Mary took a pound of costly perfume made out of pure nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him) said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” — John 12:3-5
Judas raises a troubling question for everyone who is not destitute. As long as there is human need, how dare we spend our money on anything else? And Jesus’ answer—“The poor are always with you”—might seem equally troubling, if taken to accept economic inequality as inevitable. But Jesus was never complacent about the status quo. In both word and deed he lifted up the lowly—the ones either ignored or shamed by their culture—declaring them worthy of blessing and honor. As Jesus himself put it, he came to bring good news to the poor: Injustice has no future. God’s kingdom of loving interdependence is at hand.
Here’s how I read this text: “You can help the destitute any time you want, Judas. If your concern is sincere, they’ll still be around after I’m gone. But I won’t be. So don’t be so quick to judge this woman. If you could only understand what’s going on here, it would save your life.”
So what is going on here? A woman, Mary of Bethany, whose brother Lazarus had recently been rescued from death by Jesus, pours very expensive oil over the feet of her Lord, and then wipes those feet with her hair. It’s an extravagant gesture of devotion, gratitude and love. The oil, worth a year’s wages for a common laborer, may have cost Mary most of her wealth, while letting down her hair to do the work of a towel was, in that culture, a shocking display of abasement and vulnerability. In other words, she was offering all that she had and all that she was to honor Jesus.
This act, both sensory and symbolic, overflowed with meanings. Anointing with oil was a way to mark the special vocation and identity of authoritative figures, whether powerful rulers or holy persons. It consecrates them as chosen and set apart. The title of “Messiah” or “Christ” means “the anointed one.” It was revolutionary to have a woman be the one to anoint Jesus as priest and ruler, but so was the kingdom he came to manifest and embody.
Anointing was also part of the culture’s preparation of a body for burial. Performed in the week before Jesus’ death, Mary’s gesture inaugurates the sequence of sacrificial acts culminating with her Lord’s burial in the stone-cold tomb. The feet she anoints will walk the Way of the Cross for the salvation of the world. This was his chosen destiny.
The story’s third meaning is in its foreshadowing of the foot-washing, when Jesus, on the night before he died, knelt at the feet of his friends to perform the work of a servant, surrendering his power for love’s sake. He was teaching by showing: This is how we must be with one another. This is exactly how God is with us. Just a few days before Jesus taught this explicit lesson at the Last Supper, Mary of Bethany had performed it instinctively, offering all she had, holding nothing back.
At the time, the disciples did not grasp the full significance of Mary’s act. Nor did Mary herself. How could they? As we like to say about Holy Week, the journey is how we know. The disciples had to follow Jesus all the way to the cross—and beyond—before they could begin to understand—through memory and reflection—what it was all about.
One of the strongest triggers for memory is our sense of smell. When John’s gospel tells us that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” it sounds like a vivid personal memory. Recalling the fragrance, the disciples could revisit that moment to absorb all the meanings which had escaped them at the time.
As we make our own personal and communal journey through Holy Week, may we too immerse ourselves extravagantly in the sensory images and sounds of the Passion narratives and rituals, allowing them, by our faithful participation, to take us deeper and deeper into the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising in Christ.
As for Judas’ sour complaint, Sydney Carter’s Passion carol, “Said Judas to Mary,” nicely disposes of its false premise of either/or. Devotion to Jesus and loving service to “the least” of God’s family are not opposed. They are inseparable:
Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep, today you may do as you will. Tomorrow, you say, I am going away, but my body I leave with you still.”
“The poor of the world are my body,” he said, “to the end of the world they shall be. The bread and the blankets you give to the poor you’ll know you have given to me.”
Here is a lovely rendition of Carter’s Holy Week carol sung by Fiona Dunn:
A sermon preached on Good Friday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA
I’m going to ask you some questions, and the answer you will give is, “I am here”.
Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?… Peter, slave of fear, where are you?… Thomas, slave of doubt, where are you?… Men and women of Jerusalem, enslaved by mob violence, where are you?… Pilate, slave of expediency, where are you?…
You’re all here, then. Good. Because the crucified God has something to say to you:
Let us pray.
God, we pray you, look upon your family for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to undergo the torture of the cross. Amen.
I find this opening Collect for Good Friday so moving, because it doesn’t make any requests for particular outcomes. It simply asks God to look at us—just look at us—with the loving gaze of mercy. In the middle of a terrible war, with a million dead from COVID in this country alone, and a pandemic of hate and racism and sheer folly leaving us dispirited and exhausted: Lord, have mercy. That’s our prayer at the foot of the cross. Lord, have mercy.
