Sunday, April 16, 2017

What we see is glory

There is something anti-climactic about the story of Easter.  It’s not like the Passion Story that comes before it: now that’s a story, the kind that bears telling and re-telling.  And we did that; we told and re-told the story of the Passion of Jesus, beginning last Sunday with a dramatic reading taken straight from the Gospel of Matthew and then re-telling and re-enacting, in traditional ceremonies of the church (locally-adapted, of course), the journey from supper at sundown on Thursday, through the long night of watching and praying in the garden, through the three hours of horror and sorrow on Friday afternoon, to the peace of Saturday morning, and the silence of the tomb.  It is a tragic story, but like all great tragedies it is cathartic.  It lets us feel the way we really experience the world a lot of the time but rarely get to express in community.  So there’s a way in which the betrayal, and trial, and crucifixion, and burial of Jesus feels like an entirely satisfactory climax to his story.
And yet if it ended there, it would not be the great story, the sacred story of two thousand years of religion, and music, of painting and sculpture, of drama, film, and literature, of the folk art and ritual of cultures from South Africa to Siberia, and Fiji to Guatemala.   It would not be the story that turns ordinary men and women into saints.  Not because it would be a sad story—the world is full of sad stories, and many of them beautiful—but because it would be only another sad story among so many.  The whole story of Jesus only becomes what is because of Easter.  But what kind of story does it become?   Does it change from a sad story to happy one?  Or from a true story to a myth?
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary run away from the tomb of Jesus not with fear and not with great joy but with both mingled together.  And this combination of fear and joy is what accompanies an encounter with what the great rabbi and philosopher Abraham Heschel called “the sublime”: that which transcends and radically calls into question our normal categories of experience.  Which is why it is essentially irrelevant to ask, concerning the resurrection of Jesus—“did it really happen?”  That is the question of a humanistic age, and its import is, “is this something we can fit into our conventional human story of reality?”  When you put it like that, the answer is clearly “no.”  But if the answer is “no; the resurrection does not fit into the story we human beings prefer to tell about ourselves,” it is because it is the answer to a different kind of question.  The resurrection comes into a human story, the story of Jesus and his disciples, but it is not our question to ask about that story.  The resurrection is the essential question that story asks about us. 
The story of Jesus and his disciples is our story, because it raises the essential questions put to us by our own existence.  They are the questions asked of us by being alive and being human: by our experiences of joy and love and healing, of freedom and forgiveness, and belonging in community; and our experiences of fear and hate, affliction and loss, of conflict and oppression and despair, of missing the mark, and being at loose ends.  These experiences, and the way they all somehow come together as the one experience of being alive and being human, also come together as a single question; a question that is bigger than we are, that we cannot answer and don’t even really know exactly how to ask. 
Reading the Bible is one way, our way, of entertaining that question, of letting it live, and work on us, so that we are not simply drifting half-asleep down our passage through this world being satisfied with our own answers to our own superficial questions.  For Christians the story of Jesus and his disciples is the crystallization of the question that the Bible asks us.  And in the story of the resurrection we find our answer.  And the answer is “yes.”  “Yes.”  The resurrection is God’s “yes” to the question of what it means to be human, a “yes” we can give in answer because we believe it was first given to Jesus, and then to his disciples, by God.
Just for that reason, faith in Christ’s resurrection is not a mental exercise, not a matter of convincing oneself that “I believe it really happened.”  We can believe that, but just as it is the answer to the question posed to us by our whole lives, it is an answer we must give with our whole lives.  That is why St. Paul urges us, in the Letter to the Romans, to understand that when we were baptized we died and were buried with Christ.   Which can’t have “really happened,” because here we are, alive.  So Paul must not be speaking to our rational intellects, to the part of us that asks and answers our own questions.  Rather he is speaking to the heart of our consciousness, to that inner image we have of being “I”, a person, unique and entire unto myself, who is alive and has a life story. 
And what Paul is saying is that to be “in Christ,” to really know and really live in God’s grace and spiritual power, it is not enough to accept the certitude of doctrinal assertions about Jesus.  It is not even enough to obey him as the authoritative moral teacher, and to attempt to practice what he preached.   These things are valuable and even necessary, but in and of themselves they are not enough.  Because what it really means to be “in Christ” is to surrender everything we are to God.  All of it—even that deepest, most essential heart of our being, that very sense of being a person who owns the copyright on the story of “me.”  If we give that up to God, with the nakedness of faith we see in Jesus, praying in the garden, “not my will, Father, but yours be done”; if we say “yes” to God with the abandon of love that we see in Jesus on the cross, we will get it back.  
It will be very like what it was before.  We will be the person we always were, the same weak, gifted, happy, sad, simple, complicated, stupid, brilliant, virtuous, sinful person.  The same mere mortal—only completely new.  We will be raised with Christ.  United with Christ.  “It is not I who live,” says Paul in Galatians, “but Christ who lives in me.”  And in Colossians: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then [who you really are] will be revealed with him in glory.” 
“The glory of the Father,” says our passage from Romans today, is what raised Christ Jesus from the dead.  Which is a curious way to put it.  Why the “glory”?  Why not the power, the mercy, the love, or the justice?   I think to understand what Paul is saying here we need to know that glory is not just one among many attributes that we assign to God by analogy to human characteristics.  The Glory of God is what belongs to God alone.  You could say Glory is God, because in so far as human beings can see God, Glory is what we see.  But what Christ’s death and resurrection renews in us is the knowledge that God does not keep his Glory to himself, but gives it away.   We may be looking upward at heaven, or outward at the earth, or inward at the uncreated image in ourselves, but if ours are the eyes of a heart that says “yes” to God, what we see is Glory. 
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, arriving the tomb, experience it first as a kind of anticlimax, the emptying out of their expectations for how the story of Jesus will end.  But then, running away from the tomb with their strange new message, they meet the glory of God in person.   He greets them: “Hey!”—just the way one person would greet another on a bright spring morning on a garden path.  And they fall to their knees and prostrate themselves before him in the first-ever act of Christian worship.  But they also grab onto his feet, just to be sure.   

