The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. – W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”, final stanza
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. – I Peter 3: 18-20
[W]e cannot avoid the following thought: given that the Redeemer, in his solidarity with the dead, has spared them the integral experience of death (as the poena damni), so that a heavenly shimmer of light, of faith, love, hope, has ever illuminated the ‘abyss’ = then he took, by substitution, that whole experience upon himself. The Redeemer showed himself therefore as the only one who, going beyond the general experience of death, was able to measure the depths of that abyss. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, p.168
The morning is silent. After all the activity, the horror and sadness and grief of the previous day and a half, today is a day of silence. Jesus’s body has been buried in a tomb, a large stone rolled in front, guarded by Roman soldiers, both Jewish and Roman leaders afraid it might be stolen.
Part of the silence is the Sabbath rest. Much of the city rests from just another six day’s toil, no different from another’s. The Romans are about, of course. There are also those residents who do not honor the Sabbath, some of the merchants, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, lepers and others ritually unclean. All those excluded from the cultic life of the People demonstrate their acceptance of exclusion by working on this, to them just any other day.
For some, though – perhaps just a few, perhaps more – the silence of this day, the day after Jesus was executed, is a day not just of mourning. It is also a day of fear. The eleven – Judas Iscariot having disappeared – are behind a locked door, wondering to one another what comes next for them. They have followed Jesus for so long, and now he’s dead. Just another failed Messiah. None of the things he claimed would come have occurred, except his insistence on his death. Death, perhaps, leads to a place of rest until the resurrection – so the Pharisees claimed – but beyond that, all they knew of death was the silence and rot of the grave.
They have to assume the Roman and Temple authorities will circle in on them soon enough. Prison, perhaps. Torture if prison comes. Peter wants only to sit and brood, as he told them of his denials of Jesus on Thursday night. The women who had followed and been at the crucifixion are in another room, resting as is right. There are just so many questions, with no answers at all. Death, they believe, is final.
In my room, I, too, rest. I wait, however, because I know time is passing, and this Sabbath is different from any other day of rest. Today, all Creation rests in anticipation of . . . something. The silence of this day means more than just the silence of the Sabbath, or at least the silence of a typical Sabbath. This is all creation’s day to rest. The silence is the silence of grave, where a body, broken and torn but no longer bleeding, lies wrapped in a cloth, awaiting the morning for the spices and proper burial.
We who live in the shadow cast by the Resurrected on the sunny first day of New Creation believe this day to be a day out of time. Because death and all that follows upon it is just that. Time has stopped. Darkness, silence, the incremental creep of rot – these are what make death what it is. And in the fullness of his humanity and divinity, Jesus lies dead, its full experience being brought into the Godhead, so that even death will be made new when tomorrow morning, the sun rises and the women come and the tomb is empty. Did Jesus, in some manner, fashion, or form, preach salvation to the dead? Was there, as traditional Catholic doctrine holds, perform a harrowing of Hell? Of this we cannot either know or, from a single verse in its obscurity divine. What we can know, and claim with a fullness born both from faith and experience, is Jesus is dead, with all that entails. In the fullness of his humanity and divinity, he lies in a hole, wrapped in a cloth, all the emptiness and silence and rot that accompanies death no less something Jesus comes to learn of what it is to be human.
Which is why the Resurrection, which we shall celebrate with joy and song and praise tomorrow, is that much more something at which we should look in awe. Even our death, what we know lies in store for all of us, is now a part of the experience of the Godhead, something made holy and new because it is now in the shared life of the Persons of the Trinity, through the Son to the Father in the Spirit.
So, we wait. We wait in hope that our faith is not in vain. We wait, believing that tomorrow morning will make of this silence not the infinite, final silence that stirs our fears. No, we wait so that we shall see how that finality has ended, how our new lives begin on what we all hope is the first day not just of a new week but a whole New Creation. The silence of this Holy Saturday is the silence during which we consider the silence of the grave, the emptiness of its darkness and timelessness, the absence even of any thought, that one really was, that such things as time and laughter and tears and sex and food and sleep and pain and happiness ever were, either. For now – silence.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood – T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker”, IV, partial
You can feel the end coming. It will be soon.
The sun continues to beat down, as it has all day. No sleep, no blessed rest since the morning before, dragged across darkened streets all night, the voices of the liars still ringing in your ears. Those sounds, though, are growing distant and dim, just as the the world seems to be growing dimmer in your eyes.
