Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Door Set Open

For some of you, dropping everything on this Friday to come to chapel, in the middle of the day, is a new experience.  Good Friday.  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 personal 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.  Many of the crucified lingered for days in agony.  Their time on the cross before death often was directly related to how much they were beaten and whipped before being crucified.  After their deaths, the bodies of the victims were left on the crosses as a warning to everyone about the fate of those who would challenge the authority of the Roman Empire.    

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 one people call the Son of God, or, mockingly, the King of the Jews.  And yet the cross is now the foundation of the Christian faith.  This day is good because people have done some theology, some attempt to explain what the death of Jesus accomplished—what it means.  In reality, this reclamation of the cross—this recreation of this day as good, took time.  It took hundreds of years, not just three days.  And the Church grew, steadily, by embracing the cross, not running from it.  There is something to learn from that—that goodness can come from any adversity or tragedy if you take the time to figure it out, or, better yet, to experience it completely.  At the heart of this day is the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by the Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.  Crucifixion is not a pretty business.  It was a horrible way to die, with suffocation of the human body after days on the cross for some.  Crucifixion was state violence in the name of law and order.  The cross in its inception was a symbol of state power over the individual.  

There are many different theological 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.  And we’re not very good at that.  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 nascent creativity; 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, moment by moment, 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?  It’s strange when you think about it.  The cross is a symbol of violence, of state terror, its absolute power over any human life.  However, right now, you can buy chocolate-covered crosses at your nearest Wal-Mart.  We have come full circle.  This absurdity of religious symbolism was perhaps best expressed by Bob Dylan in his song “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.”

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred.”

The crucifixion was never portrayed in art by the early Church.  It was too raw, too painful.  It took hundreds of 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.

Yet the cross, slowly but surely, became a paradoxical symbol of victory for the Church.  The Sign of the Cross dates from the third century, and this is part of the same piety that venerates the cross’s power.  Holy Cross Day began in 335 A.D., and this was unusual because it was, and still is, observed like a saint’s day.  In many respects, it proposes the cross in the context of sainthood, as if it were a person, or had a human character.  Early church fathers attested to the discovery of the real cross during the time of Constantine, and the traditions surrounding St. Helen, the emperor’s Christian mother, made the cross the most important relic in all of Christendom.  The cross became associated with healing power, and this was power not limited to the relics of the original cross.  The tradition of kissing the cross on Good Friday dates from the fifth century, and this veneration continues in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and High Church Anglican services on Good Friday to this day.  I grew up in a church where people kissed the cross during Good Friday services.  It was not my cup of tea, but you never forget that kind of devotion.  Christians have prayed to the cross throughout the centuries, and monastic orders like the Roman Catholic Passionists and the Anglican Order of the Holy Cross, the monastic order of our founder Father Sill, view the cross as the most central element of their Christian spirituality.  Rather than being suppressed, the cross has become the most dominant and accepted symbol of the entire Christian religion.  You don’t think twice about every chapel service beginning with an acolyte carrying the cross into chapel on the first hymn.  It wasn’t until the seventh century that this processional tradition became the norm in the Church, often with the cross anointed with stones, gold, and jewels.  What a strange journey this religious symbol has had.    
Goodness on this day took hundreds of years to really come out into the open.  But I think Good Friday is at its most powerful when the cross becomes not so much theological, or historical, but personal.  All of our hymns today, sad and mournful, reflect this personal, emotive response, not some great and elegant theology.  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? 

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.  The faith allows us to go to the deepest places of confusion and trauma in or lives, the small things and the really big things.  It seems like every week someone in this community experiences the reality of death, in the loss of a loved one.  Where do we put that experience, that new understanding of grief and loss?  We bring it to the cross.  When the cross becomes personal, your own struggles and suffering flow into the collective memory of the historical event, and a suffering God is beheld.  A suffering God is held, by all of us, by each of us, with our fragments of love and grace and healing.  The chaos of our time, the failure of human community again and again, the death of the innocent finds a collecting point on the cross of Jesus.  It is a door set open, an unexpected path in the snow this week.  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.  We find our own paths.  We stop in the middle of the school schedule.  We say our prayers.  And we set the doors of our hearts open--open just wide enough, for a strange goodness in the crisp, clean air to keep them that way.  Be kind to each other.     

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