There’s a phrase I recently learned in gardening: shouldering.
When root vegetables are ready to harvest, they’ll often be found “shouldering” above the soil. The orange body of a carrot or the robust red of a radish start to show their meaty flesh; after months underground, an onion or garlic will inch its raw body toward the sun.
Shouldering is a way of moving upwards, out of the darkness and into the light. Not unlike human shoulders that shrug and scrunch, sometimes toward the ears and sometimes back down toward the belly, when a vegetable is good and ready it will scrunch and shoulder toward the sky.
As a gardener, it wouldn’t be untrue to say that I want this vegetable-shouldering and I want it now! I want to eat food I’ve grown with my own two hands, often sown from minuscule, tiny seeds. I want to reap a harvest and share a bounty with my neighbors, my church community, and the grown-ups at my children’s school.
Sometimes, I’m so prone to wanting the final product that I lack the patience to let it sit and grow and find its way through the dark. I neglect to let it shoulder on its own.
I suppose it’s not too different in our spiritual lives. Good Friday, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, is “about us entering the difference between God and humanity and just touching it for a moment.” We touch the “shimmering sadness of humanity’s insistence that we can be our own gods, that we can be pure and all-powerful.” Perhaps even more, we feel the “pain of an entirely unfiltered reality.”
It’s almost as if Good Friday is a day when we shoulder upwards unannounced; pushed out of the ground, our human selves are not yet ready to see and feel and experience the light of a rolled-away stone. As Bolz-Weber writes, “It is as if the atmosphere, the protective layer between us and the sun, has for a moment disappeared and we are being burned.”
On this day, we feel it in our bones. The weight of the cross and of the God who hung there cannot be denied, not when darkness is ever-present and hope is nowhere to be found. The light of dawn has not yet peeked over the horizon, yet there we are, burning.
We feel this when yet another mass shooting claims the lives of three innocent children and adults in the Covenant School shooting. No matter which side of the political fence we stand on, all of us are left numbed, struck down by the reality of unnecessary gun violence.
We remember this when more than forty lives are lost in an immigration detention center just south of the border, its impact long rippling through the borderland cities of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. We live this when marriages fall apart, when cancer diagnoses take root, when systemic inequality rips apart every seam of our existence and we cannot seem to get ahead.
The list goes on, because when we are left feeling and remembering and living the violence and despair of Good Friday, the accompanying reality of what it means to be human in a hurting, broken world cannot be ignored.
Sometimes, in times like these, we take pulse of our bodies—our weeping, aching, sorrow-struck bodies—found stuck in the tension between darkness and light. In these moments, we do the only thing we can do: we lay prostrate in the dark, letting the respite of closed curtains become our only relief. We let the tears fall, crumpled tissues piling on the floor. We hug our babies tight, knowing that the sorrow of this day, really, actually does cause us to tremble, tremble.
And tremble, tremble, we do.
Perhaps it is here, then, that a prayer we can but muster to pray once a year fills our mouths:
Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer:
Let the cry of those in misery and need come to you,
That they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions.
This collect becomes the only words we can say, but somehow, maybe, it is enough.
Maybe it really is enough when we are found shouldering toward the sky, waiting for the light of a rolled-away stone.
[Image Credit: Stained-glass composition by J. Le Breton, public domain via Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library]