to an icon, an image beyond words.
There are so many words about COVID-19, so many, many words. The papers, the newscasts, the blogs, the tweets, the posts … words, words, words. We humans, the wordy ones of this planet, we’re desperately trying to make meaning of this unanticipated blow, this pandemic. Tony will have none of it; the philosophizing, the theologizing, the silver-cloudizing, he is not interested. “She’s dead, and I’m quarantined.” Period. And in our faces: “Anything good I could say about this would be a lie.” Period.
Good Friday … was there anything good there? Not for those who were living that day, not for Jesus tortured to death, not for his friends, stunned beyond words, no, nothing good. No good words to say. No one was preaching eloquently about hope, no one was looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, no one was reminding all and sundry that there would be a day when we returned to “normal”, no one was saying that God would bring good from what had happened. “He’s dead, and we’re in hiding.” And “Anything good I could say about this would be a lie.”
Tony knows, and has no doubt heard, that we desperately want him to say something good about what happened to him and Birdie. He refuses, just flat out refuses. “Anything good I could say about this would be a lie.”
Pandemic. The word itself, Greek, means “all people”. This pandemic has brought all of us, all people, face to face with Tony, with the every-Tony, the one who is speechless at the foot of the cross. That place, this place, is not the place of words.
We knew, did we not, that Tony is here, there, everywhere? That he was among us before COVID-19, standing in the storm of war, of hunger, brutal violence, cruel loss? The earth and its poor ones, vulnerable humans and innocent creatures, have been on the cross of indifferent greed for a long, long time.
The readings of Good Friday are long, a litany of many words, brutal, merciless in their images. “Because of him kings shall fall speechless.” The author of Isaiah 52-53 stands like Tony, stunned at the sight of the suffering one. Even the kings, he says, even those who never lack for the words of power, even they fall silent.
Around the cross, just inches from the women who stand with Jesus, there is plenty of chatter. His death is not uncommon; the Romans crucify casually, by the thousands. The women are battered by snatches of commentary and critique. Meaning is made by those passing by, wagging their heads.
Tony, as it turns out, has more words, but none of them are for our comfort or his. All his words are only about and for Birdie. All his words are true. Love has taken him to the cross of a beloved, she died, and he is still standing for now. That is all he has to say. Gratefully, we can report that his listener, Eli Saslow, apparently a merciful man, just lets him talk.
Similarly, the Good Friday liturgy just lets them talk, all the witnesses to the Suffering One. It all ends honestly, it all ends badly. Nothing good can be said. It is what it is.
We don’t like this. We squirm, we theologize, we are straining ahead to see a glimpse of resurrection. We prefer to breeze past Tony, find the good stories, the uplifting songs and heartwarming moments, find the meaning, the purpose, the insights, the many words. And we do eventually need these, for we are only human, and we have to keep going. But Tony does not need these, not now. Tony needs our silent weeping.
Tony, the many Tonys, and Good Friday, the many Good Fridays: these relentless, fearful teachers of the truth of our human reality. Just for this moment, truly for Christ’s sake, Christ incarnate in Tony, let the pain be the true word. Have the guts, the courage, to look at Tony; here, there and everywhere. Be merciful; forebear to ask him for meaning, for uplifting thoughts. Love has taken Tony to Birdie’s cross. Just for now have the guts to be silent, to stand there with him, weeping.
Mount Saint Joseph Ursuline sister, Larraine Lauter serves in Louisville, Ky., where Water With Blessings is headquartered. The ministry connects water filters with Water Women across the globe who sign a covenant and commit to God promising to provide clean water for their families and their communities. Now in its 10th year, Water With Blessings has grown to 72,000 Water Women in 45 countries.