Breathing in April
Last Sunday after I got home from church, I called my parents like I do every Sunday.
“How was your day?” I asked them. “How was church?”
“Church was great,” my mom said. “But we turned on the radio on the way home, and honey, there’s been a bad shooting here in town.”
I turned on CNN and there was the bizarre feeling of seeing my hometown on national news.
“Three shot and killed at Jewish Community Center in Kansas City,” the headline said.
My heart sank. The initial fearful speculations were borne out. It was a hate crime, committed by a neo-Nazi man who was a leader of the Carolina Ku Klux Klan.
I was horrified at what had happened, how these people had been gunned down at a Jewish Community Center right before the beginning of Passover.
The day had begun with violence.
We read the passion play in church, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Now here was more violence intended to kill more Jewish people.
It was a grim ending to Palm Sunday, painfully appropriate to enter into Holy Week, the week in which we contemplate the consequences of sin and the violent death of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Here was one more tragedy, one more grief, one more sin that he would have to bear on the Cross on Good Friday.
I was doubly horrified that I am no longer able to muster much shock or surprise when these terrible things happen. There is too much violence in our society.
We all know the familiar terrible feeling of hearing there has been another mass shooting somewhere in our nation.
And then I began to think of a line from T.S. Eliot: “April is the cruelest month.”
And it’s true. Somewhere internally we must brace ourselves as we make the turn from March into April, knowing something dreadful is sure to come.
Why is there this terrible vortex of evil and tragedy that swirls around April, sucking in everything good that should make it a month of spring and celebration?
What is this magnetic power that draws grief and tragedy to April as surely as the sun rises?
The shootings in Kansas City last Sunday are not even the most recent catastrophe. On Wednesday, a ferry went down off the coast of South Korea, with 46 now confirmed dead and 256 still missing.
And then we can simply begin counting back the April tragedies we have borne.
April 17, 2013, the fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas exploded.
April 15 of last year was the Boston Marathon bombing.
In April of 2010, the Deepwater Horizon BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and beginning the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
The list continues.
April 2007: the Virginia Tech massacre.
April 1999: the Columbine High School shootings.
April 1995: the Oklahoma City bombing.
April 1993: the fire and deaths at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
April 1983: the U.S. Embassy in Beirut is bombed, killing 63 people.
Those are just a few of the recent events, but the pattern holds true as we keep going back in history.
April 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated.
April 1914: the Titanic sank and over 1500 people drowned.
April 1906: the great San Francisco earthquake in which over 3000 people died.
April 1865: President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
It’s true. April really is the cruelest month.
I was struggling to understand why this happens when I realized something else.
I have a theory about these cruel Aprils.
On a beautiful April morning two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ, who had been crucified and died, came back to life.
Death was defeated.
And Death has been very angry ever since.
Ever since that very first Easter Day, the forces of evil have been trying to get revenge on life and humanity.
Death just cannot stand this defeat that came not just once on the first Easter, but again and again and again, an ever-renewing, ever-rising tide of life and resurrection that sweeps through the Earth and through God’s people at the end of March and into April.
So Death seeks revenge.
Death seeks to beat us down, to rob us of hope, to convince us that it’s not worth fighting for grace and redemption and forgiveness and love.
Death tries to overwhelm us with tragedy, be it natural disaster or accident, or most often of all, violence.
But although the lists of the April dead that mount ever higher each year wrench our hearts with grief, death can never muster anything so horrific that could ever overcome the relentless rhythm of resurrection that happens year after year after year.
Life, life, life springs forth over and over again on Easter, new resurrected life that has already confronted death and evil on Friday.
Death and evil hold no mystery and no power over Jesus, because he entered into them freely in his suffering on the Cross.
As if Death were not angry enough, Jesus brings one final insult to evil.
Think of these terrible, monumental shows of carnage and tragedy that Death has summoned to control and overwhelm us.
Three dead, five dead, twenty dead, a thousand dead, three thousand dead, vast sweeps of death that Satan bludgeons us with in April, trying to show his power.
Mountains and oceans of violence and desperation, with painful grief that covers the skies and the earth from those who mourn.
And what is it that breaks this terrible abyss of death and fear?
What gigantic weapon does Jesus muster to take on the hugeness of evil and tragedy that Death drowns us in in April?
It is the smallest and the most humble of things that brings Death to its knees, that shatters Death’s power.
It is a breath.
In a tomb, very early in the morning of the third day, Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified, died, and laid to rest, took a breath.
He inhaled, just once, and death was defeated forever.
His lungs filled with the early morning air, his heart began to beat again, his eyelids fluttered and then opened, and it was all over for Death.
Death was crushed forever by one little breath of air, so small, so ephemeral, so cataclysmic.
One small breath, and the tide of resurrection and life was unleashed that bathes us in its healing strength every April, every year, from now unto eternity.
April’s battle between good and evil is more vivid than ever this year because Easter falls on April 20.
What is April 20 usually known for?
It’s Hitler’s birthday.
People with evil designs are always trying to exploit Hitler’s birthday, to make some terrible thing happen.
Hitler, the man responsible for the six million killed in the Holocaust, and anywhere from 65 to 80 million total killed in World War II.
80 million killed.
It’s an unfathomable number, and seems to be Death’s final and most awful answer, that today, April 20, was the birth of the man who set it all in motion.
But this year, April 20 is not Hitler’s birthday.
It is Easter Day.
It is the Day of Resurrection.
And every April, Easter comes and redeems the grief and tragedy of all the Aprils.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ makes possible the resurrection of every human being who ever lived. There’s no way Death can stand against that.
And it all happened with one small breath.
It all happened with the very first inhale of the one who died for us, coming to life for us.
So remember, as you go forth from this place, that death died because of one small breath.
When your life starts to feel very Aprilish, when the grief and the tragedy and the hopelessness start to descend, when your August or November or February are starting to feel very like April in the terrible things that are happening to you—take a breath.
Breathe in, and defeat death.
Breathe in, and take hold of life.
Breathe in, feel your heart beat, and know that Death can rage and storm and scatter violence and destruction to the four winds, but Death is defeated and nothing can change that.
All who have died will one day take that first breath of new life along with Jesus in the final resurrection, and every breath we take now, on Earth, is practice and celebration of that great day.
No doubt in Aprils to come, Death will continue to try and take revenge for Easter.
And as you go forward, violence, catastrophe, grief and tragedy will creep up around you and seek to take you down.
But remember: resurrection is always as close as your next breath.