Archives for April 2006

These are details, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2006

April 14, 2006

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

And now the sorrowful fellowship of Thursday evening turns into terror with the arrest of their beloved teacher; it is the longest night of their lives. But when Friday dawns, instead of light dispelling darkness, as is the nature of things, it is darkness that falls on them all. Everything that was good seems to end forever and forever. Life as they had known it has ended.

“My God, my God, why have
you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from
helping me, from the
words of my groaning?”

The desperate psalm is echoed by the two chapters we heard read from John’s gospel; they are all the more devastating because of their starkness and simplicity. There is a kind of macabre game being played out by Pilate, who represents the alien occupying force and by the Jewish religious authorities, who represent the government. And the Logos of God, the Son of Man, the Son of God, is the pawn in this deadly game. The mind can’t take it in. This is why the most fitting and moving depiction of this terrible day is not as effective in words as it is in music and paintings. The senses must absorb the tragedy when words fail us.

A mournful bell tolls in the mind. Those who were born in other countries, or who have visited the lands where theater is more important than sermons, remember the tolling of the bells throughout “Great Friday,” as “Good Friday” is called in the Eastern church. Slowly, mournfully the bells toll while people walk around and go about their business. When night comes, the Epitaphios will pass through the village streets to end in the village square. This is the bier of the dead Christ, festooned with flowers as a casket is, with priests and laity following behind. Everyone holds a candle. The senses are allowed to take in the experience and then turn it into meaning. It is necessary for the participants, because the awareness of sorrow and the reenactment of mourning will make the resurrection at midnight, on Saturday, all the more palpable.

Protestants and even Episcopalians who are more focused on the solemn quiet of reading the story, of listening to it and then meditating in silence and in celebrating the Holy Eucharist, find such theater incongruous at times, reminiscent of pagan rituals. It is, however, worth noting and understanding that the various branches within Christianity remember this day and this night in a way that touches the hearts of their people in the particular way that makes sense to them – some do it with words, others with images, smells, and sounds that bless or even assault the senses. What this reveals to us is that the drama needs to be remembered, not for the sake of the one who died on that Friday outside Jerusalem, but for our sake. Memory and ritual have value, they provide catharsis and offer healing.

In St. John’s story, despite the simplicity of the telling, the lack of adjectives, or any kind of embellishment, it is the details that capture our attention and make us hold our breath.

– A maid is tending a gate and two of Jesus’ friends need to enter the courtyard. One friend is known to the high priest, the other is not; so the one who is able pulls strings to get Peter inside the gate.
– A woman looks at Peter and asks a question that he answers with a lie.
– A fire is lit and cold men, who think they bear no guilt because they are simply following orders, are warming themselves. Again a question is asked and denied.
– A policeman strikes the Son of God.
– A disciple who loves him denies knowing him for the third time.
– Somewhere in the yard, a rooster crows.

These are details that on reading may be missed but that in knowing cut us through the heart.

These details are followed by one of the most ironic sentences in all history: “They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.”  Did even one of them wonder what it is that really defiles us – coming in contact with those we consider pagans, the obvious sinners, or the murderous desires of our hearts? Did any of them remember the words of Jesus on what it is that defiles us? The writer doesn’t tell us. But for them, the participants, it is enough that they could pretend their hands were clean so that they could eat their sacred meal.

Later they are going to argue about another detail – the inscription put on the cross, the one that read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” No, no, they argue, write that “he said, ‘I am king of the Jews.’” But what is written, is written. It remains as it was written, throughout eternity.

The writer of the gospel continues with the details that give such authenticity to the story – the next one deals with something as ordinary as a tunic. To us who buy clothes so easily these days, off the rack, without a thought of how a garment was put together, this is remarkable. In those days every piece of cloth had to be woven by hand. Jesus’ tunic was seamless. It had been woven in one piece from the top with openings for the head and arms. Someone who loved him must have woven that necessary piece of clothing. And the soldiers noticed it and tossed the dice for it. A mundane detail, poignant only for the woman who wove that tunic for the one she loved.

But it is the last detail that breaks the heart of everyone born of a woman. Jesus did not forget his mother. Right before breath left his body he asked his dearest friend to look after the heart-broken woman who had given him birth.

And finally the great cry of “It is finished!”  For those who heard it that day it was the end of hope, the end of everything that was good. As we all know when a loved one dies, anything reminding us of ordinary life after that death seems like an insult. This is the end. It is impossible that the sun will rise again. For those who had lived with him, who had heard his words, who had seen his signs, this was the end. For those of us who know the continuation of the story, the words have a different meaning. Tomorrow light will break forth once again. Yes, but for this hour, we honor the darkness.

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2004) and Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus (Morehouse, 2001).

They will remember, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2006

April 13, 2006

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Together with the sense of the Holy, the experience of Maundy Thursday affords us the most profound awareness of the role of change in our lives as well as the meaning of remembrance. Both are interwoven with the events of the saddest day of the church year. The arrest, stealthy court proceedings and torture of the Son of God in the middle of the night follow the heart-breaking hours of the Last Supper; the gathering of friends for a farewell meal is infused with sorrow because they know it will bring the end to a time of intense friendship and teaching, consistent fellowship and praxis. Certainly, the central character knows that this is the end of the teacher-student, master-follower communal living of the past three years; the others, seeing his sorrow at the imminent parting, must suspect it, even though they don’t acknowledge it.