There was this morning, again before Pilate. You feel sorry for him, because even though you don’t understand all his words, you know enough Latin, and can read his face and his eyes, to understand you, being here before him like this, is a predicament he’d prefer not to face. You understand more than he because you know what is to come. It is inevitable. The people will have their pound of flesh for yet another false Messiah, a miracle worker who promised so much and, in the end, failed them. You remember standing before the people, just wanting to sit – or maybe lie down and sleep – as Pilate sought release from what even he knew was inevitable. The irony of releasing one nicknamed “Barabbas” – Son of The Father – but you understand. The people wanted a man of action, and Barabbas had killed. Jesus? All you did was walk around and talk to people.
You know the time is even shorter now. Since Barabbas’s release, it has been nothing but pain: Lashes with whips, punches and kicks and slaps, the crown of thorns pounded on his head. Exhaustion and pain while carrying his own cross bar through the streets while being pelted with rocks and taunts. Then the explosion of pain, pain like nothing you could have imagined as the nails were pounded in to your wrists and feet. That jerk when the cross tree was lifted, lifted, then set with a thud, more agony coursing through your body. The terror as you realized it became more and more difficult to breathe, as the exhaustion and pain, their toll coming due, made it impossible to lift up far enough to inhale.
The lights are dimmer now, the sounds far off. The past is a haze now. Not that long ago, these people had placed their hopes, their fears, their faith in you. Now they stood around, throwing rocks no longer felt, their words a distant hush as they taunt you. No one is here, except two women, their faces covered as is right. You had known Peter would betray you no less than Judas, but you had hoped – dimly but firmly – the others might show up. You do not blame them their fear. The one with whom they’d entered the city was now a dying criminal, a laughing-stock. They did what they had to do. As do you.
Your eyes catch movement that’s different than the rest. So hard to think, to concentrate. Your body nothing but white hot pain, you lift yourself to breathe. When you relax, you do so too fast. The nails in your wrists tear a bit more, the pressure on the bones near the breaking point. A strange man emerges from the crowd. His dress is strange, his hair an impossible red. Is that a rock in his arms, a pack on his back? Part of you wants to laugh at the absurdity. Here, at the last, comes something you hadn’t foreseen. This man falls to his knees and stares, his eyes full of sorrow and wonder and . . . is that hope? You have surrendered hope. You cannot breathe. You have air enough for one final cry, even though the dimness is now overtaking you. You open your mouth, a sound comes out, then the blessed darkness, the silence of death catches up to you. You smile as its arms enfold you. It is finished.
So here I stand, the final destination of this Journey. All the waiting, all the confrontations with all that makes me the one who has hung him up there so clear in this moment. The bloody body, the exhaustion having replaced agony. He is turning blue now, and I know the end is so close. I step out of the crowd, not paying much heed at all to the taunts and jeers, the rocks that miss their mark, or hit and bounce off, landing on me. I’m so tired. I drop the rock, and as I look up . . . is he smiling? Or is that some kind of agonized rictus? I can’t tell, and perhaps he can’t tell either. I shrug off the pack on my pack, the one with all the cares and fears of my fellow followers. Finally, I turn out my pocket. The pebble lands on the ground, so bright amid the bloodstained rocks. Will its voice rise in praise today? I tore up my knees when I fall, but I don’t really feel it. All I feel is a mixture of horror and wonder. Horror at what Has been wrought in my name, for my sake. Not just me, though. All these around him, cursing and mocking, throwing rocks and demanding salvation, they, too, are objects of this event, those for whom he hangs there.
Even though I can never forget that I know the rest of this story, everything is so crisp and clear at this moment, the sun almost too bright, each voice so distinct, the smell of sweat and death full in my nostrils that I set all that aside at this moment. This Holy moment. I have seen death before, but never like this. I have been with the dying, but never the tortured and broken who actually welcome their end. Part of me wants to demand justice from the people around me, so enraged by their fickle ways, pushed this way and that by fear. Then I remember. These people are no different than any of the rest of us. Me, most especially. How many years did I deny him? How many years did I doubt any of this meant anything? How much time did I protest this event was a joke, a cosmic gag played on the Jews under Rome, with nothing to say to me? I denied Christ so many times, denied knowing him, denied knowing anything about him, Peter could walk proudly in my shadow, boasting that he only denied Jesus three times.
There is a stirring around me. I’m not sure of its source. Then I look up. Jesus is looking up, shouting something I recognize even though I do not understand the words. Suddenly he slumps forward. I see the wrists move a bit further on those nails. He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t move.
The sky, just a moment ago so clear and bright, becomes dark. Not cloudy. It is dark, darker than midnight. There aren’t any stars, no moon, to enlighten this darkness. All the light, it seems, has been sucked away from the world. Around me, the people who just a moment ago were so confident in their taunts break and leave, this darkness breaking their spirits.
I know this darkness. It is the darkness that lies inside me, inside all of us.
