Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century April 7, 1982, p. 397. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Lent requires a severe discipline on the part of the church. It is the discipline of waiting, waiting for Easter but knowing nobody gets in on Easter who was not here for Good Friday.
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. (Isa. 25:9)
The best that can be said of the church in these past weeks of Lent is that we are among those who have waited.
Questions were raised that had no ready answers — sin, injustice, evil, suffering, the demonic power of Pilate’s state, the limitations of the democratic mob, the failure of popular piety, the remarkably similar deaths of thieves and saviors. Through all the stories that do not end happily ever after and the sermons that never come to satisfying conclusions, we have waited.
We would have liked to sing a premature Alleluia or to place a florist’s bouquet on our stark Lenten altar, but we restrained ourselves, gazed at the cross and waited. Through cold March Sundays, Reaganomics, Jaruzelski’s law and all the Maundy Thursdays and Good Fridays, we have waited.
We have stood silent beside sufferers’ beds of pain, and watched them go into night, held their hands and wept with them over their sad lives. We have seen their bloated bellies on the six o’clock news, their thin, outstretched hands. We have filled our Lenten self-denial coin folders with quarters, and waited.
Archie Bunker, in fierce argument with his agnostic son-in-law, is asked, “Archie, if there’s a God, why is there so much suffering in the world?” He replies, “I’ll tell you why Edith, if there’s a God, why is there so much suffering in the world?” There is only awkward silence, so Archie yells, “Edith, would you get in here and help me? I’m having to defend God all by myself.”
Archie is me all over. As Woody Allen says, It’s not that God is cruel; it’s just that God is an underachiever.
Lent requires a severe discipline on the part of the church. It is the discipline of waiting. It is the discipline of honesty about the human plight — sin, evil, injustice, unfulfilled hope, unanswered questions. It is the discipline of a church willing to be somewhat tentative in its hope, to see faith as a now-but-not-yet sort of thing, the discipline of keeping close to those whose sad lives challenge our facile assertions of deliverance. And pity the God who has no better defense than the church.
Only the church that is able to keep ranks in a waiting world, that does not flinch at open wounds, that views the world from the underside, can hope to march one day to the summit. Only the church that can forgo its desire to sing Alleluia and claim victory, that dares to join its voice with those who know only dirges, can hope to be a part of a real victory party. This is the Lenten church, the church of self-denial, chastened hope, fasting, honesty, pain. Nobody gets in on Easter who was not here for Good Friday.
But one morning, so Jesus’ favorite prophet tells it, one Paschal day the wait will end. One day “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast” (Isa. 25:6). Those who spent all their lives waiting in a line that never got to the cafeteria door shall be fed their fill. Tears shall give way to laughter. Death, great omnivorous thing, shall be swallowed up, “for the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 25:8).
Wishful thinking? Pie in the sky by and by? Only for those who wish for what God is unable or unwilling to do, only for those who have all their pie and more here today.
The One who waited, suffered and died in solidarity with those who wait, suffer and die now gets his day to dance. Even now, as the first rays of Sunday dawn, he prepares the great table. Wine is poured to the brim, platters are full for a guest list that was proclaimed years ago.
Now, see them begin to move in sunrise procession up that bright mountain, crutches thrown aside, bellies empty no more, shackles broken, standing upright, put back together, one joyous, loud Easter parade moving to brassy Allelujas.
And the once poor old church, surprised to find itself in the middle of a parade moving forward for a change, borne up by those whom it once bore, will say by heart the words which it rehearsed for so many Easters past: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).