Jesus has been their friend but also their master – in the manner people of that time knew well: a friendship that was based on a complementary, not a symmetrical relationship; they knew they were not the equal of their remarkable rabbi. Theirs was a daily fellowship that demanded loyalty and obedience from them because it was based on love abundantly given by the master to the disciples. The twelve, and the rest of the followers of Jesus, had heard him speak words of Truth and Justice to them and to the crowds; they had seen him heal the sick time and time again; they had felt power emanating from him; three of them had seen him glorified in a mystical mountain epiphany, but now, suddenly, they are seeing him in the role of the servant. It is not a comfortable experience for them. He dons a towel and starts washing their feet. This was much different from the ritual washing we see in some churches on Maundy Thursday. Theirs were dirty feet indeed. They had walked many miles, they had been bare or in sandals, on unpaved terrain, on dusty roads that had hardened their soles and imbedded the dirt for all time in the cracks.

The courteous thing for a host to do was to wash the feet of the guests – or, more likely, to have a servant perform this act of ritual honor and necessity. Jesus is their host but now also their servant. He doesn’t ask one of them to do the washing; he does it himself. The disciples must be stunned, but only Peter protests. Peter thinks he knows his place and wants Jesus to know his own place also. But Jesus is not playing by the rules. He never has; Peter ought to have remembered, but he doesn’t. Peter is frightened. Everything is changing and he doesn’t like change. Later, in the night, he will be so terrified of his master’s different role that he will deny his dearest friend. But right now he shows his usual blustery independence: “I will not allow you to wash my feet.” Jesus, who is being very tender to all of them throughout the meal, puts Peter quickly in the new place he has in mind for him – that of the obedient, strong follower who knows how to be a servant also. “You better let me do it, Peter, or you will not be with me – you will have no share with me.” In other words: Learn to accept and understand the change, Peter. From now on our relationship is different; I am showing you something profound, much more than just the act of kneeling before you to wash your feet. I am showing you that the share I want you to have in me will make you become like me.

It is this change in their relationship to their friend and master that the disciples will remember later, and in the remembrance they will find meaning and understanding. Enough to change the world.

They have been followers and friends, they have been students and companions to the man who called these fishermen by the seashore promising them that he would make them “fishers of human beings.” In those heady days when Jesus attracted the thousands with his signs of the Kingdom and with words of authority, they basked in the popularity of their master and felt some of his power rub off on them. They were filled with pride. They were the chosen. But tonight, on this unforgettable Thursday night, their roles are changing drastically, and they are afraid. The change comes with sorrow, but also with great tenderness, and with an example of servanthood. “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end.” Is there a more loving sentence in all of literature? It is this deep love, this agapē that is preparing them for the change.

They are warned that when his arrest and death come, they too will be in danger and be despised. Jesus himself knows that soon he will enter into the most agonizing hours of humiliation and abandonment. But first, he must give hope and strength to his friends. Having loved his own, he loved them to the end. He is pouring this love out to them by giving them his new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

The hours pass. The agony of the garden follows, then the humiliation of the court procedures, the torture of his body, the danger that sends most of his friends scurrying away. The disciples forget his words, forget the years of joy in the concern of saving themselves. Peter denies him. They are facing the end of hope.

Later, they will remember: they will recall this last meal together, his tenderness, the washing of their feet . One imagines that throughout the remainder of their lives, every time they enter a home to have their feet washed, they will remember this night and their Lord kneeling in front of their feet and the memory will be nearly unbearable. Above all, they will remember that he loved them and that he went willingly to the cross because of his great love for them and for the truth of his Father.

They will remember and they will understand the meaning of his words and of his acts. And they will share this remembrance with the rest of us. This is why we are gathered here tonight: in partaking of this meal, we too will remember.

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women (Morehouse, 1998), Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus (Morehouse, 1998), and Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2004).

Were you there?, Palm Sunday (B) – 2006

April 9, 2006

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-47

“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Some day St. Paul’s beautiful, prophetic words to the Christian community in Philippi will be fulfilled. Some day – but not yet.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem in the days surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Barely a week earlier, on this day known as Palm Sunday, he had been welcomed into the city, ushered in with great fanfare. Jesus may have been riding on a humble donkey, but the crowds greeted him as their king. They walked with him. They threw palm branches in his path. They shouted their approval. At last they would have a leader to occupy the throne of Israel who would be a powerful voice in dealing with other tribes and nations. This man of God with his healing powers and his promise of equality and justice for all people was an answer to prayer.

But that was not why Jesus had come. That was not his mission, and as the crowds began to realize this, the cheering stopped. First came disappointment; then came intense anger. As smoothly as the celebratory Palm Sunday hymn, “All glory, laud and honor” segues into that other Palm Sunday hymn with the ominous words, “Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp ride on to die,” that is how seamlessly the atmosphere changed. A palm-carpeted passageway leading to a royal throne, became instead a desolate path to a cross.