In the 1965 Jesus movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told, the Holy Family is returning from Egypt after the death of Herod. And when they’re back in their own country, on their way home, they come up over a rise, and there before them are dozens of crosses along the road, with a man dying on every one—human billboards advertising Roman justice and the cruel fate awaiting anyone who might trouble the tranquility of the empire. In those days, it was an all too common sight.
The camera gives us a good look at those suffering victims, anonymous in their pain, and then cuts to a closeup of the two-year-old Jesus, riding on a donkey in his mother’s arms, looking at those crosses with wide and wondering eyes.
Thirty years later, another donkey would bring Jesus toward his own cross, and there he would be cradled one last time in the arms of his grieving mother.
Can’t we have a better story? Why couldn’t the people have been transformed and the authorities converted and the Anointed Son of God lived to a ripe old age teaching and healing and wisely overseeing the first generation of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
That’s what the disciples expected of the Messiah. Of course, you and I know better. We expect the good to die young. We’ve seen enough of it in our own day. As someone says in an A.S. Byatt novel: “There will always be people who will slash open the other cheek when it is turned to them. In this life love will not overcome, it will not, it will go to waste and it is no good to preach anything else.”
But it could have been otherwise. Everyone had choices. That was the problem, of course. God let everybody choose, and God’s own choices were limited by the choices that his creatures made. When Jesus fell upon the ground and begged for an alternative to the cross, God remained silent. There was no reversing the choices already made by Judas and the clergy and the police who were already closing in on the garden.
But God never stopped working to bring good out of the situation, to accomplish the purpose for which Christ was sent into the world. An illuminating perspective on this can be found in that notable theological work, The Joy of Cooking, In its advice to the host of a party, it says,
“Satisfy yourself that you have anticipated every possible emergency…Then relax and enjoy your guests….If, at the last minute, something does happen to upset your well-laid plans, rise to the occasion. The mishap may be the making of your party…[As the Roman poet] Horace observed, ‘ A host is like a general: it takes a mishap to reveal genius.”
The mishap of sin revealed God’s genius. O felix culpa, as Augustine said. O happy fault. God never gave up on the party we call the Kingdom. But since God refused to control others’ free will, God had to improvise, to work with whatever hand God was dealt by the choices made by human beings. And the hand God was dealt was the cross. But God said, “The cross will not foil my plan. In fact, I will make of it the cornerstone of salvation.” And so it was that Jesus could say with his dying breath: “It is accomplished.”
A century ago, Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov described the accomplishment of the cross this way:
God tells His creation: you are created by My hands. You are my work, and you would not exist if I did not will it. And, since I am responsible for you, I take upon Myself the responsibility for your guilt. I forgive you; I return your glory to you, for I take your sin upon Myself; I redeem it with My suffering.[i]
There are those who recoil at the idea that the death of one innocent man somehow atones for humanity’s collective guilt. But the death of Jesus was not a crude transaction where Jesus just picks up the check for our feast of follies when we prove unable to pay the debt ourselves. Admittedly, there is some language in our tradition which might prompt such a misreading of the cross. For example, in the beautiful Easter Vigil chant, the Exultet, there is the line,
“O blessed iniquity, for whose redemption such a price was paid by such a Savior.”
That may be true poetically, but not theologically. There’s plenty of guilt to atone for, no doubt. Just watch the news. And by ourselves we can never hope to set it right. But redemption has nothing to do with accounting. It has to do with love. For God so loved the world, and there is no love without vulnerability—and sacrifice. Anyone who has ever suffered because of their love for another knows the truth of this.
Christ’s death didn’t just happen on Golgotha. It took place in God’s own heart. And the salvation wrought on the cross wasn’t because somebody named Jesus got punished for our crimes, but because love proved greater than sin and death.
The powers of hell have done their worst to God this day, but Christ their legions hath dispersed. The victory didn’t have to wait for Easter. Love wins today—on the cross—because it absorbs every evil without returning the violence, and it refuses to give up on any of us—not even the killers who know not what they do.
