A Night in Gethsemane

Tenebrae: The Service of Shadows

Maundy Thursday. A difficult night. A difficult service. We love to rejoice with the risen Christ, but it is far harder to suffer with the betrayed and bleeding man on the cross. As the readings for the service of Tenebrae move from betrayal and desertion to mockery and death, the candles in the sanctuary are put out one by one. As we hear the story in scripture, the shadows of our own sin and guilt grow deeper, closing in around us.

The darkness presses in on me. If I had been there that long night and the dark day that followed, which role would have been mine? Would I have taken an active part, calling out accusations before Caiaphas? Would I have been convinced that this man was a disrupter, a threat to my faith, a creator of disorder who had to be destroyed in the name of God?

Might I have been a Roman skeptic, amused at the foolishness of these Eastern fanatics who thought a poor itinerant preacher a serious threat? Or would I have played the part of the military bullies who jammed the crown of thorns on his head and struck him repeatedly in the face, not caring who or what he was, only knowing that this was a chance for a bit of fun?

Might I have been one of those who had heard Jesus teach, seen him heal, who had believed that he was indeed the Messiah? Would I have watched from a little distance, my faith in the Lord who had entered the city in triumph only a few days earlier violently shaken by the sight of the blood on his face? Would my voice have been the voice of Peter, denying that I even knew him?

Jesus was not, after all, the clear sign that had been expected. The Jews looked for a military leader who would free them from the yoke of the Romans. They expected ritual purity and unmistakable glory. Instead, Jesus had eaten with sinners, entered the city on a donkey, and washed his disciples’ feet. The Romans were expecting the sort of armed revolt they were so good at crushing, not a king who claimed his kingdom was not of this earth. When the sign came, it was undecipherable – not because the sign wasn’t meaningful, but because the people who saw it were blinded by their own expectations. The dying Christ and the empty tomb were mysteries too deep for human reason.

The shadows close in. All I can do is weep for my sins, my doubts, my blindness, and for the infinite suffering endured for us. Endured so that we might glimpse our own brokenness. Endured so that we might know the infinite love that made us and pray for the marvelous, undeserved, overwhelming light of Easter morning.

(Note: This was first posted two years ago.)

The Promise of Easter

On this Saturday of Holy Week, the sun is shining brightly and the spring air is soft. The forsythia and daffodils are blooming, and the maples and earliest apple trees are in blossom. Cardinals and robins are singing, and the message of rebirth infuses the earth.

I think about tomorrow, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, named in our language for the ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and rebirth. And I think about the way many religions, ancient and contemporary, reflect on the cycle of the year through stories of the god who dies and is reborn. Rebirth – resurrection – is the central concept of Christianity, but we are not unique.

There is something very powerful in the turning of the seasons that stirs human imagination. We may explain the seasons scientifically, but they still seem more significant and more amazing than the physical facts of scientific explanation. Perhaps this is because the forces that drive the seasons are so much larger than we are.

But the mystery of rebirth is also larger than we are. We need our myths to help explain the incomprehensible nature of rebirth. And so we have our stories of the god who dies and is reborn. The story in my heart is the story of the passion and resurrection of the Christ. I am a Christian because I grew up in a Christian culture, and the stories of the Christian tradition resonate with me. They help me find my way to God – or, rather, they help me see that God is with me. But I don’t for a moment believe that my stories are the only ones that are true.

We are like the group of blind people in the story of the encounter with an elephant. One person, feeling the elephant’s leg, said that the elephant was very like a tree. Another, touching the ear, declared that the beast was like a ship with a large sail. A third, stroking the trunk, said that the elephant was like a snake. And so on. Every faith has grasped a part of God, but no one has grasped all of God. We are human and limited in our understanding; we can’t fully comprehend the infinity that is God.

And so we waste our energy arguing over our beliefs, assuming that our own way of faith is somehow more true than others. When we believe we know the only truth, we try to convince everyone else to believe exactly what we believe, while those of other faiths do the same. And so we have crusades, jihads, holy wars, grieving God in the name of God.

We try to discover evidence that Jesus really (that is, in physical fact, empirically observable) did die and rise again. Some seem to believe that the truth of the resurrection depends on such physical reality. But the real truth of the story rests in its power to transform us, its power to bring us into an ever-growing relationship with God.

What matters about the story of the god who dies and is resurrected is not its historical accuracy. What matters is not even the story of rebirth’s connection to the cycle of the seasons. What matters is the message of God’s power and love behind the story of resurrection. What matters is the little bit of truth about God revealed in the story.

