“Stations of the Cross” and the Cinema of Sacrifice

The First Station: Maria (Lea van Acken) and the priest (Florian Stetter) in “Stations of the Cross.”

 

I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale . . .  Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.”[1]

–– Gregory Peck, discussing his role in Moby Dick

 

What Gregory Peck said about playing Ahab could be said about playing “fools for Christ.”[2] Are we crazy enough for the role? Do we have what it takes to trade the wisdom of the world for the folly of God? Just how seriously do we take the call to follow Jesus? Will we only try a few baby steps, or are we prepared to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn?”[3]

In an unsettling essay about those who renounce ordinary human experience to explore the frontiers of the divine, Jean-Yves Lacoste stretches St. Paul’s image of the holy fool to the breaking point. Embodying in explicit practice the concept that the here and now of earthly life is not our ultimate destiny, the holy fool demonstrates that “life true to his essence cannot be lived without a literal refusal of all worldly dwelling.” His extreme form of ascetic renunciation manifests the essential homelessness of the human condition:

“The spectacular marginality of the human being who refuses possessions, a place to live, and so on, does no more than express in particularly concrete form the marginality that in any case affects anyone who wishes to subordinate his worldly being to his being-before-God.”

Understood in this way, spirituality is subversive and dangerous, putting not just our habitual complacency, but our fundamental at-homeness, into question. If we are finite beings making pilgrimage toward the Absolute, we are defined by non-possession. We don’t entirely belong to the here and now. To the world––and to many (or most?) believers––this is madness. We prefer a God who makes us as comfortable as possible where we are. But for Lacoste, the destiny of the fool in Christ “becomes intelligible only in the light of another destiny, that of the crucified one in whom and by whom God restores peace between humankind and himself.”[4]

In his 2014 film, Stations of the Cross, German director Dietrich Brüggemann literalizes this premise in the story of a 14-year-old girl, Maria, who comes to understand her own vocation as the sacrifice of her earthly existence for the sake of another. But Brüggemann and his sister Anna, who co-wrote the script, do not make it easy for us to accept or identify with Maria’s story, because on the surface it shows us a naïve adolescent misled by the bad theology of an abusive religion. We recoil at the reactionary teachings of the priest and the cold rigidity of her mother’s piety. We want Maria to make healthier choices.

Many critics have taken the film to be a critique or satire of fundamentalism and dogmatism, perhaps even an attack on belief itself, though many of the same critics also admit to being moved to tears. But the non-judgmental respect of the filmmakers for Maria, and the disarming purity of her passion for God, won’t let us dismiss the film as just a cautionary tale (“Kids, don’t try this at home!”). And, as the Bible’s less attractive stories have shown[5], God is sometimes known through means which transcend and overcome the given conditions of the narrative. As Rilke said, every story has God in it––even a story about religion gone wrong.

The formal structure of the film is part of its strange beauty. In 110 minutes, there are only 14 lengthy shots (no cutaways to different angles), each one corresponding to the devotional sequence of the Stations of the Cross. So Maria’s imitation of Christ’s passion is not simply an existential choice. It is a pattern to which she finds herself conformed by a power beyond her own devising (script, director, God). She does not define herself as a purely autonomous being; she is drawn and driven by an Other. She only exists to play this part, or to consent to let it play her.

The sense of inevitability is reinforced by the fixed position of the camera, which almost never moves (there are only three exceptions to this, each very purposive). The long takes (the first Station exceeds 15 minutes!) and unmoving camera not only induce a contemplative consciousness in the viewer, but make an ontological statement about the boundedness of the human condition: we operate within given limits of space, time and mortality, as well as the confines of our social constructions. Each of the film’s fourteen shots is a self-contained world. There is no cutting away to see something else. This conveys a sense of destiny, of givenness, while at the same time making everything within the fixed frame worthy of our utmost attention. Every word, look, gesture or action matters.

The First Station (Jesus is Condemned to Death) sets the course for the entire film. [Spoiler alert: If you want to view the film with innocent eyes, watch it before reading further. It is currently streaming on Netflix.]. Six young students in a Confirmation class are seated around a table in a tableaux evocative of the Last Supper. The priest stands in the center (Christ’s position in paintings) to deliver a kind of Farewell Discourse, a final pep talk before they go off to be confirmed.

The priest has youthful energy and conviction. He is no bloodless cleric boring a restless room of teens. He has their full attention. But the content of his teaching begins to make the viewer cringe: Vatican II was heresy, the pope has turned his back on the true faith, and most Catholics now live in mortal sin. “The devil has entered the church,” he says, “and strolls around in it whispering his lies.”

Given the sorry state of church and culture, the priest exhorts his charges to renounce Satan and all his works, including popular music with its demonic rhythms, the vanity of caring about your looks, and the trashy seductions of mass media. Be “warriors for Christ,” he tells them. Defend the faith, resist tempation, and save the souls of your schoolmates by word and example.

And the heart of Christian practice, he concludes, is sacrifice. Having asked his class to make a list of things which give them pleasure, he invites them to start letting them go, one by one, in a kind of perpetual Lent. When class is dismissed, Maria lingers to ask a question. “Can I make a sacrifice for someone else? Like, someone who is ill?. . . What if I wanted to sacrifice my whole life, like the saints?” Uh-oh. A good pastor would hear an alarm go off in such a moment, but this priest tries to defuse her question with generalities (“There are  many ways you can give your life to God”). However, the viewer senses that Maria is moving toward the abyss. She has been condemned to die to this world.

