Good Friday brings back memories every year, most of them good, some of them cause the tears to begin until they stop with the thought, “it is done.”
Growing up on the Rosebud Reservation and going to Episcopal Church services in my formative years meant that we walked on Good Friday as we observed the Stations of the Cross. The usual route was between St. Paul’s just outside of Norris township all the way to St. Thomas in Corn Creek Community. In the 1980s and 90s on the reservation, there was a movement for sobriety, wellness and healing so there were many run/walk/ride events we attended. But Good Friday was different because of Grandma Jessie Quick Bear.
She was my father’s adopted maternal aunt who spoke only a few phrases in English but all of us grandkids who grew up speaking Lakota understood her when she began commanding everyone to their chores. She was the entirety of her generation: faithful, forthright, modest and unyielding. Her frame was never more than five-foot-six but her voice filled a room (which, she did so sparingly). She dressed in dark blue dresses with pockets and in the winter, she wore a dark blue scarf, a thick coat and only slightly thicker stalkings than her summer wear. And she walked.
Well into her 70s by the time my parents joined up with the Episcopalians, Grandma Jessie made it a point to walk the entire route of the Stations of the Cross. Her feet trudged on the gravel at a steady pace and we walked with her, never leaving her behind. Only once did she ever sit in the van on Good Friday and that was only because we took the route coming from the north of Corn Creek where there were hills.
Lakota women, and women in general, form my faith.
“Mary was the first Christian” was the phrase I heard in catechism class at St. Thomas More Newman Center in Vermillion my freshman year of college and I knew exactly why all the women in my family were women of faith who formed my own. It is their fortitude that sees us through the worst times in our lives.
When we hear toward the ending of the Gospel reading on Good Friday, “And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit,” we kneel and we mark the moment of pure loss. Christ died. All of the hopes and dreams for a heaven on earth that His disciples died in that moment; from our flawed, human perspective, in any case. All the miracles, all the teachings, all the protest of the unjust, all of it was given up in that moment. We all lost in that moment.
It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t watched someone die in front of them what power that moment holds. As my mother’s last day came, I knew we had to give her over to her parents, her grandparents and to her savior. But I did not want to give up one more minute. I prayed, I meditated, I talked, I listened but nothing prepared me for the moment when I had to make the decision to surrender her to the source from which, she came. But I did.
When someone’s spirit leaves their body, their last breath exhaled, you see all that they were leave the world you know. You see the color drain from their face. You see all the muscle movement cease. You hear the heart stop beating. And all the hopes, all the miracles, all the teachings, all the protest of the unjust is lost in that moment. And you want everything to stop: time, joy and love. You want it all to stop and go away because anything else existing other than the solemnity and weight of one less life in the world is an affront to that life. And so we can grasp how Mary, Peter and the other apostles felt in that moment when their brother, teacher and savior died.
But of course, life does not stop. My mother was good at reminding me of this when I needed an honest kick in the pants over my own self-pity. She always offered hope when she would tell me, “we’re survivors.” And when I ponder her wisdom, turning it around like a stone in my hand, I understand now that she never meant “we” as in she and I, she meant it in terms of our family and our people.
Being raised in oppression and colonization, I’d gotten used to the concept of life being hopeless and just an entire series of challenges to be endured until the end. It never occurred to me that there could be anything other than the fight and the struggle. And then, I got sober.
Sobriety helped me to fully accept the faith of my parents and grandparents and all my other ancestors. At times of the year like this, it manifests itself in Christian Catholicism. In the summer, it comes out as prayer during the wiwang waci (sun dance). But what I’ve learned is that hope is what faith offers that can be of greatest use.
When Easter Sunday comes, we celebrate how Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb; we announce the Resurrection. Our sorrow from Good Friday and the Easter Vigil is washed away in the miraculous. It reminds us as people of faith, that no matter how we define it, death is only ever a pause, or a journey into the next state of being. This is something Lakota people have known since long before we encountered the Christian missionaries who thought they were introducing a new concept to our wealth of knowledge.
What we celebrate this weekend is not some commercialized or corrupted notion; we celebrate the victory of continued life. Those of us who have lost greatly and dearly know the pain of loss; whether it’s a loved one, a job, a vocation, a campaign, our homes, our culture, our ways of being, we know what it is to lose. But what the Resurrection reminds us of is that nothing is ever truly lost, so long as we remember that tomorrow is a new day with possibilities unforeseen. We are not god, we do not control the universe, we do not even control our own lives but we have hope.
Our faith is proof of hope restored, it heals and it provides for us when we cannot provide for ourselves. That’s something Grandma Jessie knew, my mother knew and it’s something I’ve carried with me over the years. It’s one of the greatest gifts they gave me: hope.