When the Rev. George Handzo attends church to observe Good Friday -- the day that marks Jesus' crucifixion -- he won't only be there to for an important spiritual holiday. He also goes to remind himself of the role death plays in everyday life.
"You can't appreciate Easter if you are not reminded of Good Friday," said Handzo, a Lutheran minister and chaplain who has spent most of his career working with cancer patients and those in their last days.
Easter Sunday, which marks the day Jesus rose from the dead, is the most important day of the year in Christianity and traditionally the most popular when it comes to church attendance. Yet, for many people of faith whose personal and professional lives bring them in contact with death and illness, the holidays that precede it to remember Jesus' last days, called Holy Week, can be equally as important in providing comfort and purpose in trying times.
"I've worked with a lot of dying children for most of my career. What does this week mean for us as caregivers who are standing with people who are sometimes dying in a fashion that is really untimely?" asked Handzo, who works for HealthCare Chaplaincy, a nonprofit New York-based organization that integrates spirituality into medical care.
"If you are not clear in your head about your understanding about somebody dying tragically, if you cannot reconcile that with the higher power of God or force of nature, this will be tough work for you," said Handzo, who teaches chaplains and palliative care specialists. "You will probably not do it well, and you will burn out. You have to go through death to get to resurrection.
"It's important for me to be reminded that this part of the Christian story ... It's painful, but it's also what can make things meaningful," he said. "We can make a mistake a lot of times with people who are dying. We can take our beliefs and say 'the resurrection is coming,' or 'things will get better.' But some people are not ready for that, they are still hurting and mourning, and they don't need that happy good news stuff. They need to be allowed to be where they are, to have that Good Friday time."
Days to observe the cycle of life and death span spiritual traditions. In Judaism, Tisha B'Av is a day of mourning to observe tragedies that include the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the Holocaust. In Islam, Shiites observe Ashura, the anniversary of the death of Prophet Muhammed’s grandson Hussein. In Hindu traditions, rebirth, destruction and recreation often play an important role. But Christianity is unique in placing death and resurrection of its prophet at the center of theology and traditions.
"You try to walk the life of Jesus and meditate on his death during Holy Week, you try to think about your own life and what death means to you," said Richard Lischer, a theology professor at Duke University who recently published a book, Stations of the Heart, about his 33-year-old son Adam's spiritual journey toward death during 95 days in 2005.
"We moved from place to place, from scan to scan, from appointment to appointment with him and the people in our lives," said Lischer, relating the journey to the Stations of the Cross, which describes the passion of Christ, Jesus' last hours as he carries the cross to his crucifixion.
On Good Friday, Christians often have processions through streets, reenacting the scenes from those last hours, which include a bloody Jesus' repeatedly falling and getting back up as his captors parade him in front of his followers before taking his clothes away and nailing him onto the cross to die.
"As Christians, our lives exist as a pilgrimage from one station to the next, and you have to discover those stations in your own way. That's the great metaphor for Holy Week," said Lischer, describing a lesson he was taught long ago that became vividly real during his son's death.
For the Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry, a minister at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., who also works as a hospice chaplain, the time of year is not just about symbolically moving life to death and resurrection, but trying to consider how to "move in the midst of life and death simultaneously."
"I think of those people who are living with death in their life all the time. For those who can't have children, there is a death of that dream. Or during these times when there's so much talk about being gay and gay marriage, I think about parents who have come to me after their kids come out and told me they are afraid because they will never have grandkids," said Hawley-Lowry.
"Part of a challenge in our culture is when people don't deal with or acknowledge death, but during Holy Week we get to see and experience how life and death came so quickly even back then," she said. "As we celebrate Easter, if we realized life is a sacred gift but not promised, maybe we would just be nicer to each other."