So she takes up her cross. On a walk in the country, she tries to sacrifice the beautiful view by closing her eyes. In gym class, she endures the mockery of her peers by refusing to exercise to rock music. She struggles against her feelings for Christian, a sweet Catholic boy who is drawn to her. She endures the cruel hectoring of her fanatically pious mother, renouncing the self-assertion of adolescent rebellion. But her most fatal sacrifice is her own body. She chooses to suffer the chill of winter by not wearing a coat. She descends into anorexia. Her health starts to fail.

The stages of her “passion” are correlated with the traditional Stations in striking ways:

Jesus falls for the first time (3): Maria lets herself become interested in Christian. The scene is innocent and charming, but there will be no room for teen romance as Maria walks her lonesome valley. She clearly is drawn to him, but later she will protest, “You live in a world of TV, Facebook, and people who’ve sold their souls, who are dead in the middle of life. . . . If you really like me, then go away.”

Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (6): After being horribly treated by her mother, Maria is weeping uncontrollably at the dinner table while her family pretends it’s not happening. Bernadette, the warm-hearted family au pair, is the only one who reaches out to Maria. She offers her a tissue, and the weeping subsides.

Jesus falls for the third time (9): Maria, kneeling for confirmation before the bishop, whose ancient face and gold vestments suggest a medieval painting of God the Father, faints. Her body falls out of the film frame into invisiblity.

Jesus is stripped of his garments (10): Maria, her back to us, sits on the examining table of a doctor’s office with her blouse removed. With drooping head, she remains passive as her mother stubbornly resists the doctor’s call for medical intervention. Maria’s frail and vulnerable figure, utterly still amid the battle of wills waging around her, is a heartbreaking image. Then Bernadette enters quietly to put a coat over Maria. She wraps her arms around the suffering girl like the father embracing his Prodigal Son in Rembrandt’s painting. The two girls remain in that pose––an icon of compassion––for the rest of the scene.

Jesus is nailed to the cross (11): Maria lies in a hospital bed, with Bernadette sitting beside her. A nurse brings food, but Maria refuses to eat. When the nurse leaves, Maria tells Bernadette that she has chosen to sacrifice her life so that her 4-year-old brother, Johannes, might get well (he has never spoken, and the doctors suspect autism). Bernadette says she is going to tell the doctors about Maria’s death wish, so that they will intervene. When she exits the room, Maria feels as abandoned as Jesus on the cross. “Don’t leave me!” she cries. There is no answer.

Jesus dies on the cross (12): After receiving communion in the presence of her mother and little Johannes (like the mother of Jesus and the disciple John at the cross), Maria flatlines. The medical team rushes in to attempt resuscitation, pushing priest and family aside. The camera follows the latter in one of its rare moves, so that we no longer see Maria, who dies outside the frame. She leaves the image, where she has been on camera for the length of every scene so far, just as she leaves the world. And the moment she dies, the mute Johannes speaks at last. “Maria! Where is Maria?” Is this the miracle that authenticates Maria’s sacrifice? The film doesn’t decide for us.

The body of Jesus is placed in the lap of his mother (13): In a funeral home display room lined with coffins, Maria’s parents discuss details with the funeral director. The mother begins to idealize her daughter, calling her a saint as if all her abusive scolding of Maria had never happened. And she insists that given the “facts” of Christian dogma, there is no reason to be sad. But suddenly all that certainty crumbles under the weight of grief and guilt. Her sobbing amid those stacked coffins becomes as unbearable as Magdalene’s hysterical weeping at the foot of the cross in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is laid in the tomb (14): In a cemetery, a man operates an excavator to fill an empty grave. The mourners have departed. The noisy machine is indifferent to any resting in peace. Christian, whom Maria feared was an obstacle between her and God, enters the frame to stand at her grave. Then the camera makes its final and most dramatic move, craning up until it looks down upon Christian, the grave, and the excavator from above. After a minute, the boy tosses a flower into the grave, then walks to the far side of the cemetery to gaze upon a landscape of ploughed fields. The camera pans away from the grave to follow him, and then tilts upward, away from the cemetery, away from the earth itself, to gaze upon the sky. If there is anything up there, we cannot see it. A thick layer of clouds blocks our view.

A film is more than its story or the multitude of audio-visual and dramatic elements comprising its life on the screen. A film is also what happens to us as we watch and later reflect. A story which offers unacceptable models of human behavior may stiil exert a powerful spiritual force. Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the masters of religious cinema, put this as well as any:

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.”[6]

In Stations, we see little we want to imitate or recommend. The priest’s teachings, the reactionary insularity and arrogance of his breakaway church, the mother’s abusive and unfeeling pietism, and Maria’s self-destructive behaviors are not things we want for our religion or our loved ones. Only Bernadette and Christian provide exemplary models for Christian living.

