Barely awake, I pull off my eye mask and instinctively reach for my phone to see if I’ve missed any important messages. Just one text from my husband, 57 minutes ago:
“Things I never thought I’d say to my Dad: Don’t put your breathing tube back in or your nose will catch on fire.”
I have no idea what this is about. After responding with an appropriately bemused emoji, I ask if he wants me to take over for him at the hospital so he can come home and rest.
While awaiting his answer, I open up Facebook to make sure my own parents had seen the late-night message I’d issued from the stroke unit.
Soon, though, I’m swept up in the current of the Almighty Newsfeed. Today it is a veritable Pascha bazaar, each entry hawking the wares of Orthodox Holy Week: Lazarakia pastries, homemade Tsourekia bread, palm crosses, handmade Pascha blankets, vigil candles…
The teeming marketplace is punctuated by Orthodox “shop talk” posts–photos and comments about how lovely the Lazarus liturgy had been that morning, frazzled choir leaders lamenting how they are officially “in the thick of it” and “There’s no turning back.” Add to that the melodramatic caption: “I’m not ready for Holy Week at all!” (The same caption was accompanied by the poster’s own photos of homemade Easter bread and crackers for caviar–as though to say these few gourmet goodies were all my humble kitchen could muster up so far. If that’s what ‘not ready at all’ means, I’m screwed.)
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I delude myself that what God most wants from me at that moment is to get up and make a batch of Lazarakia–pastry-covered, date-filled nuggets that recall the resurrection of Lazarus, which we celebrate today, the Saturday before Pascha. The event is heralded as a kind of firstfruit of Christ’s own resurrection.
Note: I’ve never made Lazarakia. They are not a staple of our Holy Week repertoire. Further note: I doubt anyone in my family even likes them–we are less the figs-and-dates kind of Greeks and more the all-honey-and-filo-dough-all-the-time kind.
But never mind all that. And never mind my father-in-law is across town, in a slumpy hospital bed, fighting for his life (and, evidently, his right to set fire to his nasal passages?). And never mind that this has been a downward-spiraling battle that has wound its way all through Lent. Never mind that I’ve been in and out of the doctor’s office for my own less-serious-but-nonetheless-needing-to-be-dealt-with-right-now health issues lo these many weeks. Never mind that between all the uncertainty and fatigue, I haven’t made it to a single week-night service since the first week of Lent. Never mind that we’ve kept the fast–barely and lonely, but valiantly. (Not with any of the fun Lenten foods, mind you, but by the seat of our wrinkled-and-unironed-but-thank-God-I-managed-to-do-some-laundry-last-week pants. Read: way too many sickening vegan protein bars en route to the hospital. Also lots of bread.)
Never mind that somewhere, in all the unstructured routinelessness, a kind of latent depression has hardened my heart and home, making every meal and cleaning session and grocery day a torturous struggle. The fridge is nearly empty, now, and even the thought of pulling freezer meals out to thaw seems unappealing to me. (Side question: when did I have the time to stock up on freezer meals?! It seems like another life/ person.)
And underneath it all is an acute and paralyzing sense of failure, as though I’ve let Lent down. Let God down.
Earlier this week, I’d called my spiritual father to update him on my life and sorry excuse of a Lent. I explain how negligent I’ve been, not attending any presanctified Liturgies or Akathists this year. I tell him much of that is due to legitimate, hospital reasons. There were other times, though, when I’d just been overwhelmed by it all. Instead of standing in church and praying, I’d sat on my couch and knitted.
He told me this Lent, my askesis was to be there for my family, as best as my weak human efforts allow. He also told me to fight the temptation that suggests small actions are meaningless. Sometimes all you can do is the next thing that is to be done, however small.
Do what needs doing, he tells me. Be with your family. Comfort the dying. Keep going. And then, give the rest to God.
I tried to take it to heart. But in the back of my mind, I still felt like a failure. “Holy Week will be better,” I vowed.
That was before the most recent stroke. Things were thrust back into chaos mode.
And that’s where I was, this morning. Drowning in expertly filtered Lazarakia pictures, wondering what the next thing to be done even was.
I don’t think I’ve cried at all this Lent, my insides too uncertain for even that. But suddenly, the tears show up, unbeckoned and unannounced. Streams gushing forth in a desert of dryness. Tears for my father-in-law, for the unpredictability of life, the strange and impersonal labyrinth of modern death, the staleness and sadness of all those slumped, lonely strangers I’d seen the last few weeks, living out their final days in endless hospital wards. For lost presanctified liturgies, lost opportunities, lost words, lost time.
I cried, too, because I knew God couldn’t care less about the dang Lazarakia. I cried because there really is nothing in this world to cling to but Christ, His death and resurrection. And that is a lonely, mysterious, harrowing reality. All we are promised is the Resurrection, and before that, the Cross.
I keep scrolling, not really wanting to deal with the tears that fall silently onto my pillow. Until I come across a simple post from a priest friend of mine:
“It’s Lazarus Saturday: Arise and go forth.”
Arise and go forth.
At the same time I’m reading those words, my husband texts me back that I don’t need to come, that he is just waiting to talk to the doctor and will be coming home to rest shortly. Maybe I could go to the grocery store, he suggests, and pick up a leg of lamb.
Just in case, I think. Just in case life throws us for another loop this Holy Week. Just in case this is our last moment of relative calm to stock up on something remotely paschal.
Sometimes, Lent can be tied up into a pretty package that makes a good Instagram post. And that is not trite–along with everything else, God is a God of beauty.
But other times, Lent is the valley of the shadow of death, relentless and eviscerating. It is the belly of the whale. It is the frail awareness that the only (ONLY) comfort we have is that beyond all this, there is the resurrection.
And sometimes that resurrection is preceded by a 40-day-long triumphant trek through liturgies and lovely traditions.
Other times, it is preceded by the faithful act of rising from the tomb of your own grief, making a pilgrimage to the grocery store so your family will maybe have some fresh vegetables to make it through Holy Week and lamb to look forward to.
It is Lazarus Saturday, and although I’d barely know that, I will arise. And I will go forth. Thanks be to God.
(Note: I do not mean any offend to anyone who DID have the kind of Lent that allowed for the baking of sundry sweets. No one’s life is easy, and carving out time to do all of that is a kind of faith unto itself.)