Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday: Nails, Death, Love That Survives

The nails are not just pointed, as one would expect, but jagged along the edges.  There's still bark on the beam they're nailing him to.  You want to picture that wood still in the tree, not the form it takes here, as a method of torture.  You cannot bear to watch him nailed to that beam, and then the lifting up.  The blood streaming from his hands, the thorned crown still on his head.  But you're there, even though others have fled.  His mother is next to you; you wish she was not here to see this.  Mary Magdalene as well.  But they, too, look like they're staying.  They will not flee.

This afternoon is full of nails, the soldiers hoisting him up; you hear him groan as they pull the beam into place.  Bitter wine on a cloth put to his lips.  Words exchanged with thieves.  Lungs that cannot find enough air.  A crying out.  Death.  This man who is not only a man has died a human's death.  Not a death that is antiseptic, free of all pain and anxiety, with the support of loved ones all around, but the most gruesome type of human death, a death characterized by skillful torture, derision, abandonment.  And yet he says -- you can hear it from where you stand, twenty feet away -- "Father, forgive them."

Here's what I get out of good Friday:  The God I worship loves me, and all people, enough that even when we do our worst to him, he does not reject us but continues to love us and seeks to transform us through mercy, forgiveness, and hope.  I've killed Christ a thousand times through my sinfulness, and yet he still loves me enough to want a serious relationship with me.  Unearned grace.  Amazing grace indeed.

In the end, I find I must embrace a God who loves me (and everyone) that much.  God wins me over by loving the human race in the midst of our killing him.  Love that survives death; love that heals sinners.  On Good Friday, on Calvary hill.

Holy Thursday: Bread, Wine, the Garden

Holy Thursday -- the night of the Last Supper, the night when Jesus expressed his deep love for his apostles by telling them he intended to die for them.  Very soon.  And yet he wanted to celebrate this meal, this passover, with them, so close were they to his heart.

If you're a Christian (or, like me, a very flawed "attempted Christian"), you have to put yourself in that upper room.  You have to picture yourself there, reclined at table, fifteen feet or five feet or two feet from Jesus.  With all your sinfulness, your lack of humility, your moments of unkindness and petty hostility, your selfishness and materialism, the parts of yourself you wish you could replace with The Better Version of yourself.  Even with all that within you, you owe it to yourself to picture yourself in that room.  Especially, in fact, with all of that within you.  We are taught that Christ died to save sinners, not the righteous.  Sinner means me.  I bet maybe it means you as well.

Not so sure there's room for sinners?  Think about the apostles who were in that room:  Judas, who would betray Jesus; Peter, who would in a few hours deny his friend -- the one he called "messiah" -- not once but three times.  Surely there's space in that room for you and me.

The Last Supper is -- at its core -- about God's deep, unconditional love for human beings: collectively and individually.  The Last Supper is not a theological concept, regardless of how much theology one can derive from it.  The Last Supper is an event, a bittersweet celebration in God's courtship of the human soul.  It's an intimate gathering.  We are called to attend.  We have the invitation.  There's room at the table.  Someone is offering bread, now wine.  But it is something more than food that is handed around, something more than drink that is in the cup.  The person who is calling is not just anyone, but the God who would be both creator and friend.  ("I no longer call you servants, but friends."  Of course, if you wish to grow in the friendship, you eventually realize you must learn to recognize and serve the Christ who is in your neighbor, and everyone is your neighbor.  Tough to live it out, yes.  But the selfless, unconditional love found in the Last Supper, and the next day on Calvary hill, is nourishment for the journey.)

A few hours later, you are in the garden.  Jesus is praying.  You think you might have heard him weeping.  That was a few minutes ago.  You are so very drowsy.  Maybe you just imagined he was in distress.  Yes, that's probably it.  There's some wind in the trees.  It could have been that.

When you wake up, he's saying something to you -- you and the rest.  "Can you not stay awake for just a little while longer?"  Not angry, more disappointed.  You've disappointed him, but there was love in his face (just as surely as you saw sweat on his temples), as well as distress.  He has retreated to the back of the garden again, and you are once more feeling drowsy.  If you could just take a short nap.  Jerusalem is a bustling place.  Your limbs are aching from the distances you've walked in the crowds, edging your way through. Your head hurts from the noise of the city.  It isn't so unreasonable for you to want to sleep a while, is it?

No, it's not Easter yet.  No one fully understands the concept of Easter at this point.  No one has any reason to believe in it yet.  There's no glorious resurrection yet, no matter what Jesus seemed to say about rebuilding the temple.  He said something extraordinary during the passover meal, too, and now he is weeping, and it's getting ominous; you can feel something is about to change in this city.  But you are so very sleepy.  A few minutes, that's all you're hoping for.

It's Thursday night.  You have to live through Holy Thursday.  You wonder how this whole thing is going to turn out.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Healing on the Sabbath, Oh No, Oh No! (Stop That Fellow, Someone!)

Today's gospel reading is John 5: 1-16.  We have Jesus encountering a man with serious mobility problems; Jesus cures him.  The man has been ill for thirty-eight years (have to love the preciseness of that number, yes?).  All those years, the man has not been able to make it into the healing waters in a timely manner.  (Sucks to be him, say those who pass by him each day.)  And then -- suddenly, almost impulsively, you might say -- Jesus heals the man.  Completely.  Fully.  With great unrestrained love.

But alas, Jesus has made a mistake, say the religious authorities.  He has healed on the sabbath!  Clearly that is not permitted.  See?  We have it right here in our holy book of codes and regulations, nicely cross-referenced and indexed.  Excellent table of contents.  Cool blurbs and everything on the back cover.  (Watch out!  It's a heavy object!  At least that's the case with a full-sized Catechism of the Catholic Church in the modern age.  If you have it on your Kindle instead, well, not so bad -- but it will still kill your Kindle if you throw it at someone, so please refrain from doing so.)

Mighty fine explanation in today's gospel for why faith in God is not chiefly about rule books.  Not about canon law.  Not about canon lawyers.  Not about quoting chapter and verse as though we can put God to use defending our human notions, particularly the most convoluted ones.  (Those are the ones that the radio hosts go to town with on programs such as Catholic Answers Live on your local reactionary, Republican-loving Catholic right wing station.  Here's a fast ball, folks!  Let's see how hard our apologist can hit it!)

For lent (and maybe for the other forty-six weeks of the year as well), go ahead and forget the legalistic version of Christianity.  Christ came to earth to love, heal, complete, save, embrace, and call each of us into true relationship with God.  Indeed, he was not one to carry around a rule book.  Let us resist with all our might the urge to put one in his hands, lest we miss the real reasons he came to earth and chose to live among women and men -- and yes, chose to die for us too.