And yet, my soul was truly ploughed and harrowed by Maria, played so vulnerably by the gifted Lea van Acken. Maria lacked the language, the maturity, and the communal wisdom to fend off the religious extremism of church and family to find a more balanced expression of her desire for God. But like all saints, she was on to something and wouldn’t let it go.

Raymond Durgnat, writing about Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), another film about an adolescent reaching for transcendence without really knowing how to do it, wrote something that I think illuminates Maria’s situation: “She still hasn’t found what she hardly knows she wants, and she fears she never will, but she still won’t settle for not having it. She rejects a soul-destroying future, so she’s damned; but in another sense, she’s saving her ‘divine discontent.’ So perhaps her rejection of a ‘soul-destroying’ future is the intention of saving her soul as best she knows?”[7]

Maria doesn’t quite know how to give herself to God, so she does it in what we consider a mistaken and tragic way. But there is no mistaking the authenticity of her desire and the purity of her will, which exceed all the distortions and limitations of her factual situation. For all the wrongness of her world and the choices she makes, her excessiveness is the quality which overcomes all the brokenness of her story.

The Fifth Station: Maria in the confessional.

 

In the Fifth Station, Maria is in the confessional. It is the only closeup of her in the entire film, but unlike most closeups, she is in profile, facing the grille between her and the priest, who remains unseen beyond the frame of the image. Maria gives an honest account of what her church considers sinful (“I had unchaste thoughts. I imagined Christian and me going to choir together, and him looking at me secretly and finding me beautiful.”) The priest listens carefully, but his responses are sometimes tarnished by a judgmental theology. However, the defects of the verbal exchange are overshadowed by the beauty of the visual image.

The intimate closeup of Maria gives us privileged access to her profound spirit of surrender. Like her Scriptural namesake at the Annunciation, she faces an invisible voice and responds with her whole heart. Whatever the priest says or thinks doesn’t really matter. He’s only a stand-in. The essential image is of a soul saying yes to the Mystery.

So is it enough to say I am moved by the intensity of Maria’s holy desire to reconsider the depth of my own spiritual life, without resolving the story’s problematic tensions between immanence and transcendence? Didn’t the Creator pronounce the goodness of the world? How much of it are we supposed to give up? How much self-emptying is enough? Something in me is drawn to the ascetic rigor of Lacoste’s fool in Christ, but in fact I live out the more Anglican way of loving this “sweet old world”[8] and not being so anxious to refuse it or leave it.

I have no plans to imitate Maria’s passion––or Christ’s, for that matter. But the questions about sacrifice posed by the Way of the Cross can’t be suppressed without losing something essential, as Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us in his parable about the boyhood of Jesus[9], whose restless and troubled spirit was a great worry for his parents. So they entrusted him to the care of the village sage, who met with him every day for a period of many weeks.

“What is troubling you,” the sage asked Jesus.
“I feel a pain I cannot explain. I roam the streets, wrestling.”
“Wrestling with whom?”
“With God, of course!. Who else?”

The sage gave Jesus medicinal herbs and taught him to calm himself with meditation. Every evening they had long talks about God. The sage assured the boy that God was not a consuming fire or an annihilating otherness, but a tender grandfather, with whom he could find loving support and a companionable peace of mind and spirit. God wanted only happiness for Jesus, not suffering or sacrifice. After a few months, Jesus was completely cured, and he grew up to become the best carpenter in Nazareth.

 

 

Related post: The Ten Best Religious Films

 

[1] 1998 interview, q. in William Grimes obituary for Gregory Peck, New York Times (6/13/03).

[2] I Corinthians 4:10

[3] Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, “Brownsville Girl”.

[4] Jean-Yves Lacoste, “Liturgy and Kenosis, from Expérience et Absolu, in Graham Ward, ed., The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997), 250, 261.

[5] The Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is the prime example.

[6] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 1987), 43.

[7] Raymond Durgnat, “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson,” in James Quandt, ed., Robert Bresson: Revised (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), 560. Mouchette is a troubled teen trapped in an oppressive world. In the end she lets her body roll down a hill by a pond, like a game. The third time we see her roll out of the frame and hear a splash. Then we see ripples on the pond, but she is gone. The film was originally banned in France because on a literal level it involved teen suicide. But more astute critics have read the ending as a strangely positive image of transcendence, with the pond as a baptismal gate into a larger reality beyond the world’s horizon. It’s more like an “ascension” than an act of self-destruction.

[8] Lucinda Williams’ song to a friend who committed suicide: “See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world. . .”

[9] The parable is in Kazantzakis’ memoir, Report to Greco (1965). I have reconstructed it from memory. I read it 50 years ago and it has stayed inside me.

 

Temporary Resurrection Zones

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.

– Revelation 21:1

We can’t create a world we haven’t yet imagined. Better if we’ve already tasted it.

– Beautiful Trouble[i]

At the Last Supper, with less than 24 hours to live, Jesus took the time to go around the room and wash the feet of every disciple. Then he asked all of them to do the same when he was gone. “You must wash each other’s feet,” he said. “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). He could have been speaking metaphorically. Maybe “wash each other’s feet” simply meant that they should always serve one another in loving humility.