There are many different theological statements about the significance of the Resurrection of Jesus. The one that one hears most often is that Jesus died for us, to save us from the consequences of our sinfulness. There may be truth in this concept, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. It may be the elephant’s tail, but the whole truth of the elephant is something else.

For me, the larger truth of the passion and resurrection is the revelation of God’s overwhelming love for us and the promise of God’s presence with us. God chose to suffer and die as we suffer and die. God understands us completely and is with us completely. God promises to go with us into the darkest places of our lives. But even all that is not, I think, the whole truth of the Resurrection. The whole truth is beyond my limited human comprehension. All I can do is experience the power of the story and love God.

An Easter Journey

We are all creatures of suffering and joy.  Whether we recognize God or not, God is always with us in our suffering and our joy.The journey that Cleopas and his unnamed companion took to the village of Emmaus on the afternoon of the Resurrection was truly an Easter journey, moving through the mystery of the Cross to new life.  The revelation they encountered in Jesus is exactly where the cross was leading them – exactly where our journey to the cross leads us today.  Alleluia!

 

The Road To Emmaus

We wept as we walked, Cleopas and I,
Going along the dusty road to Emmaus,
Talking over the heavy news we carried to our friends there,
News of our Lord’s dying, nailed to the wooden cross,
Stripped and beaten and crowned with thorns,
The Romans jeering and the disciples scattered,
The sun darkened and the temple curtain torn in half.
We wept, and we remembered the last three days
Full of fear and the sound of weeping, stifled.
As we walked, a man came up with us
And asked us what sad thing we talked of.
So we told him of Jesus, and our hopes for redemption
From the trampling boot heels of the Romans,
And the death of all our hopes on the cross.
And we told him the strangest news of all,
The tomb empty in the morning light, the stone
Rolled away from the door, and the angel’s message.
Then he began to draw together strands of scripture,
Words of prophecy that, taken all together,
Laid forth the life and death of our Lord in a new light,
A clear message of salvation.
We ceased to weep, and our dead hopes, crushed beneath the heavy cross,
Stirred into the beginning of new life.
And then, when he broke bread with us that evening in the tiny village,
Children’s shouts still ringing at their dusty games in the gathering twilight,
We saw in the stranger’s face our risen Lord,
And suddenly the world was full of light,
And the beauty of the evening was piercingly intense,
More filled with hope than any hour had been before.
We were clean again, the marks of tears gone from our cheeks,
Fresh, the road’s dust and our sweat all gone.
Surrounded by light more brilliant than a thousand stars,
We moved back along the road to Jerusalem,
And our steps were as light as joy.

In the Shadow of the Cross

What do we do with the mystery of the cross?  Do we try to make sense of it, arguing over whatever we think God was doing on that dark day and the golden morning that followed on the third day?  Do we fold the mystery away in some mental storage compartment and promise to think about it some day — or promise ourselves that we’ll ask God about it when we get to heaven?  Or do we live into the mystery, letting what our minds can’t encompass fill our hearts?

 

The King of Calvary

He wasn’t much of a king.
He was dusty, and the dust
Was streaked with sweat.
He stank of mortality.
Dried blood clotted his beard and striped his face,
And his hair was tangled where thorns had caught it.
When we went to place the nails,
His feet were dirty and calloused in our hands.
His eyes were tired, red with tears;
His shoulders slumped with pain and weariness.
His garment was damp with sweat
When we took it from him.
But it was a good one, woven all in one piece,
A little coarse, but serviceable.
We had a right to it, to share it.
But it would have been a shame to divide it,
So we settled it with dice.
I have it still, folded away.
Somehow I couldn’t wear it.

 

Pain and Promise on Good Friday

What must the death of Jesus been like for his followers?  Easter was ahead of them, but they didn’t know that.  What happens to us when we suffer great loss must have happened to them.  Yet somehow the mystery of the cross encompasses both the suffering of loss and the joy of Easter morning.  And somehow God uses our suffering to bring us to joy.

 

A Dark Day

A dark day.
On the hilltop, a body hanging on a cross,
The sound of weeping,
And the smell of death in the air.
Where now is power and glory?
What has become of the water turned to wine,
The lepers healed, the dead raised?

Lord, life was so rich with promise!
We had such hopes, such plans!
Now we’re bereft, left alone,
Afraid, and numb with despair.
Where shall we turn?
What do we do next?
How can we survive in this diminished world?

Will we crumble into dust,
Blown away by the winds of destruction?
Was it all for nothing?

In our grief, we cry out to you.
Are you there, Lord?

