In so much of life, especially as one gets older, the joy is entwined with the grief, happiness with pain, contentment with sadness. It’s all there, with circumstances, memories, thoughts, places, even smells, calling forth one wave of the heart’s unvoiced cry after another, like an unruly sea.
Today is such a day. It’s my Nameday, the feastday of the saint for whom I was named at my baptism. I am named after St. Joseph of Arimathea, whom John the Apostle calls a ‘hidden disciple’. He was a member of the Jewish council. At some point he heard of Jesus. At some point he went himself to hear Jesus. At some point he may have even met Jesus and talked with him. The record is spare. What we do know is that on the day that the Romans crucified our Lord, Joseph was there. He watched our Lord on the cross. And when Jesus breathed his last and died, Joseph went to the Roman governor Pilate and asked for the body. It was Joseph who oversaw bringing our Lord down from the cross, removing the nails, washing his body, and wrapping our Lord’s body in a shroud. It was Joseph who gave for our Lord’s final resting place a tomb that he had bought for his own use. There are several hymns we sing about Joseph during Holy Week and Great and Holy Friday and Saturday. Joseph is significant to me because at great personal risk, once he understood who Jesus was, he gave himself to serving his Lord. Even when it meant presiding over Jesus’ funeral. Even when it meant doing so in full view of his colleagues and the governing authorities.
I am grateful for my Presbyterian upbringing and for the fathers, mothers and friends who introduced me to Christ and helped me early on walk the path into Christian life and ministry, but I was for fourteen years also a hidden disciple of the Orthodox Church. Compelled by what I was learning about ancient Christianity and afraid of what it would cost if I followed through on my heart’s desire and converted, I lived in a kind of spiritual halfway house until it was made clear to me that I was being called into the Church, and that yes, it would be costly, but that following Christ regardless of the cost was the essence of one’s response to the Gospel. I have no regrets, with respect to becoming Orthodox, that is. I have plenty of regrets when it comes to my not recognizing soon enough the damage my self-centeredness was inflicting on those around me. I made choices to handle my besetting sins in a way that hindsight reveals as wrong. All these I wish I could undo, but in reality I can now only ask for mercy and for forgiveness. After years of internal conflict and brokenness and increasing relational confusion, and of being in a religious context that seemed to me to provide no good way out, I have found in the Church a safe place where my soul can begin to heal. The deeper I go, the further I walk, the more profound my need for healing is becoming to me. It’s a journey, a process. And I feel I have only begun. I’m grateful to St. Joseph for the glimpse he gives of the power of Christ at work in one’s heart. He meets me and you precisely where we are, without conditions. And as we choose to walk with him, he undertakes to change us. That is, after all, what I, for one, desperately need.
But entwined with the joy of the feast is the grief over what is lost, especially on this day. This day is also the 33rd anniversary of the day my wife and I exchanged vows in front of our family and friends and were married. I certainly didn’t intend for our relationship to shipwreck, and I could scarcely take in as it was happening that we were in trouble, much less that our relationship had died. Accommodator that I am, I kept trying to fix and change me and thereby somehow make things right. And yet the remedy was and remains beyond anything I could ever effect. But regardless of the cause, the result has been a bereavement so sharp I thought I might not ever breathe again. Many people lose their homes, we all will lose loved ones, and families that seem so permanent can evaporate for many reasons. But to lose a spouse under these circumstances is to lose one’s life even though one remains alive. It’s as if two plywood boards bonded by some powerful glue are then ripped impossibly apart, the violence of which leaves great shards of me torn out and still attached to the other, and visa versa I presume. The pain subsides, but the scaring of my heart testifies that something horrific took place here.
So this day, the 31st of July, marks two of the deepest, strongest currents in my life and where they cross at the point of my living this day. The sea has no storm disturbing its surface. But underneath, mighty waters roil and churn, as the currents of this heart deep beyond language work to find some way through.