But I suspect Jesus wanted them to repeat the footwashing not just as a reminder of his message, but because there is something you can only learn when you kneel at the foot of another, take their foot in your hands, and pour water over it. And there is something you can only know when you let someone kneel before you and minister to you as a living icon of Christ, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

Thankfully, the Church has preserved footwashing in its Holy Week rituals, and every year this archaic act, with its egalitarian model of mutual love, posits its quiet but tangible challenge to the social order. In our own time, Pope Francis has used the rite to embrace the marginalized, including prisoners, immigrants and Muslims. Church history abounds with similar examples.

In medieval England, some of the poor were invited into the Canterbury cloister every Maundy Thursday afternoon. Then the monks would make an entrance, each standing face to face with one of their impoverished guests. An eleventh-century text describes the remarkable scene:

Then the prior shall strike the board thrice at the abbot’s command,
and genuflecting and bowing down they shall adore Christ in the poor.

Once each monk had washed and dried the feet of the person before him, he bent to kiss each foot with extraordinary reverence. As C.S. Lewis once put it: Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses…for in him Christ is truly hidden.

One of my favorite footwashing stories took place in Madrid’s Royal Chapel in the mid-nineteenth century. The king and queen entered dressed in all their finery. Seated on two separate platforms were twelve poor men and twelve poor women, all of them old, dressed in fresh clothing provided by the monarchs. The king knelt to wash the men’s feet while the queen, adorned with white mantilla and diamond diadem, did the same for the women. And while the queen was washing one woman’s feet, her diamond bracelet slipped off her wrist into the basin of water. The poor woman reached down to retrieve it, and held it out to the queen. But the queen told her, “Keep it, hija mija; it is your luck.”[ii]

I don’t know what was in the queen’s heart at that moment, nor is there any record of the poor woman’s thoughts. The incident was only the briefest ripple on the placid surface of the status quo. The social order quickly resumed its accustomed injustice, and the queen probably had plenty of spare diamonds in her chamber. Her generous act may have been little more than a display of superior power and wealth.

Still, it was a tiny crack in the accustomed order, offering a glimpse of a better world beyond the consensus reality. Jesus knew what he was doing when he told us to keep washing each other’s feet. Rinse, repeat. Maybe someday the ritual’s radical implications will dawn on us and we’ll work to change the way we live together.

Activists have a term for what Jesus did in the footwashing: prefigurative Intervention. It is an action which dissents from the dominant order by showing a different way of being and relating. Beautiful Trouble, a handbook for creative activism (reviewed in my last post), describes it this way: “The goal of a prefigurative intervention is twofold: to offer a compelling glimpse of a possible, and better, future, and also––slyly or baldly––to point up the poverty of imagination of the world we actually do live in.”[iii]

Instead of a direct assault on the existing order, create an alternative experience attractive enough to lure people toward something better. This is the premise underlying the Eucharist, where an alternative world of welcome, inclusion, abundance and communion is proposed at least once a week around the world.

Hakim Bey, a Sufi poet, scholar, and “anarcho-immediatist,” has called for the creation of “temporary autonomous zones”–– “an eruption of free culture” where alternative futures may be experienced, if only briefly. Instead of simply waiting for large-scale historical change to arrive, why not create ephemeral spaces and moments where something different can be experienced? “Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom?”[iv]

A simple example would be PARK(ing) Day, when people in American cities put enough coins in parking meters to buy curbside spaces for a day, turning them into a mini-park with a tiny pool, a little jazz lounge, or some other variation where people can discover a different way of inhabiting public space in a temporary respite from automobiles and bureaucratic planning. More elaborate and challenging “prefigurative interventions” were the famous encampments in Wall Street and Tahrir Square, enabling large numbers of people to imagine that another reality might be achievable.

As the writers of Beautiful Trouble make clear, the “idea is not to paint a pretty picture full of rainbows and unicorns, but to put forward a fragment of something visionary, desirable, and just beyond the realm of the possible––and in such a way that your action calls out the vested interests making it impossible.”[v]

One of my favorite examples is a series of intervention called “small gifts.”  The one described in Beautiful Trouble––“take what you need, give what you can”–– created a space for “conversation and generosity” in a busy shopping area. The three British artists who curated this action sought answers to the following questions:

What would our world look like if we exchanged gifts rather than money?
What is the value in speaking to strangers?
What if we focused on giving as much as we can rather than as little?

They set up a dining table and chairs in a busy shopping area, and made one hundred tiny envelopes containing a one-pound coin, a written question, and an invitation to use the coin to make, find or buy something to bring back to the table. Then the artists began to offer the envelopes to passersby. Anyone who accepted an envelope became part of the conversation. And if they then used their coin to bring something back to the table, they were asked to share the question in their envelope to prompt conversation with those already there. And all were welcome to share in whatever was on the table at the moment.

“Give what you can, take what you need” gift envelope with pound note (Photo by Rani Shah)

This improvised sharing of food, conversation and gift-giving not only created community in a place of alienation and anonymity, it stimulated rich exchanges about “generosity, value and ownership” while avoiding the divisiveness of overt political discourse.[vi] It was also, I would suggest, an enacted parable of the heavenly banquet.