And on our children

The Liturgy of the Palms
The Liturgy of the Word

When I was a child, the place I went the most, besides home, school, and (possibly) church, was the county library.  It was an exceptionally fine one, as I came to appreciate later, and at least once a week in the summertime my mother would drop my brothers and I off for a couple of hours while she ran her errands and when she came back we’d check out shopping bags full of books to read until the next time.  I recall disappearing into the dark canyons between the stacks of the children’s section and volumes in series lined up on the shelves like veins of precious ore: The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, the Childhoods of Great Americans.  And I also remember a spacious, open area with picture books lying flat on desk-like shelves, and two of them, in particular, that I was drawn back to look at again and again. 
One was called “Four Days,” and it was a photojournalistic compilation about the assassination of President Kennedy, his funeral and burial.  I don’t remember the title of the other, but it was a re-telling, with modern woodcut illustrations, of the story of the Passion of Jesus.  Looking back, it is not hard to understand what appealed to me so powerfully about those books.  It was partly a child’s fascination with violence and death, but it was also the drama, the unfolding of a series of tableaus, each with new characters, adding a new emotional dimension to the tragedy.  The death of the main figure was the center of the plot, but it was these other participants who gave each story its richness.  I can still clearly picture in my mind certain iconic images of those characters: the shocked young woman in the cabin of the Presidential jet, standing by in her blood-stained coat while her husband’s successor takes the oath of office; the Roman soldiers, rolling dice for Jesus’ clothing at the foot of the cross.
These are dramas in which everyone participated.  Entire generations can remember where they were when they heard that JFK had been shot—it was a trauma that affected the whole nation.  And the Passion Gospel makes the claim that the death of Jesus was like that, too.  So it’s no wonder that we read it in the form of a drama in which the whole congregation takes part.  Because it impacts all of us, and having seen and heard it, we can’t be in the world in the same way again.
Of all the Gospels, the one “according to Matthew,” makes this argument most forcefully.  I am thinking in particular of that moment in the story when Pontius Pilate makes a show of washing his hands and declaring himself innocent of Jesus’ blood.  Up to this point, Jesus’ actions in Jerusalem have been attended by various crowds.   He rode into the city astride a donkey and a great crowd spread garments and branches on the road, and went before him and behind.  And when he taught in the temple and told parables against the chief priests and the scribes, the crowds were there, listening intently.  When the priests and elders followed Judas out to arrest Jesus in the garden, a crowd came with them carrying swords and clubs, and again the next morning a crowd went along when they took him to accuse him before Pilate.  But it is never clear exactly who is in these crowds from one scene to the next, if it’s the same people or different.
But when Pilate washes his hands, the writer of Matthew makes a sudden and momentous change in terminology.  Instead of ochlos, meaning a crowd of indeterminate size and composition, he writes laos, from which comes our word “laity,” meaning the inhabitants of a city or a nation as a whole.  The result is one of the most infamous lines in the entire Bible: “Then the laos, the people as a whole, answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”  In time, authoritative teachers of the church would interpret this text to mean that in that moment the Jewish people willingly incurred perpetual guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion.  This, more than any other single New Testament passage, would fuel centuries of Christian hatred of Jews, and barbarous violence, oppression, and cruelty against them.
