Friday, April 6, 2012

“The Open Door of Suffering”

6 April 2012
Good Friday
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Kent School

For some of you, dropping everything on this Friday to come to chapel, in the middle of the day, is a new experience.  Weird.  What’s going on?  What’s this all about?  The foot washing last night was strange enough (ending in darkness), but now, this day called Good Friday.  For others, those who have a history with this day, there is more experience—some spiritual muscle memory, and understanding of this day.  For me, images of the crucifixion go very far back into my memories of childhood, with three hour services on Good Friday, like the death itself.  Jesus died after just three hours on the cross, all of the gospel writers report.  We won’t go that long today.      
For everyone, both new and veteran, the question inevitably is posed by someone who is paying attention: Why is this day called “good”?  Isn’t it actually terribly depressing?  This is torture, a painful and humiliating death for the Son of God.  And yet the cross is the foundation of the Christian faith.  Last weekend, this very question was asked in my Confirmation class.  “Why do we call it Good Friday?”  The question was put to our recent guest from Cambridge, the Reverend Canon Brian Watchorn, who responded: “Because of the good that came out of this day.”
This day is good because people have done some theology, some attempt to explain what the death of Jesus accomplished.  And the Church grew wildly, by embracing the cross, not running from it.  But at the heart of the day is the execution of Jesus of Nazareth—an innocent man suffering for all humanity.  And, as our guest Father Watchorn said on Palm Sunday, “Crucifixion is not a pretty business.”  That is British understatement for you.  It was a horrible way to die, with suffocation of the human body after days on the cross for some. 
There are many different theological and academic explanations for what is happening on the cross on Good Friday; what the death of Jesus accomplishes for us and for the world—the good that came out of it.  Jesus is the great sacrifice within the sacrificial system of his own Jewish religion.  Like the perfect, or sinless, lamb led to slaughter, Jesus is often thought to be the culmination of the old system of atonement through sacrifice: a great and lasting climax of religious understanding which begins a new covenant, reconciling humanity and divinity through the body and blood of Christ.  But does God really demand the death of animals, or especially an innocent human being, to forgive humanity?  A deeper theology of the cross can still be sought, but we will need to go further into the mystery of suffering in order to find it.  Yes, I am saying that there can be more than one theology, more than one way to explain the goodness of Jesus bringing God into the mystery of human suffering, and the reality of human suffering into the heart of God.  
     The last two verses of the Gospel of John—two very fascinating verses—point to this; they acknowledge the limitless legacy of Jesus with a reference to the literary productivity resulting from the life and death of Jesus:
     “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.  But there are also many things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

     We are still talking about the cross—that’s the amazing thing--two thousand years later; we are still approaching it with awe, dread, and wonder.  For all of the theories about the cross, this day is not intellectual at all, not really.  Good Friday moves us into the blind side of the human heart where there aren’t easy answers or convenient theologies.  And there shouldn’t be.    
To be comfortable with the cross is to no longer see it.  We’re not supposed to be comfortable or intellectually confident today.  We’re supposed to live by faith, as Jesus did.       
     At our safe and reasonable distance of two thousand years, we forget the enormous taboo of the cross within the early Church.  Why should Christians even wear crosses?  So strange.  It’s a symbol of violence, of state terror, absolute power over human life.  Dr. Greene actually sighted chocolate crosses at Wal-Mart this week.  Only in America.  The crucifixion was never portrayed in art by the early Church.  It was too raw, too painful.  It took five hundred years for images of the cross to reach the canvas of Western artists; to come to grips with the portrait of suffering.  This portrait of suffering collects the pieces of our broken world, the bloodshed and violence, especially of the innocent, in our fallen world.
There is a short poem from G.K. Chesterton, the British writer and unabashed Christian, that takes us faithfully towards the cross.  How can God redeem the death of Jesus?  How can God redeem the tragedies of our world?  This poem has been a guide for me this week, with its British understatement.  From Chesterton: 
     “Good news; but if you ask me
     What it is, I know not.
It is a track of feet in the snow.
It is a lantern showing a path.
It is a door set open.”

Good Friday is about suffering and pain and faith all mixed together.  It is a door set open. 
One of the major truths I have come to understand, somewhat late in my life, is that the avoidance of pain is one of the ways that we increase human suffering.  The avoidance of pain creates more pain.  This seems illogical, or counter intuitive, but I have found it to be almost axiomatic, in ways both large and small.  The avoidance of work makes it more difficult to do the work at all.  Skipping a class can make it even harder to go the next time.  Or avoiding questions about your health can lead to greater problems later on.  Seeking to escape stress can create more stress.  It can lead to addiction and tragedy.  And then there is the experience of Kent karma.  If you have a problem with someone, they will be the very next person you see.  Count on it.  This past week I was having a miserable time until I had to admit to myself I was getting sick.  Then things got better. 
The avoidance of pain creates more pain. 
So, today we put the cross of Jesus in the center of the school day.  We choose not to avoid pain, but to embrace it on Good Friday.    
My current class Buddhism and Western Literature has been studying the life of the first Buddha, Siddartha Gautama.  Like Jesus, he was the great spiritual thinker of his age.  But he was also being groomed to be a great ruler of a kingdom, and his father didn’t want him to experience anything that would make him depart from his path of privilege and power.  But Siddartha was curious—perhaps he felt like he was even being told a lie by those hiding pain and suffering from him, one that human culture often perpetuates.  It was a shock for me when I first discovered that my life would not be one success after another.  So Siddartha begins to leave the palace, all on his own.  On four occasions, he witnesses the four passing visions.  He sees an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and, on the last visit to what is now the real world to him, he sees a monk—a figure who has found balance, even serenity in the face of suffering.  Aging, illness, death are the nature of reality.  Siddartha then begins a spiritual journey; he goes forth from his palace to seek the ultimate reality.  He no longer avoids the normalcy of suffering, or the dignity that can be found by those who enter it openly, freely.       
Our culture runs from aging, illness, and mortality.  We want to hide in the palace of eternal youth.  We don’t want to see our elders, let alone hear their wisdom, or see their courage (or even joy and curiosity) when facing mortality.    
The avoidance of pain creates more pain.  On this day, this one day in the calendar, we don’t run.  We stand fast, in faith.  We stay with a suffering and dying Jesus—as young man, dying man, and corpse, the holy one of God who suffered with all of us on his heart.  On Good Friday.    
“Good news; but if you ask me
     What it is, I know not.
It is a track of feet in the snow.
It is a lantern showing a path.
It is a door set open.”

No comments:

Post a Comment