The journey that begins today is not a long one in terms of distance. Calvary, the place of crucifixion, stands just outside Jerusalem. But every moment of this week will widen the gap between acceptance and rejection. Each succeeding day will leave Jesus with fewer supporters and make their voices less audible amid the growing clamor of the opposition. By week’s end, the leaders who see Jesus as a threat to their power and who want to be rid of him will have their way, and Jesus’ allies will be frightened into silence.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem that week for Jesus’ followers. Imagine the fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person and being labeled an enemy of Rome – with ominous consequences. Imagine the growing tension in the city,
as those opposed to Jesus firmed up their plans. Imagine the rampant gossip that simply added fuel to the tinderbox situation.

It probably would be comforting to think that in spite of all this, if modern Christians – today’s churchgoers, for example – had been there in Jerusalem, they would have been among the brave souls who continued to support Jesus openly. Surely, they would have spoken up in his defense. Surely, they would have encouraged the others to be brave and stand with him.

From the vantage point of today, that sounds quite reasonable. But it is not realistic, given that they would have been functioning without the benefit of hindsight – without the Resurrection, without the Apostles’ teaching, without the Gospels. At that point in Jerusalem, confusion and fear were the order of the day.

On the night before he died, just after the supper they had shared, Jesus and the Disciples sang a hymn and went to the Mount of Olives where Jesus told them they would all desert him. Then he cited the prophet Zechariah, who said, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” Sure enough, as the night wore on, especially after Jesus was arrested, his followers did fall away.

Plenty of people witnessed Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and they had a host of reasons for participating, or at least for allowing it to happen. All were in some sense accomplices, because of things they either did, or failed to do: sins of commission or sins of omission. These were real people with homes, families, and jobs. They had personal concerns and ambitions. They had their own political and religious beliefs. Some are known by name, although most are unnamed.

Consider those described in Mark’s Gospel as “the crowd.” Artists painting the crucifixion have traditionally shown a diverse collection of people scattered around the landscape. Many were there simply to watch a happening, the same way curious drivers today cause traffic jams on one side of a highway, as they strain to glimpse an accident being cleared away on the other side. Many of the bystanders probably had no strong feelings one way or the other about what was taking place. They may not even have known who was being crucified. The Gospel says the chief priests stirred up the crowd to call for Jesus’ death, and the release of a murderer named Barabbas.

Those chief priests, along with the scribes and the elders – the ruling party – had a vested interest in what was taking place. Seeing Jesus arrested and put to death had long been their goal, so they made sure that once he was in custody, a death sentence would follow – even if it had to be based on false testimony.

Then there were the soldiers. One could say they were just following orders. They mocked Jesus. They spat on him. They beat him. They nailed him to the cross. It was the soldiers who had brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the governor, for questioning.

Pontius Pilate wielded a lot of authority, but he lacked courage. Even after admitting to the crowd that he did not find Jesus guilty of any crime, he still went along with their demand for Jesus’ death.

And what about the Disciples? Most were in hiding, fearing for their own lives. Peter had assured Jesus that even if everyone else fled, he would remain by his side. But in the face of armed soldiers and jeering crowds, Peter could not maintain his resolve, and he denied three times that he even knew Jesus. .

There were, however, men and women whose courage did not fail them. It took courage for John, known as the Beloved Disciple, to be so visible that Jesus could speak to him from the cross. It took courage for Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the other women who had followed him during his ministry, to be present and openly supportive at the cross. It took courage for Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and respected official, to go to Pontius Pilate at dusk and get permission to take Jesus down from the cross and bury him.

The people gathered that day in Jerusalem looked on with different perspectives and a variety of motivations. One thing they did share was a limited field of vision. For them, Jesus’ crucifixion marked an ending, with no possibility of anything beyond. His life that had held so much promise was over, and their hopes for the future died with him. And yet, not many hours later, some of the women would discover the empty tomb, and the story would be changed forever.

From commonplace to extraordinary; from narrow boundaries to limitless horizons; from utter despair to endless hope – everything turned upside down, because God was present at the cross. God was on the cross and all around it, and God’s presence transforms the crucifixion from a finite event in time to an event transcending time. All those negative forces and emotions that led to Jesus’ death came together on that cross where they were transformed and reflected back to the people as love, because that is what God does.

The drama of Palm Sunday involves Christians in a journey they have to take, uncomfortable though it may be. Christians have to arrive at the cross in order to get beyond it. Christians have to see themselves among the bystanders in order to understand their participation with them. Christians have to see how God transforms the cross from an instrument of death into a symbol of eternal life.

“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not yet, but some day.

— The Rev. Jane Rockman is rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. She also served as curate at The Church of the Ascension in New York City. A graduate of Smith College, she holds a Master’s Degree in History from New York University and an M. Div. from Union Theological Seminary in New York. As a journalist, she had a variety of articles published on urban issues.