It is finished.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse. – T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker”, partial
There are many things about Maundy Thursday that could move a person to write. The institution of the Eucharist. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, while his Disciples, instructed to wait and watch, fall asleep. St. Peter cutting off the centurion’s slave’s ear then being healed by Jesus, even at this extremity showing Jesus’ compassion and willingness to heal. Jesus’ attempt to shame the soldiers by remarking that he had been in the Temple everyday, and could have been arrested at any time, showing this lonely nighttime arrest to be what it is: an act of cowardice by all those involved, showing just how afraid of Jesus and his following all the powers really are. Of all this so much and more could be written.
Instead, I keep thinking about Judas Iscariot and betrayal. In medieval paintings and sculptures, Judas is portrayed as occupying the lowest circle of hell, alone, tormented for all eternity for his crime. In the Renaissance, he was too often portrayed as the stand-in for all the Jewish people who were said to bear the burden of blame for Christ’s death. He was painted as a grubbing, greedy, hook-nosed fiend; even in Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, he is shown protesting his innocence to Jesus while clutching his bag of silver coins in his right hand. On the other hand, some careful thought shows that Judas was little more than (a) a convenient literary device, his alleged criminality, particularly in St. John’s Gospel, little more than that particular book’s anti-Semitism made whole in a single individual; and (b) perhaps, historically, a perfectly understandable reaction to what we have already explored as Jesus’s many failures as Messiah.
The question, then, is who is betrayed and who is the betrayer? Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding a wave of hope and joy that here was the Messiah come to redeem the people of God, to restore the Temple and the fortunes of Jerusalem by becoming the rightful King. No doubt his Disciples understood both his mission and his ministry in this light. The people in Jerusalem certainly did. Yet, he had done none of those things. In fact, his actions seemed to betray the very people who had invested so much hope and faith in him. He had made participation in required Temple sacrifices harder by driving out the sellers of coins and animals. He spent as much time with the powerful as with the powerless, leaving the people wondering where his loyalties lay. He even claimed he would destroy the Temple, which is the exact opposite of the prophecies which spoke of restoring the holiness of the Temple. It was the Temple that was the center of cultic activity for the people, and rather than make it holy again, Jesus insisted he would tear it down and rebuild it in three days, as if any of that made any sense.
That the people had trusted Jesus, only to have their hopes and belief dashed seems clear enough. Judas, perhaps, felt a similar sense of betrayal in this man he had followed because he had promised so much, said so much, done so much. Most likely, he turned to the leaders of the Temple who, offering a bounty on Jesus, would repay him well because his arrest and death would show the world that, for all his words and deeds, Jesus was little more than another pretend-Messiah, and like the rest of them would die a horrible death and be forgotten. Just punishment for one who had betrayed the faith and hope and love of so many.
The whole Passion begins with betrayal. Betrayal runs throughout, from the sense of betrayal by the people and particularly Judas Iscariot; Judas actual betrayal to the authorities in the Garden; Jesus’ discovery that his Father had abandoned him to death on a cross is perhaps the most unlikely betrayal. Jesus trusted his Father would make of this moment something beautiful, yet it was nothing but agony and blood, and now the exit of any comfort, any sense that the Father would turn all this around. That, however, comes later (even though we know the story, as I keep saying). For now, for all that Judas has been scorned and anathematized, damned by later generations in writings and art as perhaps the most horrid villain of all time, it might be well to consider a couple things. First, the death of Jesus was in the works from the moment he was baptized in the Jordan. John the Baptizer’s fate could not be ignored, especially since Jesus had a close connection to him. Here in Jerusalem, so close to so many seats of power, both Jesus himself and his followers had to attract the wrong kind of attention. Finally, it is important that we, who know the whole story so well, remember that Jesus’s death is necessary. Therefore his betrayal is necessary.
As I sit in the empty upper room, Jesus and his Disciples gone now to the Garden on the Mt. of Olives, I think about betrayal. Few things are more upsetting. Few moments in a person’s life seem to make the whole world a jumble of nonsense when once things seemed so clear. And how many of us are willing to admit we have betrayed a trust at some point in our lives? It could be a pretty typical thing, like a teenager lying to a parent about one’s whereabouts and activities. It might be a married person’s innocent flirtation suddenly sliding to something that crosses a line. Perhaps a trust was offered by friends, only to be broken in some manner, leaving those friends wary of you in the future. All this and so much more destroy the bonds of interpersonal faith and love, breaking community and the ties that bind us to one another in a necessary interchange that keeps humanity from sliding to oblivion.
