Saturday, March 26, 2016

It’s Friday, but . . .

“It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” This phrase has been circulating widely on social media during Good Friday both in script and as a meme. I don’t know the origin of this saying, but Tony Campolo uses it as his signature message.

It is not a bad message. The final result of the story of Holy Week is the resurrection. This is the culminating point of God’s action on our behalf. It is the main theme of our Christian faith. Our hope for eternal life hinges on this event.

In our US American culture, however, it seems to me that we are too quick to skip to the resurrection story without remembering what Jesus had to go through in order to get to Sunday. Without the agony and suffering of Thursday night and Friday, there can be no Sunday. In my own Christian tradition, we only celebrated Resurrection Sunday, and had no other special services during Holy Week. Fortunately, this has been changing.

Ours is a culture that denies suffering and death. We do everything to ameliorate any mention of death, and try any means to avoid suffering and pain. Most of us fear the suffering leading to death more than death itself. We’d prefer being wiped out quickly in a car accident or heart attack than go through the messiness of the suffering that sometimes can be drawn out over months and years before death overcomes us. So we’d rather talk about resurrection than suffering and death.

Statue of Jesus in a church in Guatemala
In contrast, Holy Week celebrations in Latin America, especially among the Catholic faithful, focus on Good Friday. Pageants, parades, reenactments of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus proliferate. A year-long process of purification is necessary for anyone wanting to play the role of Jesus during Holy Week. The actor is flogged, a real crown of thorns is smashed on his head, and real blood flows from the back and forehead. Thousands of spectators line the streets to watch the spectacle, many weeping uncontrollably at the abuse and torture of Jesus. The groups of students who have witnessed these reenactments with me over the years are profoundly moved. They will never take Good Friday lightly again. They will not rush to get through it in order to get to Sunday.

Before seeing these reenactments first hand, I, like many people in my culture, mocked this extreme devotion as unnecessary fanaticism. But I think there is a reason for it. The majority of Latin Americans live lives of suffering and oppression. They identify with a God who suffers, a God who walked the path of suffering, oppression; even torture and death. This God fully understands their situation. They cannot deny their suffering, and death is always close by.

At my home congregation this Palm Sunday, we heard a wonderful sermon titled “The Plot Thickens.” The events leading up to Resurrection Sunday were delineated carefully, not mincing on the agony, pain or suffering. But a caveat had to be given; this is not the end, come back next Sunday to hear the rest of the story. So I was pleasantly surprised at our Tenebrae service. Progressively the seven candles were extinguished as the darkness of Good Friday and the grave loomed upon us. I was waiting for the caveat, “but Sunday is coming,” but it never came. The last words we heard at the service were sung: “were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” Silently, soberly, in deep grief and meditation, we left the sanctuary. Not a word was spoken. Many were wiping their eyes. 

I believe that Latin Americans and US Americans could learn from each other and our celebrations of Holy Week. They could use a little more of the hope of the Resurrection, and we could use a little more understanding of the suffering of Good Friday. I’m glad my congregation left us momentarily groveling in the dark. It wasn’t as gruesome as the reenactments in Latin America, but the light of the Resurrection will be much brighter for us after meditating on the darkness of suffering and death.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Stay, Watch and Pray

On Thursday of Holy Week, according to tradition, Jesus took his disciples late at night to Gethsemane to pray. He was preparing himself for what lay ahead; his pending trial, crucifixion and death.

Mark writes that Jesus was “deeply distressed and agitated” (Mk. 14:38). Matthew says that he was “deeply grieved, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Luke states that “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Lk. 22:44). Jesus himself said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26: 41).

This short portion of scripture shows as clearly as any the human side of Jesus. Jesus was afraid. He was lonely. He experienced existential angst. When he most needed the support of his companions, they fell asleep. Three times. When he most needed the support of his faith they rejected him and were soon to call for his crucifixion. Later, he even felt abandoned by the one who had sent him. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he calls out from the cross, quoting Psalm 22.

This passage more than any other is where I most closely identify with Jesus. It is the place where he shows his most human side. Yet, at the same time, it is at the place where God comes closest to me. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, moved into our neighborhood and shared our anxieties with us.

As a human, Jesus gives us a way to deal with our moments of existential angst, fear and anxiety. At many crucial points in Jesus’ ministry, he withdraws at night to pray. Get away from it all, in the stillness of night, when most of the world is asleep, Jesus withdraws, as was his custom, to pray. Sometimes he went alone, sometimes he took his disciples with him, as he did on this occasion. And he gives his disciples these instructions: “stay, watch and pray.” This is great advice for dealing with existential angst. His disciples fell asleep. Is this how we deal with our own fear and anxiety?

Stay. Stay is often translated “abide.” “God is love,” states the writer of 1 John 4: 16, “. . . those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Jesus was trying to abide in God’s love through his prayer. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” he prays (Matt. 26:39b). He repeats this prayer three times. Feeling God’s presence is not often immediate. Sometimes we need to repeat our doubts, our fears, and our needs in order to become more centered, more focused on God than on ourselves.

1 John continues: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Jesus’ fear abates somewhat as he repeats the prayer. After the second time, he states “your will be done.” After the third time, Jesus is ready to face what is ahead: “the hour is at hand.” His fear hasn’t gone away, but it has lessened as he senses God’s presence and abiding love.

Watch. Jesus also told his disciples to watch. Watch means being mindful, being on the lookout for the enemy, for the movement of God’s spirit among us. Being open to God’s presence wherever we are and in whatever circumstances. Jesus’ companions failed this test as well. They fell asleep. It is easy to criticize them for their lack of watchfulness, but how many of us sleep walk through life not noticing either the enemy’s distractions or God’s beckoning?

The passage in 1 John continues, “. . . as he is, so are we in this world.” Because Jesus experienced everything that we face, because he was fully human and struggled with the same things with which we struggle, we have little excuse for falling asleep in crucial moments.

Abide in God’s love, withdraw to pray and be watchful through the night. We do not have to let our existential angst overcome us. Jesus has led the way by his example, “for neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). Amen.