29 March 2013

Desolation: Good Friday

Desolation; from De-solare = to be abandoned; to be laid waste

The End is the Beginning
Last evening was the first time, since retirement, that I have been to a Maundy Thursday liturgy.  Last year (2012), we were literally moving into our Sarasota home; and I was less than two weeks out of major surgery.  I barely remember Holy Week last year.

Last evening, as I sat in the congregation of St. Boniface, I was struck by the last actions of the liturgy.  As a symbolic ritual of what Good Friday means, the sanctuary (altar area) is completely stripped of everything but the bare furnishings.  Clergy, acolytes and altar guild quietly and efficiently remove linens, cushions, candles, floral arrangements, silver, brass, gold and the Reserve Sacrament (Eucharistic bread and wine is reserved in a special receptacle called an aumbry to be taken to the sick or for other sacramental needs between liturgies).  In the final action, the senior priest "washes" the top of the altar...usually with a special cleansing polish...to signify it being barren.  On many altars, a simple wooden crucifix is then placed and remains until Easter preparation.

I have done this ritual, as a parish priest, 34 times.  I am caught by the power of it as much each year...especially as I leave the altar area with the lights fully dimmed and absolutely nothing but a wooden crucifix.  Usually, the one from my office, which is three feet tall.

Last night, I knelt in awe as I watched this being done by others.  I realized that I had audibly exclaimed:  "Lord have mercy."  The two teenagers in front of me sort of glanced back.  I was taken by the sense of desolation.  All that was familiar and made that worship space special was gone.  It had been laid waste.  Good Friday had begun.

One of my colleagues once described order as "controlled chaos."  I have found this amusing insomuch as experience quickly verifies the observation.  One of our daughters used to describe unsettled experiences as being "random" (a sudden change in family plans for an outing would elicit a, "this is totally random" reaction from her).  It's a good descriptor of what ensues when order and planning gets impacted by unanticipated actions...like a bowling ball hitting the pins.

The disciples knew that something was up.  The days had been tense, since they had arrived with Jesus in Jerusalem.  What they did not expect is to see how an evening of ordered experiences (as surprising as they may have been...see yesterday's blog) suddenly became unraveled in Gethsemane.  Like a bowling ball hitting pins, they scattered in all directions...some hiding...others blending into the crowd...one following but in denial...the 12th committing suicide out of shame and fear.  When order turns to chaos, everything becomes random.

Emerging into the quiet, pre-dawn dimness of this day, I was struck by how empty I felt.  It was not a fearful emptiness but one that softly hinted of displacement.  Because I am one who lives within the seasons of Christ-life, it was a recognition that, while the historical day of crucifixion was some 2,000 years behind me, death and desolation remain partnered in our experience.

As I have said before, we humans are very good at avoiding the messiness and "dirtiness" of daily life.  We cover ourselves with dyes and paints; fill our skins with botox; and pay for countless "miracle cures" for whatever we think ails us...all as a way of getting ourselves to avoid the inevitabilities of aging.  One of the largest groups of medical professionals in this part of Florida are plastic/reconstructive surgeons and dermatologists.

We also avoid the messiness of those of different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.    America is not without its own caste system.  If it seems unpleasant or "beneath us," we find ways of changing the subject and getting distance from it.  Over the decades of doing mission, I lost track of the number of times I asked for "hands on" help with urgent needs only to be met with something like, "I'm really quite busy...how much money do you need."  Funding masks the problem and makes it go away for those who see it as distasteful.

This is not meant to be harsh, but it is meant to be real.  For most of us, membership is everything.  Within the context of Christian parochial community, we have long had standards of membership within a worshiping congregation.  The Eucharist, that Jesus instituted with his disciples in that upper room?  It was (and is) a complete act of love...a gift of Grace.  It is one thing to understand...yet something else to experience.  Yet, we use the sacraments in very exclusive ways to define "who is in, and who is out."  In my more contemplative moments, I sense a desolation in how we have treated others by claiming Jesus as our "property."

We call this Good Friday for a reason.  From the looks and historical perspective of this day, it is gruesome, ugly, hateful, bloody, judgmental, mocking and singularly horrible.  The Romans committed thousands of executions using crucifixion, beheading and hanging. The Jewish Sanhedrin claimed that it wasn't their way to  execute criminals (but, they did stone prostitutes and so-called heretic often).  However, the Sanhedrin did make deals with the Roman government to do that work for them.  That was the dialogue behind Pilate finding no fault with Jesus, and the crowd being pushed (by representatives of the Sanhedrin) to cry out, "Give us Barrabas; Crucify Jesus!!"

Jesus had the audacity to love sinners enough to spend time with them.  He healed outcasts and told Jews to accept those who were considered unclean, because they belonged to God also.  He ate and drank with the ritually unclean and those who society had shunned.  He flew in the face of authority by throwing money changers out of the Temple and calling Pharisees and Sadducees "hypocrites."  He taught that folks should render to the Roman government what was theirs (Roman money buoyed the eastern Mediterranean economy) and give God honor.

Jesus taught a kind of unity and integrity that was not known in civilization at that time.  He refused the Zealots' plea to lead an insurrection...an armed revolt against both the Roman occupation and Herodian dynasty.  He carried no weapon and spoke of creating relationships based upon loving others as they were loved by God...turning the other cheek; raising up the poor and setting the captives free.  All this he summed up in the Great Commandment and the Beatitudes.

"Good" means that Jesus took all the anger, hate, fear and brokenness of our humanity with him to execution on a garbage heap outside the city wall...a place called Golgotha...the Place of the Skull.

We are reminded that the image of Jesus on the cross is what humanity has done to itself and one another.  We leave this day...Good Friday...with desolation, confusion and a kind of gnawing anxiety.  What is happening here!!

Take Away
On this day -- every year -- my sense of displacement and emptiness is a reminder of my humanity.   Of our humanity.  We still play games of entitlement.  We do everything that folks were doing in the historical days of Jesus.  Two thousand years have gone by, and we are more technologically evolved and mentally more capable.  We have made some progress.  But, slavery, bigotry, hatred, fear, killing, threatening, judging, and marginalizing still happen.  What took Jesus to his execution still happens today under other names and guises.

This is why we need this day...this Good Friday.  That is why, at the Ninth Hour (3pm) every year...the traditional time that Jesus died on the cross...I play the American Folk Hymn, "What Wondrous Love is this, O my soul..."  You can find it on YouTube.  It is Wondrous Love at work that makes this day Good.  God is totally loving us...in spite of ourselves.  Jesus is God saying, "If you want to know what I created you to be...look at Jesus...the pioneer and perfecter."

Sat Nam.  Stabat Mater.


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