And I will be the first person to stand and say, “Yes”, should the question be asked if anyone has done something to betray the trust of another. Of all the things in my life, nothing else makes me feel shame like this. It would be better if I lied, perhaps, or at least remained silent about it. All the same, I cannot do what must be done if I do not say it out loud, own and accept this part of my life. Rather than kneel at the foot of the cross, I deserve to be held up to ridicule, scorn, and punishment. Perhaps just admitting this truth is enough to make a reader prefer not to accept my words any more. After all, who can trust the word of one who has torn apart the covenant that binds us together?
I will not defend my actions, or turn them around and demand others who would vilify me declare their innocence in these matters. All I will say, all I can say, is betrayal is as old as Adam, as old as Cain, and yet God, our God, the one fully present in the man from Nazareth who, even now, is walking the first steps to his final destination, has never allowed betrayal to steer him from the desire to remain in relationship, even binding covenant, with humanity. When we speak of Divine prodigal love, this is its extremity: Not allowing even human betrayal, forgetfulness, and apathy turn God away from us.
Why is this? How can this be? Because in the Passion story, we face multiple betrayals. From the people to Jesus to the One Jesus called Father – betrayal is the necessary part of the story. None of it, from Jesus’s arrest to his death and his subsequent resurrection, would happen or have any meaning without those first broken promises and acts steeped in anger that are leading Jesus to trials, sleepless night, torture, and death. Betrayal is the heart of human sin. And we are now beginning the path to it being taken up into the Divine Life and made redemptive and holy in and through the resurrection that is to come.
At least, I hope it is.
In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death. – T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker”, partial
Have you ever lived through a period of your life, perhaps a few days, perhaps longer, during which you were quite sure something, some event of importance was about to unfold? What that might be, well, you might perhaps have consoled yourself that you would know it when it came. That it would come, however, was as clear as the water in Adirondack lakes.
I lived through such a time. It was the second semester of my Junior year in college, spring, 1986. That feeling, a kind of building tension, yet filled with sweetness – that’s the only way I can describe the feelings I had – was intermittent at first. After spring break, however, it rushed forward full force. Each night I’d go to bed, wondering if the next day would be the day. I even wrote about it pretty much every day in my journal. “I keep feeling like something is going to happen,” I would write. I would always add, “Something good.”
To this day, I’m not sure what that was all about. I have a guess which life-event that presaged, but that is a tale for another day. Still, it is one of the more odd . . . emotional? . . . experiences of my life, feeling that tension, like the thrumming of this enormous wire, yet not knowing its source or destination. This is more than just entering a room and feeling the tension between people who have been fighting. The feeling is as if the whole world is waiting for something, some tremendous event of particular moment.
At the same time, a person cannot live as if this particular, unspecified, feeling was the whole of life. There’s work and school and family and sleep and food and all the other things of life. It is peculiar to travel the days of life with this constant sense beyond sense that at any moment, something is going to happen that could be enormous, life-changing, world-changing even. That, alas, is the challenge we Christians face every day: We are those who believe we live between the times. This is our time, the time to spread the Good News, to live out our callings to be the people marked by the sign of the cross, living wholly and fully for God and the coming Kingdom, which is the time to come, both our end and God’s final, triumphant beginning anew.
Something tells me that both Jesus and the Disciples were more than aware that they were in the midst of something momentous, some moment, some event that could change everything. For the Disciples, it was without a doubt their belief that Jesus had come to Jerusalem to inaugurate the Kingdom of God – cleansing the Temple, driving out the Romans, restoring the fortunes of the people of God. That is, after all, what all the prophecies Jesus references, said. That is what the Messiah would do.
For Jesus, he had to know, sooner or later the authorities would tire of their games and come for him. Did it matter when? Perhaps, perhaps not. Jesus understood that would mean his death. The specifics might not be clear, but the event itself had been determined the moment he turned and traveled to Jerusalem. For Jesus, cleansing the Temple, restoring the fortunes of the people of God could never be accomplished through violence or force of arms. Transcending both politics and violence, tradition and Scripture, and the hopes and desires of his people, Jesus understood these things tied to his death. What happened after that? Well, he continued to hope, I suppose, and believe the One he called Father would take this moment and make of it something Holy, something eternal.
On this Lenten Journey, I feel that feeling, and I know both its source and destination, and both are in the near future, pulling all of existence toward a place and time in which everything shall change in the blink of an eye. I cannot pretend I do not know the rest of the story. All the same, I see in the eyes and the faces and the actions of Jesus and his Disciples and followers, of those who have sat at table with him here in Jerusalem – the whores and drunkards and thieves and tax collectors; the Pharisees and Priests and Sadducee – that same look of wonder, of fear, of anticipation. They feel that wire thrumming through all that is. It makes a person a bit giddy, knowing one is in the midst of forces and events far out of one’ own control, yet living day to day life because there is no other choice. All the same, it is far easier to let go and feel like one is going to live forever precisely because, whatever is about to come, that tension gets inside your head, and you feel a little giddy, a little silly. Living life, living for those times that come and go in their appointed rounds, becomes confused with that feeling and that feeling transfers itself to all our comings and goings and we live as if we are stars that will never die.