A Night in Gethsemane

Tenebrae:  The Service of Shadows

Maundy Thursday.  A difficult night.  A difficult service.  We love to rejoice with the risen Christ, but it is far harder to suffer with the betrayed and bleeding man on the cross.  As the readings for the service of Tenebrae move from betrayal and desertion to mockery and death, the candles in the sanctuary are put out one by one.  As we hear the story in scripture, the shadows of our own sin and guilt grow deeper, closing in around us.

The darkness presses in on me.  If I had been there that long night and the dark day that followed, which role would have been mine?  Would I have taken an active part, calling out accusations before Caiaphas?  Would I have been convinced that this man was a disrupter, a threat to my faith, a creator of disorder who had to be destroyed in the name of God?

Might I have been a Roman skeptic, amused at the foolishness of these Eastern fanatics who thought a poor itinerant preacher a serious threat?  Or would I have played the part of the military bullies who jammed the crown of thorns on his head and struck him repeatedly in the face, not caring who or what he was, only knowing that this was a chance for a bit of fun?

Might I have been one of those who had heard Jesus teach, seen him heal, who had believed that he was indeed the Messiah?  Would I have watched from a little distance, my faith in the Lord who had entered the city in triumph only a few days earlier violently shaken by the sight of the blood on his face?  Would my voice have been the voice of Peter, denying that I even knew him?

Jesus was not, after all, the clear sign that had been expected.  The Jews looked for a military leader who would free them from the yoke of the Romans.  They expected ritual purity and unmistakable glory.  Instead, Jesus had eaten with sinners, entered the city on a donkey, and washed his disciples’ feet.  The Romans were expecting the sort of armed revolt they were so good at crushing,  not a king who claimed his kingdom was not of this earth.  When the sign came, it was undecipherable – not because the sign wasn’t meaningful, but because the people who saw it were blinded by their own expectations.  The dying Christ and the empty tomb were mysteries too deep for human reason.

The shadows close in.  All I can do is weep for my sins, my doubts, my blindness, and for the infinite suffering endured for us.  Endured so that we might glimpse our own brokenness.  Endured so that we might know the infinite love that made us and pray for the marvelous, undeserved, overwhelming light of Easter morning.

The Mystery of the Cross

Holy Week is a natural time for reflection on the cross.  I’ve been thinking about all the different explanations of Jesus’ death and resurrection that I’ve encountered, and about how unsatisfying they all are.  It seems as if all the theological explanations of the meaning of the cross are pushing some agenda, some God-view that can only be limited and partial, given our limited and flawed nature as human beings.  To me, the cross is beyond reason and beyond explanation.  And it must have been even more so to the followers of Jesus.  We can respond to the cross, even enter into Jesus’ experience on the cross, only on the level of mystery.

The mystery lies in God’s choice to become human and live among us, as the Gospel according to John puts it.  Through that decision, I am drawn into a deeper relationship with God, who chose to suffer a most painful and shameful death on the cross.  How then can I doubt that God shares my suffering, as well as my joy?


The Last Supper

Living he came into the world,
A man, not mere likeness, truly man.
Shining, he brought light into the world,
God, not mere reflection, truly God.
He walked through Galilee, down into Jericho,
Up again to Jerusalem, God’s city,
Stirring the dust of the world with his feet,
Lighting the world with his eyes,
Breathing fire into us all with the breath of his words.

We followed him to Jerusalem,
Sat down at the table with him in a high room
Full of shadows like blood,
Full of gusts of unspoken words.
The oil lamps flickered in the unsettled air,
Flickered and flared, and subsided again
Into a sullen glow.  Love sat at that table,
And Denial; Grace was there, and Betrayal.
Greed and Ambition whispered together in a corner,
Mercy and Hope clung to one another in silence.

Against the windows around the room
Shadows like faces seemed to move,
Pressing against the pebbly glass, looking in.
Sometimes the wavering lamplight
Reflected our own faces in the windows
Like spirits longing to enter.

It was a strange feast,
Full of inexplicable gestures.
He washed our feet,
Calmly predicted coming disaster,
Spoke cryptically of betrayal and death.
When he broke the bread,
It was like flesh in his hands,
And the wine gleamed in the cup like blood.
There was something he wanted us to taste;
I think he fed us more than bread and wine.

All that was long ago.
Still we tramp up and down from Galilee
To Jerusalem and back again.
I think we are all metaphors,
Calluses on dusty feet.
Paul sends letters to Ephesus and Corinth,
Claims even Romans for what he calls
The Body of Christ, still alive and working in the world,
Still lighting lamps and breathing Spirit,
Still sharing bread and wine at the table.

And I think of that last unquiet supper in Jerusalem,
Of the faces crowding the windows,
Of my own face staring back at me,
And I wonder when all those faces will be born.