The Church is always wondering how to do its work in the world. It’s not enough to stay within our walls and hope the world drops by from time to time. We need to take our gifts into the wider community, to make prefigurative interventions in intentional and creative ways. Some churches do “Ashes To Go,” anointing busy urbanites on street corners and transit stations on Ash Wednesday. Others offer to wash the feet of strangers on Maundy Thursday, or celebrate the eucharist in parks with the homeless. Some join forces with community leaders and organizers to serve the poor, alleviate hunger and homelessness, and advocate for political change and economic justice.

These are all really great ministries, but I hope we will also be inspired to go beyond what we already know and do, to invent a whole multitude of imaginative and alluring ways to interrupt the blind sufferings of history with temporary resurrection zones and divine interventions. We need both to learn from and collaborate with the artists and creatives who are already out there ahead of us, announcing in their own diverse idioms that God’s future is not only on its way, it might already be available in the here and now.

Related posts 

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

“Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable!” – Thoughts about Holy Spaces

[i] Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, “Assembled” by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell (New York/London: OR Books, 2016), 84

[ii] James Monti, The Week of Salvation: History and Traditions of Holy Week (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1993)

[iii] Beautiful Trouble, 82

[iv] ibid., 270

[v] ibid., 83

[vi] ibid., 360-63

My body shall rest in hope: A Holy Saturday reflection

F. Holland Day, It is Finished (1898)

Over the next three days, Christians will undergo a ritual immersion into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The liturgies of the Triduum – the Great Three Days – are where we do our best theology and our most heartfelt common prayer. Richly layered, multi-sensory, dramatic and moving, the Triduum is a three-act liturgy like no other. By the time it’s over you may be someone else. You can read more about the Triduum in my 2015 post, “The Journey is How We Know.”

The Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection all find expansive liturgical expression in the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, but the interval of Holy Saturday, when Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, has received relatively little ritual attention. It is a time to “wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought” (T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”). A time for the silent suspension of ritual. Still, I can’t help but wonder how to read the profound quiet of Holy Saturday.

So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb which he had hewn in the rock. (Matthew 27: 59-60a)

After the anguished drama of the Crucifixion, the shouting mob, the screaming victims, the weeping witnesses, the coolly descriptive neutrality of this verse delivers the shock of finality. Jesus is dead and gone. The presence who had shaken the world like an earthquake is suddenly no longer. All that remains is “the body”––and the profound silence of an irreversible absence.

Enguerrand Quarten, Avignon Pieta (1456)

Everyone who has seen a loved one die knows this silence, knows the numbing realization that a voice so familiar will never be heard again on this earth. As W. H. Auden imagines the first hours after the cross, “we are not prepared / For silence so sudden and so soon; / The day is too hot, too bright, too still, / Too ever, the dead remains too nothing. / What shall we do until nightfall?”

And a 6th-century hymn for Holy Saturday laments:

Great silence reigns on earth this day!
Great loneliness embraces all!
For death has had its ruthless way,
And caught the Lord and Love of all.

Although theology likes to declare victory over death and sin on Good Friday, and Christian imagination has envisioned Holy Saturday as a triumphant storming of the gates of hell by Christus Victor, we must not deny Jesus’ full humanity by exempting him from the fate of every mortal: the complete and absolute draining away of life. “He descended into hell,” the condition of non-being, non-relation, and non-communication which are the opposites of God.

Hans Holbein the Younger,
The Dead Christ (1521)

Whatever “the Father” was doing on Holy Saturday, the Son was lying in the tomb, enduring the same lifeless solitude and silence which are every mortal’s fate. As Hans Urs von Balthasar astutely notes, this was the final form of the Redeemer’s solidarity with the rest of us. Among the dead, “solidarity means: being solitary like, and with, the others.” Stripped of all life and power, Jesus still found a way to keep us company. As we all shall one day be, he was dead and gone, passively awaiting the next move by the Creator who always makes something out of nothing.

In this final and utter surrender to death, the Incarnate One made even the dire extremities of the human condition part of divine experience. He took the nothingness and silence of nonexistence into the heart of the Creator, where it was finally and decisively overcome. As Irenaeus said, “only what has been endured can be healed and saved.” No matter how lost we get, no matter how deep we fall into the abyss, Christ has already gone there before us, making that abyss into a road––the unexpected path to life eternal.

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad;
even my body shall rest in hope.
For you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor let your beloved know decay.  (Psalm 16: 9-10)

Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516)

 

Related post: Are we too late for the Resurrection?

 

 

 

Keeping the faith in a time of terror

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

— Staretz Silouan[i]

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life!

— Fyodor Dostoevsky[ii]

How do we sing the Lord’s song in the shadow of terror? In solidarity with all the victims of Brussels and the whole human family this week, I protest, I rage, I grieve, I pray. But I must also try to think.