In light of all that is about to unfold, this is among the more cruel ironies I can imagine.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure. – T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”, Stave 2, partial
I sometimes wonder if people really listen when someone speaks something powerful. I remember when I was in Seminary. It was my first year, and a faculty member was offering his inaugural sermon upon being promoted to full Professor. African-American, he spoke candidly of his hatred and rage at White America. Then, he spoke candidly of moving through those emotions and thoughts, of discovering that rage not tempered by a desire for real justice only brings more destruction; that compassion, rather than hatred, destroys no one, while hatred destroys both the object of hatred and the subject who hates. He spoke of the faith that kindled the desire both to search his own and his people’s past as a ground for theological reflection while never losing site of the need to offer this vision to all. It was one of the more amazing sermons I have ever heard.
Later that day, in a class on the sociology of religion, the professor asked us our thoughts. One person in particular, for some reason, stopped listening after the first part of the sermon. Visibly upset, she refused to hear that the sermon continued on, that it spoke of the power of faith to transform fear to faith, hatred to love, and despair to hope. No matter what any of us said, it was clear the sermon touched something deep within this person’s heart.
Far too often, we find it far more convenient not to hear what people have to say. It is so easy to take something, some small part, and make of it the whole. We twist and distort words until someone has said the exact opposite of what was actually said. We hear what we want, what confirms our fears, our prejudices, our preconceived ideas; the rest is just babble, irrelevant.
So it seems to me has been done to the words of Jesus in those last days of his first life within this world he loved so much. In Mark, chapter 13, Jesus tells his disciples what the end of days will look like. It’s even called “The Little Apocalypse”. Rarely has Jesus spoken more clearly: There will be horrible things that happen, such as the sky turning red, the moon ceasing to shine at night, wars and rumors of wars, pestilence, and death. And none of these are signs of the end. Rather than destruction being a sign of the end, the faithful are called to wait in hope, and faith, for the silence and peace that emerges from the New Life offered by the Father in the Son through the Spirit.
For two thousand years, we have chosen not to hear what Jesus made so clear. Every preacher, priest, alleged and self-professed prophet has insisted that the horrors of this world are signs of the coming end. “Apocalyptic” has come to mean these tremendous events, which are in fact events of our Universe, our world, steeped in the sin Jesus would eradicate completely. While theologians have, perhaps, strove to create fine distinctions between apocalyptic and chiliastic, the fact of the matter is that most folks understand the former as the destructive wave that portends the coming end of the age, while the latter has little meaning outside rarified circles. We have chosen to ignore the plain words spoken by Jesus and preferred to focus on the fear such events – most definitely signs of no more than it being Tuesday – as presaging total destruction, with Jesus to whisk by and save the chosen few.
So, on this Lenten Journey, here I am, in Jerusalem, hearing Jesus tell his Disciples, who seem so eager to here about destruction (of the Romans) and fire from the heavens (upon the Romans) as signs the end is coming (hopefully in the next day or so, while Jesus is here in Jerusalem) and Jesus – just as with the cleansing of the Temple, meeting with the Sadducee and leaders of the Pharisees – disappoints yet again. The coming Kingdom of God will not arrive in destruction. The coming Kingdom of the God who creates, who holds all existence together in love, who has promised to redeem all that is, all that was, all that will be, and who continues to breathe new life through the Holy Spirit in to the dead bones of this world – that God no more wants to destroy the world than this God wants to sew buttons on pants. Unfortunately for those who follow on, however, we humans are far too prone to hear what we want to hear. It excites something within us, to hear of destruction coming, especially upon those we have deemed unworthy, unsaved, outside the bounds of God’s grace. We accept our own righteousness, while so easily consigning to oblivion (and worse) those we have declared unrighteous.
I hear Jesus’s words, and I wonder how this powerful message of hope, of life, of a Father who cares so much for all that he has created that he will not abandon it to destruction has become the exact opposite. This offer of peace, of love, of hope has become a warning filled with terror and fear, with the teller the hero of this epic tale of horror and the rescue of a tattered remnant. We are so wedded to dividing, to fear of damnation, to the idea that there are just some who are outside the bounds of God’s grace, we refuse to hear this message of love, of consolation in the face of the horror of living in this world. We are called to wait with faith, because in the events to come we have been offered the first glimpse of what the Kingdom really looks like. We are not to surrender to fear because among the gifts offered to us is peace in the face of all the terrors of this world. The Kingdom will not come in glory; neither will it come through destruction. It will come in peace and justice and love, and we who are bearers of the Good News are to let the world know this is the Kingdom of our God.
