Easter was always my friend Marty’s favorite holiday. Back in my high school years, when we wrote each other letters that spanned from Portland to Buffalo, he’d start talking about it in January.
Easter Rachael, he used to write me, is the time of year when I remember that there is nothing I’ve done that hasn’t been forgiven. Easter is the time I remember that life can be new again.
Marty was a World War II veteran, a celebrated hero, an honorable, good man, who couldn’t face himself in the mirror when the horrors of the war caught up with him.
It wasn’t until last May, when I began researching for a book that takes place during the Second World War that I began realize just how complicated everything was, how far from black and white. I never understood Marty, when he said he didn’t know if God would forgive him for the things he had done. It’s war, I thought. You followed orders. You were with the Allies. You did what you were supposed to do. You did good.
Orders or not, I hope I never know the weight of what it is to shoot a man and watch him die, to watch the eyes go vacant and the last breath escape from a deflated chest. Because Marty did that in his twenties, and he lived with it until the day he died.
I used to send him flowers on Easter. That was the only time we’d talk on the phone. He’d call me, from his apartment in Eugene, and I’d hear Billy Bird tweeting in the background, and he would rave about the flowers, new life, fresh starts. For a man so accomplished, so brave, so full of experience and knowledge, he sure knew how to be gracious.
As I look back over the letters Marty and I exchanged, I realize that he knew a lot more about life and the human condition than most people do. He understood, better than I think I ever will, that at the heart of it, we’re all a little scared and helpless, and when the end comes, we are all desperately grasping for something more solid than our breath.
He understood that because he had to go through it. He followed orders and was sent to the heart of human depravity. And he understood, because of it, what so many of us miss: that we are all clawing the air for something to save us.
I know someone who fasts every time there is an election; especially in this season. From morning until night of the state’s primary, he refuses to eat. I don’t think he does this because he thinks it will give him leverage. I don’t think he thinks, if I fast, God will listen to me and my candidate will win. I think he does it because hunger is a quick reminder of how fickle we are; how constant our need is for provision and sustenance, and how the one who provides that will also provide all things. I think he does it because he knows our habit of stepping on backs to reach our own pedestals and our desire to always be right, magnified especially these days when we slosh our opinions all over social media and become offended by the most trivial situations. I think he fasts to remind himself that no candidate will be a superhero, that we cannot look to the chariots and horses of this world to save us, that we can vote and advocate and passionately too, but we must leave it at that.
If I were God, I think the last thing I’d want to do was to make myself like man. Like C.S. Lewis says, it is the things of myths—that a God would come and live among his fallen creation, make himself humble to the point of being rejected, put to death, by the things he made, knowing all the while it would be his death that would set us free.
We went to Gettysburg this weekend with our family. We spent hours in the sun, ambling across rolling hills and past gorgeous farm houses, taking pictures of magnolia trees blooming next to gravestones. We passed a section of grass where in one hour, 5,000 men lost their lives, over state rights and federal rights, and whether a state is bound forever to the Union after signing the Constitution. Generals who were roommates together at the Virginia Military Institute stood on opposing sides, a mile apart, and each ordered their men to slaughter the other. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who lived in the houses caught smack in the middle of the battle lines. If a farm had been yours for generations, how would you return to it, after so many people had died on your pastures, where people had fallen to protect their way of life?
Maybe it’s because of Marty, but Easter in my mind is always inextricably linked with daffodils, trumpets of spring, triumphantly declaring victory over winter yet again. It’s a different way to win a battle—by color and fragrance instead of wit, strategy or man power. But so is Easter. If I were God, and I came to earth, I would want everyone to know how powerful, how full my head was of strength and wisdom, how right I was, all the time. I would want to fight battles and win and give orders and be proud. Instead, Jesus went straight to the heart of human depravity at its worst, and didn’t look away. He didn’t run from it, he ran to it, and instead of looking for something to save him from it, he died to it. By dying for our depravity, and then beating death, he showed us that there is nothing outside of his ability to forgive and heal. He will not run from the darkest corners—and we know there are some very dark corners, in our world and in the mirror. Instead he grows new life out of ashes and scrubs wounds clean.
Be well, Marty used to write, and have joy. Marty grasped, clearly, what so many of us forget when we get lost in war, politics, being right, being important. He went through some of the worst of it, and woke in the night grasping for something solid.
And he found it.