Indiscriminate terror has long been a scourge on this earth, but its globalization through television and social media has now made it emotionally inescapable. Were I to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, I could not flee from its presence.[iii]

So as we try to absorb the terrible news from Brussels, how do we “despair not” even in the face of monstrous evil? No simple task, and easy answers seem disrespectful in the time of weeping. But I do believe the antidote to despair is to keep the faith. We must never forget the sacred story we belong to. Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[iv]

The terrorist, on the other hand, belongs to a story which for most of us in inconceivable. Terror is “the language of being noticed,”[v] a kind of performative rhetoric designed to bring a neglected or disregarded worldview into the open by subjecting others to the violent norms of its alternate reality. They see themselves as global victims, in search of a global audience for their cruel narrative. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his study of religious violence, explains this terrorist rationale:

If the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts appear as terrorism. If the world is thought to be at war, violent acts may be regarded as legitimate. They may be seen as preemptive strikes, as defensive tactics in an ongoing battle, or as symbols indicating to the world that it is indeed in a state of grave and ultimate conflict.[vi]

In the minds of many terrorists, the war they are so eager to wage is apocalyptic, a cosmic conflict of good and evil in which there is no compromise or bridging of differences. They are, in Don DeLillo’s term, “lethal believers.” And the very worst thing we could do in response would be to play the part they have written for us: satanic enemies in a cosmic struggle. The proposals of certain American presidential candidates to “bomb the hell out of them,” or bring back the good old days of torture, would play perfectly into the terrorists’ hands, conceding the primacy of their deadly story.

However, I choose to belong to a better story, the one enacted and embodied in the powerful liturgies of Christ’s Passion. Step by step on the Way of the Cross this Holy Week, Christians will bring to mind and heart the saving journey which Jesus made, without weapons, into the abyss of suffering and death.

Renouncing all violence and hatred, Jesus remained faithful to the end. After pouring his whole life into a ministry of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, he continued to show us the face of love even as he was tortured on the cross. “Father, forgive,” he said with his dying breath. To the last moment, in his most bitter hour, he remained the human who shows us God by doing what God does.

Which story do we choose to live in? The story of terror and violence, or the story of self-diffusive love? Both are costly in the end, but only one leads to new and unconquerable life. Even after Brussels, the word remains: Be not afraid! Love makes the abyss into a Way.

The cross shows us how it is possible to absorb evil and neutralize its effects, rather than pass on the anger and live in bitterness. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving away your coat to the robber who steals your shirt, loving enemies, doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse us – all this turns out to be an intelligent and intelligible Christian way of living.[vii]

When medieval women mystics contemplated the cross in prayer and vision, they saw not death’s triumph but a kind of birth. The crucified Jesus was like a woman in labor, enduring pain and travail in order to bring us all to birth: Ah! Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth! For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross and … in one day you gave birth to the whole world.[viii]

To see such a death and call it birth is the central act of Christian imagination. It is why we declare victory at the cross. We don’t wait for Easter Sunday. We declare victory at the cross, because the Passion isn’t just a story about violent powers that always trample the weak and kill the prophets. It’s also a story about the Realm of God, where dry bones breathe and lost hopes dance, where the prodigal is welcomed home and the tears are wiped from every eye. The Love that makes such a realm was nailed to a cross, but was not consumed by it. Death did what death does, and God did what God does.

And on the outcome of that story, I stake everything.

 

 

Related posts

We are the singers of life, not of death

After Paris and Beirut, what story shall we tell?

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

 

 

[i] Staretz Silouan (1866-1938) was a Russian monk on Mt. Athos in Greece. Appearing as an epigraph to Gillian Rose’s book, Love’s Work, I found this provocative saying in Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception and Gift of Faith (London: SCM Press, 2008), 9. Rose herself added this typically intense comment: “What Staretz Silouan is talking about is the subjective experience of God-forsakenness,” and even there finding God. “I want to sob and sob and sob,” she says, “until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.”

[ii] From Alyosha Karamazov’s final speech in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 776

[iii] cf. Psalm 139:6, 8

[iv] Burial of the Dead, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 499

[v] Don DeLillo, quoted in Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 ), 139

[vi] Juergensmeyer, 10

[vii] David Wood, in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, eds. Simon Barrow & Jonathan Bartley (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), 118

[viii] Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310)

Just a dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Byz Res mosaic

On Holy Saturday in Jerusalem, an hour past sunset 26 years ago, I greeted the Resurrection with the Ethiopian community in their courtyard on the roof above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Processing around a small cupola representing the empty tomb, they sang and danced with torches and umbrellas. Their graceful, white-robed bodies and joyful faces were vivid icons of the risen life, producing in me a state of dreamlike wonder. As I later made my way through the deserted stone passages of the old city in search of the midnight liturgy at the Russian church, I fell into an apocryphal reverie.

I imagined the risen Jesus quietly reversing the steps of his Via Dolorosa, away from the cross, away from the mindless crowd now sleeping off its orgiastic fury, away from the city of betrayals and farewells, away from the awful time of trial. Going home. To Galilee.

Of course we don’t know how the Resurrection actually happened, nor do we grasp the concept of passing out of existence only to return the same yet different. Perhaps the closest we come is our daily rising from sleep, when it may take a moment before we remember who we are and reconnect with the continuity of personal identity that somehow survives the abyss of unconsciousness. Even so, there sometimes remains a strange sense that we have crossed over into a new space and time full of unimagined possibilities. We are not quite the same person who closed his or her eyes the night before. Behold, says Jesus, I make all things new.

The sublime intensity of Holy Week, culminating in the Triduum, or Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, can produce a similar effect on the faithful who make the long journey from the Last Supper to the first Alleluia. We not only learn something along the Way of the Cross to the place of Resurrection, we become something as well. When it’s over, we are somebody else. Forgiven. Set free. Made new.

