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Friday, April 18, 2014

It's not a funeral for Jesus

It's "Good" Friday. Not weepy, lugubrious, maudlin, self-flagellating Friday. Yesterday, as we began the Triduum, the first words of the Liturgy, which we sang in paraphrase, say this:
We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free.

These are words of celebration, joy, and freedom. Yes, they are about the cross. Yes, today is a commemoration of the death of Jesus. But Jesus was raised, and dies no more.
And the liturgy today begins with this prayer...
O God, who by the Passion of Christ your Son, our Lord,
abolished the death inherited from ancient sin
by every succeeding generation,
grant that just as, being conformed to him,
we have borne by the law of nature
the image of the man (sic) of earth,
so by the sanctification of grace
we may bear the image of the Man (sic) of heaven.
Through Christ our Lord.
(Try to hop over the translation of "man" which is trying to compare Jesus with Adam without using the names. Never mind that "Adam" was a Hebrew play on words that was close to the word for "human being," somebody's formal translation agenda was out in force today. But I digress...)

...and ends with this one:
Almighty ever-living God,
who have restored us to life
by the blessed Death and Resurrection of your Christ,
preserve in us the work of your mercy,
that, by partaking of this mystery,
we may have a life unceasingly devoted to you.
Through Christ our Lord.
Sometimes, locking into the bathos of our culture, we succumb in this celebration to a kind of individualistic pietism: O what a terrible sinner I am, I did this to Jesus. We lock other people out. Jesus of the first century, perhaps Jesus the pissed-off God, is the focus our attention. We fail to see the structures of society itself which allow the innocent to die, structures in which we participate, are responsible for his death, and the death of millions of others. But salvation is not about individuality: it's about the human race. Religion, by definition, binds together again what is broken apart, or imagined to be broken apart, by our narcissism and navel-gazing. When I was baptized, I was healed of my radical individualism and alienation from others, and became a part of the eternal, living Body of Christ. It now not I who live, as St. Paul said. It is Christ who is alive in me. It is certainly true that I have to learn to live into that, and that is what the community of "resident alien" Christians is about. And it's how we most often fail, too, lured back to the fleshpots of imaginary self-sufficiency and selfish individualism by the surrounding culture.

But way back on the first Monday of Lent, the first weekday after the First Sunday, the first day on which the catechumens could be called the elect, the first day of their and the whole church's forty-day Lenten retreat, in the gospel of the day, we heard the words of Jesus in the parable about the king at the end of time,
"'Lord, when did we see you hungry and not feed you, naked and not clothe you, sick or in prison and not come to visit you?' And the king will answer, 'I solemnly assure you, as long as you did not do it to one of these least ones, you did not do it to me.'" 
All those sayings in that parable are couched in terms of good done and good not done. I wonder about evil done, though. What about, "Lord, when did we unjustly convict you? When did we whip you, ridicule you, strip you naked in front of strangers, curse you and deride you, and kill you like a criminal in a horrible, painful way?" Mightn't we also hear, "Whenever you did that to anyone, any of these least of my sisters or brothers, you did it to me"? This is what I mean when I say that God when God saves, it is the whole human race that is saved, and therefore individuals. All of us make little decisions, for better or for worse, that move humanity in some direction with relationship to God. Yes, our individual actions matter, but they matter not because I'm so unique and special. They matter because I'm the same as every other person on this planet, the living, those who have passed away, and those yet to be born.

In an amazing transformation that, in a way, is a symbol of the way the Paschal Mystery transforms the whole world as we learn to see with divinized vision, the very instrument of terror, torture, and state-sanctioned murder that was the means of the death of the Savior became a symbol of love and overflowing life. Blood-stained wood still echoing with the screams of the condemned was changed by the faithfulness of Jesus into a symbol of life, hope, and renewal. It's as though people could wear an electric chair charm, a noose, or bracelet of atomic bombs or Ricin molecules and be known by those who see them as gentle people who advocate for the poor and love their enemies.

I guess I figure that if God can change the cross so completely, maybe God can change me. Maybe God can change people who run the war machine and every person on the planet who is convinced that the road to security is through the blood of enemies, and that peace can be attained through bullets and bombs, beatings and beheadings.

To me, that's what today is about. Was I there when they crucified my Lord? Well, if his name was Martin, I was just a few hundred miles away. If it was Oscar, I might have voted for some of the people who did, and paid taxes to buy the guns and liquor of the ones who did. If he was from Uganda, or Darfur, or Palestine, or Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia, well, yes, I guess I might have held coats, or pounded a nail, or just hid while tough-talking religious people did the real killing. Dr. Crossan pointed out in a recent article that there wasn't anything outwardly unique about the crucifixion of Jesus. In fact, it was its ordinariness that should surprise us. Pilate and other Roman despots crucified thousands, often in a single day. And though the means of torture and death may have slightly changed, especially in efficiency, down the centuries, the truth is that the killing goes on. What was different about the crucifixion of Jesus was that it was he, a human being whom God revealed as the beloved Son, who was crucified. The victim had a name, "a name above all other names."

I'm just like the one on the cross, and I'm just like the killers. In the words of the prayer above, I have by nature the "manhood" (sic) of the Messiah. May God's grace, impossible to earn but generously given to those who seek it, help us to put on his likeness, risen in glory. Like the cross itself, may we be changed from destruction into life itself. That would make this Friday “good.” Even the possibility of it gives me hope.