But to read these words as Christian anti-Jewish polemic is an anachronistic error.  In the time this Gospel was written, there was no “Christian religion” separate from Judaism.  If those people shouting at Pilate spoke for “the whole nation,” that, by definition, included the followers of Jesus.  Peter and the rest may not have been there, howling for his blood, but they had deserted him the night before, and surely felt some share in the guilt for what happened to him.   Not only that, but I think it is possible to find in these words resonances, with the Hebrew scriptures and within the Gospel of Matthew itself, that suggest some very different avenues of meaning. 
There can be no doubt that in the Passion story “blood” is a synonym for “guilt.”  That is certainly how Pilate uses it.   The passage about the death of Judas does the same, several times.   But we also have to consider the bigger picture.  We have to remember that the backdrop for this entire drama is the Passover, the great annual festival of remembrance of God’s liberation of the whole people of Israel from slavery.  And like so many other moments in the Passion gospel, this one may be a symbolic reference to the Passover story.  Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus tells how, before the Passover night, Moses summoned “all the elders of Israel” and told them to have each family kill a lamb.  And he instructed them to put the blood of that lamb on the lintel and the doorposts of their homes, as a sign of protection from the angel of death, so that it would not enter to kill their first-born, as it would do to the Egyptians.  Moses goes on to say, “You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your children for ever.”
There may also be a reference here to the scene at Mt. Sinai, further on in the Exodus story, where God gave Moses the law.  After Moses came down from the mountain he sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord.  Then he read God’s covenant aloud to the people, and they said “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  And Moses took the blood of the sacrifices and threw it on the people, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you.”   It would seem like a stretch to relate this story with the Passion Gospel if Jesus himself hadn’t made the same connection himself, when he lay down with his disciples for the Passover meal.  He took a cup, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many...”  --and here Matthew adds something that is absent in the other accounts of this moment, in Mark, Luke, and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians—“…for the forgiveness of sins.”
In older published versions of today’s dramatic reading, the line “his blood be upon us, and upon our children” was said by everyone, and I think this was an appropriate choice.  Because it is not simply the hideous slander it would later become; it’s the ironic key that unlocks the heart of the Passion Gospel for us.  When we do not try to falsely wash away our own part in shedding the blood of the innocent, our guilt for the violence, betrayal, and hypocrisy that stains our whole nation, and calls the survival of our children into question, we receive the sign of God’s protection, and deliverance from the power of death.  We are renewed in God’s covenant of forgiveness.
When we hear of the children gassed in Idlib, or blown apart in the mosque in Mosul, or dead of starvation in Somalia, we know they are not other people’s children.  They are our own.  They are also our own victims, if only for deserting them in their hour of need, and stopping short of doing everything in our power to spare them from the angel of death.  But when we take the blood of lamb upon us, we no longer ask “who is to blame for their deaths, and whom must we punish to avenge them?”  We ask “what would have to happen for all of us, who are implicated in their suffering, to acknowledge our guilt, and seek the forgiveness of those we have harmed?”  And, “what amends would have to make, for our victims and their families to be able to forgive us?”  And, “What could be my part in that drama?”           

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.