Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1-19:42

Friday has dawned but it is still night, the darkness and the shadows growing all the deeper as the sun makes its way toward noon. After their final supper together, Jesus and eleven of his disciples had gone to dark Gethsemane where the moon and the last of the stars was extinguished by the betrayal of the other disciple. Judas had left the table, took himself freshly washed feet to meet a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards. Their torches brought garish light to the garden; wild, misshapen shadows marched to where Judas said Jesus would be. There was Sacrament on Judas’ breath when he kissed Jesus —a kiss of identification, and death.

A fevered skirmish between the sleepy disciples and the High Priest’s posse, was quickly quelled by Jesus, the peacemaker, who also mended the wounded ear of Malchus. Then, Jesus had surrendered himself while the disciples fled.

Alone, except for his arrestors, Jesus was taken to Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas. Peter had followed at a distance, found himself also being interrogated. As Jesus was questioned by Annas he was scrutinized by the maid. “Are you not one of them?” Others questioned him, too, three times asked Peter if he were not one of the disciples, but each time Peter said, “I am not.” The cock crowed after the third denial, but not to greet the day.

Inside, Jesus’ interrogation turned nasty when, upon answering one Annas’ questions, he was struck in the face by one of the policemen. “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong,” Jesus said. “But if I have spoken the truth, why do you strike me?” Perhaps, then as now, he was struck precisely because he does speak the truth. Jesus was bound and carted-off to Caiaphas.

After a brief visit to the High Priest himself Jesus was taken to Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate seems pitiable, almost: an inquisitor defending himself to the Judge. It is Pilate who is on trial, not Jesus. But when Pilate found no reason to charge, must lest hold Jesus, the will of the crowd rendered Pilate powerless yet again: he could not protect Jesus. The crowd demanded Barabas’ release, and it was granted. They demanded Jesus’ death, and Pilate recused himself, acceded to their wishes. Jesus was flogged, mocked, condemned to death.

About noon, while lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple for the Passover meal, Jesus was stripped, nailed to a cross and put on hideous display for anyone passing by to see. Defying the crowds at last Pilate commissioned a sign to be hung on the cross: “The King of the Jews.” It was written in three languages, so that no one missed it. But what did Pilate mean? “This is what we do to trouble makers?” Or did he maybe believe it himself?

Soon it was over, finished. Jesus died in only three hours, but continued his earthly work even to the end. With almost his last breath he did what he always did: reordered lives and relationships: “She is now your mother,” he said of Mary to the disciple he loved. And to Mary he said in turn, “He is now your son.” That was Jesus ministry from the very start—giving his followers to each other in new ways.
It is to this precise moment that everything prior has led. And we would turn away from it, partly because we know the story so well And partly because we really haven’t the first clue as to what it all means. How does this death, this death bring life?

Many have tried to put words around it, bring sense to it or purpose out of it. Better, perhaps, to fall silent. Or turn to the Psalms. Jesus used a few of his last breaths to quote the beginning of Psalm 22, as a way to interpret his own experience of that moment—though only Matthew and Mark have the stomach to remember that he did.

Maybe we turn to another Psalm, not to interpret Jesus’ death so much as a to understand the nature of our own lives.

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
Let me know how fleeting my life is!
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
And my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight.

Surely everyone stands as a mere breath .
Surely everybody goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
They heap up, and do not know who will gather.
And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you…

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
And give ear to my cry.
Do not hold your peace at my tears. Psalm 39:4-6, 12a)


How do you react to this statement: “A faith unequal to death is a faith also unequal to life”? Do you see our culture as “death-denying”? How might “knowing our end” and “dying well” be a kind of prophetic testimony to our culture?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Maundy Thursday

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.

The Footwashing

Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
I Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-7, 31b-35

Love is a light, but reveals shadows.

God gave all things into Jesus hands, even the feet of the disciples. The story before is breathtaking: Jesus, Word of God and Voice of Creation, silently kneeling, all but naked, before his feckless disciples. "Having loved them," the Evangelist says, "he loved them till the end,” and who can even begin to imagine the logic of either clause? But in love he touches them—not just their minds or hearts but also their dusty and increasingly antsy feet, bestows this touch as one last act of love and compassion, of utter devotion and loyalty to them. And he does so in full awareness that their loyalty will fade like mist.

The disciples and the promises they made in the gathering dark—to stay with Jesus, even fight and die with him if it came to that—will disappear into the shadows of Gethsemane, evaporate at the first glint of Roman steel in Temple torchlight. On freshlywashed feet they will abandon him. With his Body and Blood still on their tongue they will betray him. His most vocal supporter will deny him, if with a terrible, truthful word: "I do not know the man." Never did, really.

Will he? Ever? Any of them? Any of us? Ever? Someday?

Jesus the Lord, loves and serves his friends in this almost-too-much-to-take-in way. And then Jesus gives them this almost-too-much-to-give-out commandment, a new commandment and mandate (and thus, maundus, Latin for command, and Maundy Thursday)—that they love one another just as he has loved them. Not only the way he has just loved them, but in all the ways Jesus had loved and them and did, from the beginning to the end. One could spend life, a ministry, an academic career trying to plumb the content and ethical implications of Jesus’ last command.
God gave all things into Jesus hands, even the feet of the disciples. And he left this word: “I have given you an example: If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Primitive Baptists and the Brethren practice footwashing as a Sacrament. We might wish the rest of us would. The practice meets the requirements, after all: it was instituted by Jesus, and it does convey grace.

Still, the grace footwashing conveys can be overwhelming—too much grace, if there is such a thing. Light can blind eyes accustomed to the shadows.

And so it comes as no surprise when footwashing services are poorly attended, when even the most faithful say, with their words or absence, “You shall never touch my feet.”

It is no surprise when even the faithful keep their distance, keep their feet, their hands, their hearts and minds mostly to themselves, hide in the shadows of resistance. Putting ourselves in Jesus’ hands changes things, changes us. Easier to be who we are, even if it is in the dark.

“If I do not wash your feet, you have not part in me,” Jesus says, and we know at once that distance is not an option in discipleship. We have to come close, have to let him have his way with us, have to let him bathe us, and not only our feet.


How is the love of Jesus, and of the church, uncomfortable for you? Do you wish for such intimacy, with Jesus and others, as Jesus desires? How would that look day-to-day?