By the Rev. Joshua Bowron
[NOTE: Dayenu is pronounced “die-YAY-new.”]
They say that the sequel is never the equal. The movie that comes after the original to expand the story never lives up to the first one. And it is even worse in movies that come in threes; trilogies are the worst.
Take the “Star Wars” movies, for example – the original “Star Wars” movies, mind you, the ones that came out in the 1970s and ’80s. The idea that George Lucas had back then was that there would be three movies that told a single story arc. So the second movie, “The Empire Strikes Back” would end on a low point: Han Solo is captured, the Empire is at the height of its power, Luke’s training was incomplete training, he found out that Darth Vader was his father and he lost a hand. This all makes for a pretty low point for our hero, and then it just ends! It just ends, leaving the audience feeling rather anxious and unfulfilled. But it is this feeling that the audience was able to bring into the final chapter of the saga and have all that anxiety relieved in the spectacular closure that “Return of the Jedi” gives.
The writings of Saint Luke are not altogether unlike the “Star Wars” saga, except the lines between Parts One, Two and Three are not as simple as the movies’ are. The Apostle Luke didn’t simply write The Gospel According to Luke, he also wrote The Acts of the Apostles. He prefaces both books with thanks to his patron Theophilus, whose name means in Greek “lover of God.” This has led scholars to suppose that Theophilus is a patron who paid for the accounts of Jesus and the Apostles to be written. There are others who think that Luke’s use of the name “Lover of God” might be a tipping of the hat to the reader – “breaking the fourth wall,” to use a cinematic term. What Saint Luke might be doing, then, is turning from writing the page to look directly at us, his readers, to say hello, and maybe even a wink through time, because he knew of the timelessness of his story.
What we have is something of a trilogy in the writings of Luke along with his engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures. Part One of the story of God is told in the life of Israel, especially the life of Moses and the Prophets. In the Gospel of Luke we get Part Two of the story of God, through the life and promises of Jesus Christ. And what we have in the Acts of the Apostles is Part Three of the story of God, this time through the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of the promises of Jesus Christ.
So in today’s readings we arrive at the end of Part Two, although it has little in common with the dour ending of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Indeed, the disciples are left with great promises and blessings, and leave in joy to continually bless God in the Temple. What more could you ask for?
What more indeed! Luke leaves the ending of his gospel on a high note but an even higher note is hinted at when Jesus tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they have been clothed with power from on high. Jesus is, of course, alluding to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and grants them power and authority, thus establishing the means for God continually to form for Himself a people – namely, the church.
Thus, the story of God is unlike any story that has ever been written or performed, because it never ends. It keeps going. The story goes on and on.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers have a special song that they sing at their Passover meals and prayers. The name of the song is “Dayenu.” The word dayenu basically translates as “it would have been enough.” The song goes, “It would have been enough for God to rescue us from the Egyptians, to split the Red Sea,” and it goes on, recounting every detail of the events of the Exodus. Each and every detail in and of itself would have been enough for God to show his glory and mercy. The song says that it would have been enough for God to establish the Sabbath and give the Law, and build the Temple, thus giving us all access to God. Dayenu. It would have been a sufficient showing of God’s grace for any one of these, but God keeps being gracious.
Here at the end of Luke, we get the preamble of the Christian dayenu – that the writings of those who experienced God in the life of Israel were somehow being enacted and fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth; that God raised Jesus from the dead, thus defeating death; and finally that the Holy Spirit would come upon them with great power. Dayenu. Each of these, by themselves, would have been enough of God’s grace.
It would have been enough if God had simply come as a person, incarnate, to stand with us in solidarity, to take our human nature and redeem it. As the Collect of the Incarnation says, “O God who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” Dayenu. This alone would have been sufficient.
It would have been enough if God had raised Jesus from the dead, to destroy death for us. As our Easter Collect says, “Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life.” This is more than sufficient. Dayenu.
All these wondrous graces aside, it would have been enough if God had only given us his Holy Spirit, to provide a means of grace and hope for glory by the giving of His very self. What an ongoing ending to the wondrous saga of God!
God is dayenu; every single act of God is sufficient for our salvation and sustenance. So what we find now, with today’s reading, is that we, the church, are enrolled in God’s story, God’s ongoing and enduring drama of love and adventure. And for that involvement we say, “Thanks be to God.”
— The Rev. Joshua Bowron serves as the senior assistant to the rector at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.