So I sigh a prayer for all those living in fear, especially a fear baptized as Christian. This is especially important to remember as we move through this most turbulent week. We must remember, as Jesus approached what he had to know was the end, he was afraid; he did not allow that fear to determine whether or how he would follow the Will of the One he called his Father. Neither are we, who are always facing so much to stir fear to freeze our hearts, to allow it to overpower the Word of Grace and Peace we have from the Son, in the name of the Father, through the Spirit. I cannot pretend I do not know the full story. I cannot pretend I have not heard the cry of Divine, Fatherly abandonment that tears apart the cosmos, ripped from Jesus’s very soul as he hangs there, forgotten and alone, just another failed Messiah dying on a Roman cross. Yet, we are consoled that all that is, in its partial ecstasy and partial horror, is taken up in to the Divine Life and redeemed, made whole and new, a source not of fear and separation, but of hope and peace, the grand gathering in when all shall kneel and proclaim this bloody dying form is the Lord of all.
N.B.: I’m writing about Palm Sunday because very early tomorrow our family is leaving for an extended Disney vacation (hip-hip-horray!) and won’t be back until after Palm Sunday. I will be back for most of Holy Week, which I know I will need. Here’s hoping you, Dear Reader, will be safe, sane, and won’t forget about little old me while I’m gone. God bless each and all of you! G K-S
The seeds that died
Out of undying love cried
Out of anguish, young and strong , brave in deeds;
The ground shook and swallowed up the seeds.
Served with muscle and blood
Broken and weary ,withstood the flood;
From the hubs, warm hearths of comfort ,
To the cold uncertain rubble of duty
Arise from the ashes , fresh blooms of beauty.
Not forsaken, though fallen, hurt and reeling
Not denying the wounds, need tender healing;
The blood that was shed, covered in Grace
When with the poppies, the Giver, we see face to face. – MudCracker, “Poppies Rise Again”
I don’t remember if I’ve written about this before (I probably have) but last February, my wife and I went to see the rock band Transatlantic in St. Charles. We arrived in town early. We were eating dinner in a pub just a block or so from the theater where the show would be. While we were there, the band came in to have dinner. First, they were seated in another section on the main floor of the pub. Since there were several others in the place who were attending the show; since the band is one of those side projects members of bands do, which means touring isn’t all that common; fans of Transatlantic may not be enormous, but we are HUGE fans. I’m guessing looking around seeing about half the place staring at them like they were in a zoo, the five members of the band asked for and got a private room. The thing is, they walked RIGHT PAST OUR TABLE. As they did so, I was, as my older daughter said, “a fan-girl”. I couldn’t even smile and wave. Instead, I sat there, pointing, my mouth opening and closing like a trout on a stream bank. My wife on the other hand, waved, smiled, and said, “Looking forward to the show.” Neal Morse, the lead singer of the band, smiled and waved at HER and said, “Thank you.” After they were gone, I turned to her and said, in tones that were probably both hysterically funny and pathetic, “Neal spoke to you.”
The thing is, don’t we all want to be recognized? Don’t we all want our lives, our work, our selves, affirmed by those we might admire, or perhaps those who are superior to us at work, our friends? When people have moved us through their music, their artistry, their ability on the sports field, or even in politics notice us, there’s this rush, this moment when all feels right, when the hours of listening or watching or reading have paid off and we are not only in the presence of someone who has touched our lives in a very special way; they have acknowledged that the recognize us as those who appreciate their work. That kind of affirmation is important. It makes our lives a bit more real, a bit more livable, a bit more meaningful.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was greeted by people shouting his praises, God’s praises, waving palm branches and setting them along his path on the road, a gesture acknowledging his kingship. In that moment, while Jesus was having his ministry and work affirmed by the people, of far more importance is the fact that the people were having their prayers, their wishes, their hopes, and their lives affirmed. The Messiah had come! For so many of those along the road, that had to mean all sorts of things: the end of Roman rule; the Temple would be cleansed; the restoration of the true monarchy. Justice, as determined by God’s Law, would reign once again and the people would be free. They would be The People of Israel again, no longer just an annoying minority in one far-flung province of an enormous Empire. Those who had fled Jerusalem, or who had been hauled into exile and whose descendants had stayed in various cities, would all return, Jerusalem would again be the center of the world, and the LORD’s reign from the Temple would call the whole world to give praises to Israel’s God. And they were witnesses to the beginning of this revolution. The presence of Jesus, fulfilling prophecies the people knew by heart, was letting the people know not only who he was. Just by his actions, riding a donkey down a street, he was letting the people know they were alive, they were real, their hopes and prayers had been heard and were now being answered. Their lives now had meaning.