As I said in the Vigil homily on Saturday night, “we have made an exodus from our tired old stories of death and loss into God’s new story of possibility and promise.” Any Vigil worth its salt will enable us to dwell for a few hours in the light of that new story, the light that penetrates our shadows with the bright splendor of God’s future. And when it’s over, we may wonder: What just happened? Was it only a dream?

One of the striking things about the Easter Vigil is that there is no single representation of the Resurrection. The gospel reading might describe dazzling messengers announcing it after the fact, but the event itself is never described in the text. The closest the liturgy gets to a specific resurrection moment is when the Presider launches the eucharist with a shout of Christ is risen, and a holy tumult is made with chimes, bells and drums while all the lights switch on to banish the darkness. But the victory of Life and Love is actually manifested repeatedly throughout the liturgy in symbol, word and sacrament, as well as in the faces and gestures of the assembly. The liturgy as a whole is an experiential analog of the Paschal Mystery.

Here are a few of this year’s many resonant manifestations for me:

  • The New Fire: It is always moving, after we have all been scattered from the bare and mournful church interior of Good Friday, to see how many return the next night to gather outside around the New Fire with expectant faces. Death has done its worst, and we have come to make our reply: Love wins anyway. I especially rejoiced to see the children, already dressed for the Ark story in their animal costumes, standing right up front with their floppy ears and shaggy coats. As St. Paul said, not just humanity, but the whole creation, eagerly awaits the day of renewal.
  • The Creation: “Once upon a time, human beings had no story. Only the gods did things worth telling.” So began the Prologue to our sacred stories, concluding with the discovery, by an ancient “tribe of nobodies” that their own lives were, in fact, part of something much, much larger. “Human beings had become a story told by God.” Then out of the darkness a voice said, “Let there be light!” Projected on a 15’ screen, we saw the first light of the creation, from Terence Malick’s film, Tree of Life, continuing with spectacular cinematic images of earth’s evolution up through the arrival of the birds. Then the film switched off and a monkey and frog entered to cavort among the assembly, until a flute sounded, and the musical “breath of God” turned them into the first humans. They straightened up, removed their wooden Indonesian masks, and became suddenly conscious of their own humanity. “Adam and Eve” were played by pre-teens, but when they cautiously crossed the gap between them to touch hands and connect with the strange and unknown “other,” they gave us a transcendent image far beyond their years.
  • The Red Sea: This central metaphor for the Paschal Mystery of “crossing over” from death to life was a complex interplay of live actors, projected images (documentary-looking Exodus images from DeMille’s 1927 silent, The Ten Commandments, plus Civil Rights footage from the Selma to Birmingham march of 1965), soundscapes (6 separate cues to mark different stages of the story), and dramatic theatrical lighting. After the Red Sea had been crossed, the narrator concluded by saying, “When the world says no, the power of God is …”. The Israelites, all played by children, completed the sentence by shouting, “YES!” The brave sound of those young voices will long stay with me.
  • “Hallelujah”: After each story, we sang a song and said a prayer to reflect the story’s themes. The last story, The Valley of Dry Bones, was followed by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with powerful Easter lyrics by Scott Lawrence. Our hand candles were relit as we sang: “no darkness can conceal the light within you … hallelujah, hallelujah…” All those candlelit faces, all those beautiful voices raised in song, said Resurrection as powerfully as anything else we did that night.
  • The Dance: At the end, following communion, we invited people to come out of their seats to gather in a great circle to dance. I had been warned to expect only a half-hearted response. Episcopalians are reserved, I was told. Dancing in church might be outside some people’s comfort level. But as we sang a couple of choruses of “I will raise them up” from the Bread of Life hymn, everyone did in fact rise up and come out of their pews. We joined hands, and off we went, circling and spiraling as we sang the Easter Troparion (“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”) and “Jesus Christ is risen today.” Resurrection wasn’t just something we heard about or thought about, it was something we embodied, something we danced. As Christ shows us every Easter, “I am the Dance and I still go on.” Amen to that! We proved it with our bodies.

When the Vigil was over, we each went our separate ways. The Vigil “set” was struck, like a circus tent, leaving behind little trace of what had taken place. Had it all – not just the Vigil but the entire Triduum – been just a dream, soon to fade in the glare of everyday life and ordinary time? Or had our extraordinary journey together, soaked in Paschal images, revealed something essential, enduring and profoundly transformative?

Whether in this year’s Triduum, in my Jerusalem Holy Week long ago, or in many other memorable traverses of the Paschal Mystery, I do believe I have encountered, embodied, and imbibed the core of our faith: Christ lives. Love wins. We shall be changed.

The resonant images and experiences of the Triduum have been planted deep within me, year by year. They may still have to struggle in my poor soil or compete with the choking thorns of my world, but as the collect-prayer for Thursday of Easter Week asks, “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.”

God, bring that day closer!

We are not alone

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

This cry from the cross is the most terrible verse in the Bible. God’s own Beloved, whose intimacy with God was so foundational to his existence that he could say “I and the Father are one,” here experiences the inexplicable loss of the Presence in which he has lived and moved and had his being. And God’s reply to Jesus is even more chilling: Silence.

