Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday Meditation

Luke 23:26-34
It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.
Thus begins Gregory David Roberts’ autobiographical novel, Shantaram.

There is indeed freedom in forgiveness.

To be sure, our own tortured existences are less likely to be of the physical variety undergone by Jesus or Roberts. There are those, today, whose torture is physical, some even in our fair city of Boston. But for most of us our torture is more existential than physical. We are on the existential rack, so to speak, being pulled between the winches of denial and guilt. In denial we attempt to pretend that nothing is wrong, or at least that whatever is wrong is not our fault. In guilt we remember that it is in fact our fault but then conclude that no force in heaven or on earth could overcome it.

And yet, there is freedom. Our freedom does not overcome the torture, any more than Roberts’ freedom stopped the torturers or Jesus’ freedom obstructed the crucifixion. No, our freedom is in the midst of the torture. We are never absolutely conditioned. Yes, torture is psychologically debilitating. And yet, in speaking with at least some torture victims, what is striking is not their bitterness and anger but their compassion.

To arrive at this point, where we can take up our freedom responsibly, is to humbly reject humiliation. Pain and degradation, whether physical or existential, is not the last word. But without a carefully cultivated humility, the pain and degradation become totalizing. Humility is the recognition that denial and guilt make it all about us. But torture is rarely about the tortured; it is always about the torturer, attempting to convince the tortured and themselves that it is about the tortured. Freedom comes when humility wins the day and we know that this is not so. Then, and only then, are we free to forgive.

From the cross Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“When it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility.”

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

To Know and To Do

1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Apparently, for a significant proportion of the history of American Christianity, attendance at weekday Holy Week services, such as this one, the Good Friday service tomorrow, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday, was desperately low. In fact, at least in Protestant strains of American Christianity, many churches simply did not have weekday Holy Week services. Thus began the tradition of reading the entire Passion narrative on Palm Sunday, so that people did not think that salvation history moves directly from Palm Sunday to Easter without first passing through, not over, the suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus.

At least, this is what my parents, Dean Hill, and others of their generation and older tell me. By the time I came along, two and half decades ago, American Christianity had awakened to the fact that passing over Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday was in neither their spiritual nor theological best interests. So it was that at Hughes United Methodist Church, in which I grew up, the congregation undertook to resurrect the practice of Holy Week. We began with Maundy Thursday.

There are two versions of the Maundy Thursday service at Hughes, and they alternate yearly. The first is a recreation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, complete with elaborate sets and costumes that match the painting perfectly. Those enacting the reenactment enter the scene and freeze in place, just as in the painting. One by one they break free of their frozen state to tell their story of encounter, call, decision to follow, and experience of ministry with Jesus. At the end of each monologue they ask rhetorically, “is it I?” wondering who it will be who betrays Jesus. At the end, communion is celebrated and served, just as Jesus shared a meal with his friends at Passover.

The second version is women who knew Jesus. This dramatic presentation includes some parts spoken, other parts sung, and other parts danced. Each tells the story of encounter and participating in ministry with Jesus. Everyone involved in the drama wears a colored scarf over her head. At the end, each woman removes her scarf and weaves it together with the others on the altar, announcing the character she played, her real name, and stating, “and I know Jesus, too.” Again, the presentation ends with communion.

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Here in the heart of the fourth largest private research institution in the United States, it is easy to become enchanted with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. To be sure, the beauty of mathematical equations, the insights of literary criticism, and the fulfillment of an historically informed musical performance are indeed achievements in their own right. And clearly, Jesus is not opposed to the idea of knowledge as valuable in itself. After all, he spent much of his ministry just trying to get the wayward disciples to understand what he was about. Nevertheless, true blessing comes from the application of knowledge. Mathematical equations allow engineers to manipulate the material world. Literary criticism allows speakers to craft effective arguments and avoid arguments that are likely to fall flat. An historically informed performance can lift the souls of both listeners and performers toward transcendent light.

For those of us involved in religious life, there is a particular danger associated with the valuation of knowledge in its own right. Karl Jaspers pointed out that the world’s great religious traditions, founded as they were in what he termed the Axial Age, were focused on cultivating an applied ethical awareness. Nevertheless, there has been a tendency throughout religious history for religious people to overemphasize knowledge of God, of the transcendent, of ultimate reality, above the enactment of knowledge in everyday life. For how this happened in Gnostic Christianity, see Dean Hill’s dissertation, An Examination and Critique of the Understanding of the Relationship Between Apocalypticism and Gnosticism in Johannine Studies. No household should be without it.

Indeed, Martin Luther’s insistence that salvation is by faith, not by works, has translated throughout much of modern history into a form of Christianity that focuses on what adherents believe about God, themselves, and their own relationship to God. I do not wish to argue that beliefs are unimportant, but as Jesus emphasizes for us so eloquently in the act of washing the disciples’ feet, “if you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Belief, or knowledge, leads to blessing when it is enacted. Plato was right. Philosophy can only ever be a guide to life.

And so we can come to understand our Holy Week practices. Spiritual practices are just that, practice. Our presence here is a transition between the knowledge of God and the enactment of that knowledge in our lives. As my high school band director emphasized, “practice is the mother of skill.” To live skillfully, we must practice the enactment of knowledge.

This is why the midweek Holy Week services are so important. It is not enough simply to know that Jesus shared table fellowship, washed the disciples feet, was betrayed, suffered humiliation and physical pain, was crucified, died, and was buried. Simply to know this is to pass over, not through, the salvation history that falls between Palm Sunday and Easter. It is good to read the passion narrative on Palm Sunday. But we must also practice what we preach.

Tonight, we too will share table fellowship with friends, and with Jesus. Tonight, we too will wash one another’s feet, and in having our feet washed, Jesus washes our feet. Tonight, we will strip the altar and sanctuary bare, enacting the darkness and ugliness of betrayal. Tomorrow, from noon until three in the afternoon we will suffer with Jesus upon the cross. And tomorrow, at three in the afternoon, we will toll the bell to seal the tomb. We do these things that in life we may be partners of the gospel, servants of Christ in those we meet, humble confessors of our own sinfulness, compassionate partakers of brokenness, and patient witnesses of finitude.

It is only in light of the practices of Triduum, of Holy Week, that Easter makes any sense at all. After all, what need is there of resurrection to correlate with the humbly triumphal entry into Jerusalem? The joy of resurrection is that God passes over our sinfulness, but we must pass through in practice at least as much as in belief, in doing at least as much as in knowing, to experience that joy truly.

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.