Easter is upon us, but with Europe on the brink of war caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the United States hurtling towards a full-blown recession, finding joy in the resurrection of Jesus, and his triumph over Satan and death itself seems like an almost insurmountable task.
Fear and dread are everywhere. A cloud of darkness threatens to envelope and snuff the life out of us like Egypt’s first born at the first Passover. There is much suffering and division, not only globally but individually for the many who have been alienated from their families. How does one look to the future with faith and joy?
Most families, even royal ones, have at least one “annus horribilis.” While Queen Elizabeth coined the phrase in 1992 after the divorces of sons Charles and Andrew, it would be hard to argue that the years 2020 and 2021 weren’t even worse. With a global pandemic, the death of her beloved husband Prince Philip, and the very public and rancor-filled estrangement between Prince Harry, his brother William, and their father Charles, bad years, we learned, can always be worse.
The ugly and painful spectacle of the Royals, though more public, is not all that different from situations of estrangement that happen in millions of families. And especially during the holidays, the silence of estranged family members can be deafening. Passover and Easter are feasts of deliverance and redemption, yet deliverance from the pain of estrangement does not happen in these families. Like the lepers of both Testaments, one is an outcast until one is pronounced “clean.”It is an emotional cryogenic stasis.
Under such circumstances, the message of Easter is difficult to hear, but essential.
Karl Pillemer, author of Fault Lines, Fractured Families and How To Mend Them, indicates that 27 percent of families report a rift. Abuse and neglect are common, new partners, problematic in-laws, and ubiquitous spats over money are common too.
Writing in The Atlantic, renowned expert on familial estrangement, Joshua Coleman believes that a major shift in traditional family values is at least partly to blame for increased alienation and a concomitant decrease in personal happiness.
“Deciding which people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy to achieve that happiness. While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a desire to feel insulated from it, conceptualizing the estrangement of a family member as an expression of personal growth as it is commonly done today is almost certainly new.” Harry’s ongoing press releases and photo-ops seem to indicate this type of self-involvement.
One has difficulty imagining the Lord telling his father he was passing on the cup, and leaving the Garden of Gethsemane, never to return. For most families the stories are less consequential, but are no less filled with pain and heartbreak. The personal sacrifice necessary for families to function as a unit and remain together is becoming a thing of the past, much as is forgiveness, especially since the value of victimhood is often inflated for personal gain and in keeping with the times.
The New Testament describes the love of Jesus and his supreme sacrifice for us on the cross. The message of Easter is one of renouncing selfishness and concern for oneself. It is a message of sacrifice for the sake of others. It is about the forgiveness of sin, and through selfless devotion, the triumph of light over dark and life over death.
Is there a way forward when dealing with family estrangement? Yes and no. The forgiveness of God is the promise of Jesus Christ. To receive absolution, however, contrition is necessary. We need to examine our consciences, and allow for the possibility of our own fault and/or sin. A genuine act of contrition never begins with the word “But.”
“I’m sorry” is perhaps the hardest phrase to speak. It is made even more difficult when it cannot or will not be heard. For the estranged, Lent never ends. Penance seems to be eternal. Even death may seem preferable. When grief overwhelms, drop to your knees, and beg for forgiveness and understanding from God. Mean it. Pray for the aggrieved, and mean that, too.
Offer alms to those who will accept them. Jesus pardoned the worst of sins. When we stand before the empty tomb, it may be our only consolation.