David Bentley Hart, a contemporary Orthodox theologian, sums this up beautifully:
“The only true answer to the scandal of this blood-soaked cosmos is the restoration of the very One who was destroyed … the only horizon of hope is that of the humanly impossible; and the only peace for which [we] can now properly long is not that which can be bought by a victim’s blood, which is a plentifully available coin, but that which can be given solely by that One who has borne the consequences of human violence and falsehood all the way to the end and then miraculously returned, still able and willing to forgive …”[ii]
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving, Not my deserving.[iii]
One of my Facebook friends, an Episcopal priest in Delaware, posted a story this week about a young woman, a newcomer to her parish, who asked her, “What are the qualifications to carry the cross in church? Because, you know, well, see? I was homeless for about five years. Yeah, and you know, see? I did some things I’m not proud of, but it was really the best choice between some really bad choices. So, I’m kinda embarrassed and I don’t want a lot of people asking a lot of questions so, you know, am I qualified?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” said the priest, “I don’t know anyone in this congregation who is more qualified than you are to carry the cross. I have no doubt that you will be one of the best-qualified crucifers in the history of crucifers in The Episcopal Church.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” she said. “But thank you. Just one more question: Do I get to wear white gloves?”
“Absolutely, my friend. Let’s go find you a pair.”[iv]
That’s such a perfect story because Jesus made his own cross an act of solidarity with people just like her—with the outcast, the homeless, the powerless, and the survivors of bad choices. He shared their condition and he suffered their pain. He bore their griefs and carried their sorrows. He made the sin, alienation, and brokenness of the world his own, so that no human experience would ever be alien to God.
As a Franciscan scholar has written:
“The Crucified is the diffusing center of God’s love in the world whereby he reaches down to that which is furthest from [God] to draw all into [the divine] goodness and thus into the love of the Trinity.” [v]
And an Anglican theologian puts it this way:
“In [God’s] own Trinitarian history of suffering, God opens [Godself] to include the uproar of all human history; oppressed and forsaken people can find themselves within the situation of a suffering God, and so can also share in [God’s] history of glorification.”[vi]
I love the image of that young woman carrying the cross as she herself, I would say, is being drawn into the divine goodness and sharing in the history of Christ’s glorification. And it being an Episcopal church, she got to do it with white gloves!
So here we are on God’s Friday, at the foot of the holy cross, puzzling over its multiple meanings. Why did Jesus have to die? How exactly has that death broken the power of sin and death? What does the cross tell us about God’s love for us?
These are all profound questions, but I will let the liturgy’s hymns and prayers speak to those questions rather than my trying to reduce the mystery of Good Friday to a few paragraphs. Just open your heart and the liturgy will speak the word you need to hear today. It may come in a hymn, or when you venerate the cross, or receive Sacrament. But it will come.
So rather than explore what we make of the cross, I will conclude with a few thoughts about what the cross wants to make of us.
On Palm Sunday, we heard St. Paul urge us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … who humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This isn’t telling us to try harder, but to see differently, or as Paul says in Romans, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
When we start to put on the mind of Christ Jesus, when we begin to think God’s thoughts instead of our own, not only will the world become different, but we will begin to live differently—not in fear of death, despairing over the uproar of the times, or retreating into our fortress egos—but in self-diffusive love, offering all that we have and all that we are for the sake of others, as we move deeper and deeper into the holy communion with God and one another that is our destiny. The cross proves that Jesus lived that way until his last breath. And the cross invites us to do the same.
The gospels never tell us what’s going on in the mind of Christ. They simply show us what kind of life that mind produced. But if I were to venture a glimpse into Christ’s mind, I might choose a passage from The Brothers Karamazov, where young Alyosha, the most saintly of those memorable siblings, is out looking at the stars when he is suddenly seized, as it were, by the mind of Christ:
The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.
He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears. . . ,” rang in his soul.
What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything. . .[vii]
[i] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 364.
[ii] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2020), 23.
[iii] “Ah, holy Jesus,” verse 5, text by Johann Herrmann, tr. Robert Seymour Bridges.
[iv] Thanks to the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton for letting me use her story.
[v] Ilia Delio, Crucified Love: Bonaventure’s Mysticism of the Crucified Christ (Fransciscan Media, 1999), 165.
[vi] Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 151.
[vii] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, Vintage Classics, 1990), 362.
If this were the last night of your life, what would you do? On his last night, Jesus gathered at table with his friends.
Jesus loved tables. He spent a lot of time sitting at tables. At a table, Jesus ate and drank with sinners, so that you and I would know we are always welcome at God’s feast. At a table a woman became a teacher to the apostles when she anointed Jesus with oil. At a table Jesus presented a startling image of God as slave and servant of all, when he washed his disciples’ feet. At a table our Lord gave us, in bread and wine, the means of tasting his sweetness forever.
