"Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!" (Psalm 126:5)
Let me go ahead and put it out there: New Orleans is the greatest city in the United States. I could give an extended defense of this, but let me just leave the statement in all of its unsubstantiated glory.
It is also a very strange city.* An example of this is the rite of the jazz funeral.
The casket is accompanied to the grave site by a brass band playing slow dirges. Once the deceased is entombed, the band switches gears and launches into the bouncy, parading brass music that an outsider would associate with a Mardi Gras celebration. Called to life by the music, attendees spill into the streets. The more reserved wave handkerchiefs. The less reserved twirl umbrellas. All dance (it is a funeral, after all). The mourners and band make up the "main line" and the inevitable strangers that join in form the "second line," the term which would eventually become the name of the whole event.
On the whole, we Americans prefer our emotions to be easily discerned so that they can be easily dealt-with or easily avoided.** Am I sad, scared, mad, or just hungry? This is why, to the uninitiated, the jazz funeral is strange. It is an explosion of expression. Like the finale of a fireworks show, emotions are shot up all at once. The despair of loss. The wild-eyed promise of hope. The steeling supports of solidarity and community. All flailing about and mixed together in the streets of New Orleans.
The lesson of the jazz funeral is that the emotional structure of the soul isn't made up of discrete, tidy boxes in which we can neatly pack away our emotions, but overlapping, messy circles in whose overlapping segments is found authentic human expression.
This is also the lesson of Lent.
On one hand, Lent pushes our nose down into the dark reality of sin, both from within and from without. All of creation, ourselves included, is shot to hell. Could there be any more appropriate response than weeping and penitence? It is a time to read the prophets of old, to consider the implications of God's unflinching holiness and our stiff-necked rebelliousness. Woe to us, born in sin!
But, on the other hand, the redemptive historical momentum of Lent pushes us ever towards the glorious reality of what God has done in the person and work of Jesus. Death's sting is blunted. Sin has lost its grip. Hell's captives are liberated. Could there be any more appropriate response than dancing and joy?
The Lenten season is the second line of the soul. We celebrate a funeral (in which a person dies, but comes back to life) by breaking out into hymns about fountains filled with blood, ancient execution methods, and the satisfied wrath of God, sung with weepy eyes and full hearts. New Orleans is strange, but this is far stranger. Christianity is so strange, in fact, that it must be true.
My prayer is that we would learn to embrace the bittersweet strangeness of this season and that it would make our hearts increasingly long for the day when we don't dance through the sad tears brought on by a death, but the happy tears brought on by the wedding of Christ and His bride, the church.***
*Let it be known: this is the bulk of my defense of it being the greatest city in the U.S.
** Broad, sweeping generalizations are my thing, if you haven't already figured that out.
*** See, what did I tell you? Christianity is VERY strange.
(Written by Harrison Ford)