Uncomfortable with this image of a Christ seemingly abandoned to the void of a godless universe, some have said that Jesus is merely quoting the first verse of Psalm 22, as though his piety outweighs his pain even on the cross. But Jesus was not just quoting Psalm 22; he had become Psalm 22. The Christ who was truly human had to taste even the most painful extremities of the human condition in order to redeem us fully. The one revealed to be God-with-us had to become, in that most bitter hour, us-without-God.

Have we not been there ourselves? Whether in the personal hour of trial when our own cries go unanswered, or in modernity’s cultural house of mirrors where the interventions of a loving God seems not only unnecessary but unthinkable, there are times when the Presence feels beyond our reach.

But as Paul says, Jesus became sin itself in order to save us from it (II Cor. 5:21). Sin is wherever God is shut out and we are walled in. And in making even the hellish absence of God as integral a part of his own experience as the intimacy of divine communion, Jesus performed the ultimate paradox: even when God seems most absent, God is yet present.

Good Friday means that whatever happens to us happens to God. From now on there is no place where God is not, for God has taken into Godself even the experience of separation and forsakenness. The Presence now includes the absence.

And we who have turned from God, or lost God, we who have cried out into the SILENCE, can yet live in hope. The One who died abandoned and bereft now keeps us company on our own crosses. As the Psalmist affirms with his possessive pronoun (“My God, my God!”). the relationship remains firm and unbroken even when God seems most mute and distant. We are not alone.

The journey is how we know

The Paschal Moon will be full on Holy Saturday.

The Paschal Moon will be full on Holy Saturday.

Monday in Holy Week: for a liturgist, the next few days comprise the precious last bit of calm before hitting the rapids of the Triduum, the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

For those who undertake this marathon ritual experience, it is the molten core of our worship life, a sacramental immersion into the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising with Christ. It is where we do our best theology and our most heartfelt common prayer. Richly layered, multi-sensory, dramatic and moving, the Triduum is a liturgy like no other.

I say “liturgy” singular, even though there are three distinctive rites between sundown Thursday and the late hours of Saturday night. It is one single liturgy with successive parts, like a three-act play or a symphony in three movements. At the end of the first two parts, there is no blessing or dismissal. The people simply exit in silence to rest up until the liturgy continues the next day.

Each of the parts has an integral relation to the other two. There is of course a narrative relationship: the three parts follow the sequence of Jesus’ last days. But there is also a theological relationship: each part finds its full meaning only in relation to the others. “No rising without dying” is the prime example of this interrelationship, but there are many others, such as the theme of community. The disciples gathered so memorably on Thursday evening, then scattered by Friday’s betrayals and denials, are themselves resurrected from the isolation of sin and shame by the Christ who returns as Forgiveness. We learn this all over again by being in the story.

These aren’t things we just hear about or think about. We enact them with our bodies and emotions. We taste the warm table fellowship of the Last Supper, and the bitter cup of Gethsemane. We ascend Golgotha’s hill to gaze Wondrous Love in the face and kiss the wood which proved the “tree of glory” for the “healing of the nations.” We wait out the long silence of Holy Saturday until the New Fire contradicts the darkness and the Easter Acclamation (“Christ is risen!”) ignites a miracle of collective joy that was barely conceivable the day before.

To treat the Triduum as a la carte, or to skip it altogether, would be to miss the richness of the interrelated whole. Imagine only seeing one act of Hamlet, or skipping the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. There are things we can only find out by entering into them fully. The journey is how we know.

This is, of course, the passionate liturgist talking. If I were a parish priest, I would acknowledge the many demands of my parishioner’s lives and the realities of a 24/7 secularized culture, where going to church three nights in a row is not just rare – it’s incomprehensible. And we don’t want to shame the faithful, or call them wrong because they only do Palm Sunday and Easter, bypassing the Triduum entirely. Lives get busy.

But still, every year, even the most indulgent and compassionate pastor continues to issue the invitation to exit ordinary time and habitual existence in order to “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God has] given us life and immortality,” because the Triduum is too good, too important, not to share. Something very specific to the process happens to those who make the journey. It’s like the Camino de Santiago in that respect. Even the most casual pilgrim is affected by the simple fact of going all the way from beginning to end, whatever their state of mind and heart when they first set out. The journey is how they know.

For me, a year without the Triduum experience is unimaginable. I have done it with the Orthodox in Jerusalem (no problem with attendance there!) and last year observed it with a small group of believers as we walked the Camino. But mostly I have done it as liturgical artist-in-residence at various parishes in California and Washington.

This year I’m collaborating with St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, where we will add some distinctive touches to the tradition. On Maundy Thursday, Sidney Carter’s “Bitter Was the Night” will be sung over a didgeridoo drone during the Stripping of the Altar. The sacred stories at the Easter Vigil will employ drama, film and soundscapes. God will be played by a 7-year-old girl in the Valley of Dry Bones. Music will mix medieval chant and Holy Week hymns with folk traditions and contemporary songwriters. You can read more about it here.

In the apocryphal Acts of John, Jesus leads his disciples in a dance. Some are resistant, but he tells them, “Those who do not dance do not know what happens.” By the time we reach the Vigil finale Saturday night, dancing around the altar to “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” we will all know what happens.