I’ve entered Jerusalem by the same gate, behind him by just a couple hours. The street still bears witness to his passing. The palm branches are still there. People are milling about, their eyes alight, their voices and bodies animated. They are smiling, some are even laughing, because they know all that is about to occur. It has been a part of their collective lives for over a century. There have been pretend Messiahs before, all cut down by Roman forces. This one, though, enters Jerusalem in proper fashion, fulfilling prophecy. And they were witnesses.
I walk through their midst, seeing they only glance at me, a strange traveler carrying an enormous rock, a pack on my back, then return to their revelry. I think most Christians try and imagine themselves in to moments like this; it’s certainly a fun way to entertain the mind, kind of like what I’m doing right now. All the same, I’m far less happy than the people around me, because I know the rest of the story. This might be my first real Lenten Journey, but I’ve heard and read the Scriptures enough to know what the rest of the week has in store. As the pastor from my childhood used to preach on Palm Sunday, the same crowds cheering Jesus’s entrance were chanting “Crucify him!” just a few days later.
I have to be honest. I don’t blame them. This entry meant the coming of the kingdom! The restoration of Israel! It meant salvation! It meant freedom! What did Jesus do? He hung around the Temple and argued with the Priests. He had dinner with drunkards and prostitutes, but also dined with the Sadducee, who no doubt wanted to know who this alleged Messiah was and what, exactly, his plans might be. His opening at the Temple, tossing out the money-changers and others, only made the life of the people worse. How could they meet their Temple obligations if no one would change Roman coins for coins they could properly offer in the Temple? Who would sell them their doves, their goats or rams? For all it seemed that Jesus was The One, he was worse than the other false Messiahs precisely because the people, it seemed, had their hopes and prayers answered, only to have it all dissolve around them, before their eyes. All that affirmation was fake. Jesus had no more affirmed them and their lives than he had rid the Temple and the Palace of the Romans.
I make my way further in to the city, and I hear Jesus’s words from the cross: Forgive them, for they do not know what they do. I will not judge them at all, because Jesus did not judge them. I do not condemn their myopia, because all of us and each of us are just as myopic, wanting Jesus to be who we believe he will be. We want our prayers answered the way not only we have been told they will be answered, but because in doing so, we will know real freedom, real life, and our lives will have real meaning.
Up ahead is an Inn. I think I’ll stay there this week. The upper floor is taken, but a small corner room is open. There’s a bed, more blankets on the floor with wool and straw beneath them. There’s a chamber pot. I know I’ll have to do my own cleaning, because the locals need to remain clean, especially now, what with The Messiah in the city and all. There’s no place to set my loads. Sighing, I stretch out on the pallet on the floor, the pack still on my bed, the rock cradled in my arms. It’s going to be a long week.
And living your life through vice has left you slow and with out stride.
For everything you once were is now a memory seen through a sloths eye. – Allawy Mian, “Where No Virtue Lies”, ending
“At some point, you have to get up and do something.” Perhaps. Perhaps not, though. If there is a way to avoid doing anything unpleasant, or even anything at all, I might well be the champion of finding that way. Avoidance is more an art than science, is a skill rather than a talent, and it takes a whole lot of work to be a successfully lazy person. All the same, it is far preferable to the alternative: doing that which I would rather not. Even when doing whatever it might be is necessary. I sometimes think the world would be so much better if more people preferred to do less, find ways to just sit and enjoy some songs, the play of light through windows, reading a good book, a third cup of coffee, and take in the experience of living. Of this marvelous gift of existence. Of the way the times and days and seasons move along, and yet this eternal return is never the same, and each moment is filled with wonder.
That’s what I tell myself. That I am appreciating the simplicity of all that is, without distractions, with a soundtrack I have chosen. Except, really, what I’m doing is an active passivity. I’m trying desperately not to do . . . well, whatever might need or wanted to be done.
When I worked at WalMart, it was nearly impossible to remain either idle or find shortcuts around necessary things. Funny thing, at least to me, was how much I enjoyed the work and the people. It was camaraderie, it was hard, physical labor – I was well-known for how I sweated out shirts, especially when I worked stocking the juice aisle – and for a man entering middle age, I found myself in surprisingly good shape. Yet, if only I had the opportunity to steer clear of all that, I would have taken it. Let someone else lift all those heavy cartons of juice, pull those pallets filled with those heavy cartons, move fast because there was more than 8 hours work to do, and there was so much extra to take up time, from discarding cardboard to setting up endcaps to making the aisle look pretty and stocked. Despite the benefits I found, when I finally left I wasn’t heartbroken. I wasn’t as young as I used to be, I said. All that lifting and toting and pulling and moving faster than anyone had a right to expect of me was too much. I was tired of it.
Except, what I really was, was looking for an end to something that took me away from my preference for doing nothing. I had moved away; the trip was expensive; the work environment had not remained friendly; I had more excuses than a centipede has legs. Excuses, however, is all they were.
It wasn’t just WalMart, however. Laziness is not just an art form or habit. It is a way of life. Of course, I also know it isn’t living at all. It’s barely existing. The comforting lies the slothful tell ourselves are just that. I may believe I’m appreciating life more, but how is that possible when I’m not really living? Taking the easy road always takes longer, and there’s no sense of having achieved anything once you reach the end. All the same, it’s what I do. Whether it’s that disagreeable housework that needs to get done, spending hours away from home with strangers doing something to make money, or making the yard pretty, clean, and presentable – this is part of living. No one said it all had to be enjoyable. Like the old line says, they wouldn’t call it work if it were fun.
And, with not a little bit of irony, I’m imagining a long walk, filled with challenges, and danger, and horror, and sadness. Along this road I’ve picked up more than a few things that slow my trip, but are necessary to bring along. To be rid of them would certainly be far better. To not have to make this journey at all would be even better. Just to sit at the side of the road, feel the breeze, my arms and back resting from the labor demanded from them; oh, God, how wonderful that would be.
Sloth is a deadly sin not least because it creates conditions in which we human beings can avoid answering the call from God to live out the calling to work in the world for the world. It is a deadly sin because those who are its best adherents and practitioners are not, in fact, that much alive at all. We are, sad to say, little better than the rarely-walking dead. This journey I’ve set myself upon, it is taxing not least because it requires I actually do stuff. Disagreeable stuff. Not just sit and imagine things. I have actually to engage with my life, the awful things that make up so much of it, and not just own them all, but pick them up and carry them. No carton has been so heavy, no manager’s demands so onerous, no job so difficult and unwanted as this. It is one thing to wrestle with the angel, as Jacob did, all night long; it is another to wrestle with oneself, one’s life, one’s heart and find so much that it would be preferable never to see. Then, once I’ve come to something akin to terms, I have to claim all this crap. I have to say to God and the world – this is the real me. Then, because there’s a next step that’s necessary, having claimed it I have to pick it up, no matter how heavy, how horrible, how much I would prefer to leave it all behind, and bring it along with me. I cannot set it down until I have climbed that final place, the Hill of the Skull, and stand before the bloody, beaten, tortured body of Jesus of Nazareth. Only then, seeing what all this has cost the Father of this Son who is dying before my eyes, will I be allowed to set it all down. Only then will it be taken up in to that death, my one hope being that, Sunday morning, it will be fully redeemed through something new, something predicted yet still unexpected, something that makes that dawning more than just another morning.
I know that if I look around, I will see multitudes gathered around me, carrying their own loads, setting them on the ground. This is the Church – we who gather around the cross, who understand this moment to be both end and beginning, who hope that with this death the real Love and Light will shine in the midst of so much darkness, mourning, and death. This journey is necessary not least because, as St. Paul reminds us, we are to be imitators of Christ, who emptied himself, becoming a servant to the point of death on a cross. This journey is necessary, bringing this horrid load along – until I’m ready to empty myself of it, which requires first that I confess it is my own, and through this confession own it, how is it possible to have that mind which was and is and will be in Christ? Until and unless I’m willing to call myself the least of those who follow Christ, as St. Paul did; unless I’m willing to do that and mean it because I understand just how miserable a sinner I truly am, my declarations of faith and hope and love are just so much noise.
Yes, it would be far better not to do any of this. Just sit back and watch the world and think I am actually doing something is so much better. Comforting myself with lies of my own virtue, my own faith, my own holiness; that would be easier, and far more enjoyable. We are called, however, to new life and that only comes when we first die. And dying, well, that may well be the hardest thing in the world. Few people just give up their lives without fighting like hell to keep breathing, keep that heart beating, so the brain will continue functioning. Too many people consider this a metaphor, this dying. It isn’t. It’s death.
So, while all of us have a choice – and Lord knows I would so much prefer to be compelled – here I am, on this road, all this awful crap that is me and so much of my life bearing down upon me, and I just wish each step were my last, that someone else would take it all away so I could just sit and close my eyes and be. No such luck. I want to call myself a believer, a follower, all this has to be done.