I think Jesus liked tables because they are places of intimacy. Everyone is close together— it’s a place to let your guard down. Jesus probably did more teaching quietly around a table than he did shouting from boats or mountaintops to vast multitudes.
And I don’t think Jesus just walked into a room and started telling people about God. I think he sat down with them, and learned their names, and listened to their stories. And after a while, they would open up to him, sharing their broken dreams and broken hearts, their longings and their demons. And it was there, responding to their particular stories, that he would bring God to them, casting out their demons, unbinding them with forgiveness, empowering them to stand up and walk through that open door into God’s story, proclaiming them—even the most prodigal sinner—the beloved children of God.
Tables also got Jesus into deep trouble. In the Temple of Jerusalem, he overturned the tables of the old paradigm, the tables of the smug and comfortable religionists who can’t see the fault lines running through their ecclesiastical constructions and their lifeless pieties. He overturned the tables where some are in and some are out, where some are welcome and some are not.
“This isn’t what God wants!” said the carpenter from Nazareth, and he made a new table, a table where all divisions and discriminations are put aside,
where enemies are embraced, where outcasts and fools are honored as our wisest teachers, where the abundant life of God’s future is as close as the food you see before you tonight.
The world was not ready to sit at such a table – the world didn’t even want to know there was such a table. So it stretched its maker upon another piece of wood, hoping to bury the dream before it could infect the general population.
But the table survived, and we sit round it tonight. How costly and precious it is! Gathered around Christ’s table, we will do simple things—wash feet, share a meal, tell stories.
And as we do, we will begin, as St. Augustine says, to say Amen to the mystery we have become.
In the convent of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico painted a fresco of the mocking of Christ. The cruelties of Christ’s tormenters are represented as fragments, floating in the space around the white-robed, blindfolded victim: a disembodied head spits at our Lord, a floating hand strikes him with a rod. These fragments are very flat, two-dimensional, as though pasted on the image’s surface. But Christ himself is not restricted to the plane of the image. It projects forward in an illusion of three-dimensionality, into the space occupied by two saints. The suffering Christ emerges from his own time into theirs.
But neither saint is looking at him. They face away from the scene, toward us. The mocking is not something they look at with their physical eyes. It is for them an interior contemplation. And their devotion to the Passion takes two different forms. On the right, St. Dominic, the great intellect and preacher, is looking at a book, open in his lap. The Passion is something he is reading about, and processing in his mind. On the left side, the mother of Jesus, sitting in an attitude of quiet sorrow, has no book. She is apprehending the Passion through the medium of her heart. Dominic is thinking about the suffering of Christ. Mary is feeling it.
On God’s Friday we bring both head and heart to the foot of the cross. We may want to puzzle over the why of it: Why did this have to happen? Why do we keep returning to this bloody act? Why does it matter? Or maybe we just prefer to watch and weep over a mystery beyond all comprehension.
In any case, here we are again, at the foot of the cross. A lot has happened since the last Good Friday—so much suffering, so much struggling, so much dying. We bring all that with us to the cross today, along with our questions, our wounds, our laments. Finding the right words for this strange time is a daunting task.
Wiliam Sloane Coffin, one of the great Christian voices of the twentieth century, once told a young minister not to worry too much about his Holy Week sermon. “Anybody can preach on Good Friday,” he said. “Hell, read the newspaper!”[i]
On Good Friday, 2021, we don’t need a crucifix to remind us of a premature death which should never have happened. We’ve seen it replicated over half a million times in this country alone—worldwide, nearly 3 million times.
We don’t need an ancient form of execution, designed to cause asphyxiation in a sagging body, to remind us of human cruelty. This very week, in a Minneapolis courtroom, a congregation of judge and jury is meditating on the last words—of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”
We don’t have to go back 2000 years to learn the story of hatred, violence, and innocent victims. We’ve got Atlanta and Boulder and far too many other examples.
As for the mindless mob shouting “Crucify! Crucify!” in Pilate’s courtyard, we’ve got our own version from January 6th, that epiphany of collective rage by the ones who “know not what they do.”
Yes, we still see crucifixions every day. So why do we keep returning to Golgotha? How is the death of Jesus not like any other? In one sense, it is like every death. In choosing to embrace human experience, to live and die as one of us, the Divine identified completely with our suffering as well as our joy.
Anglican poet Thomas Traherne expressed this truth with 17th-century fluency:
“O Christ, I see thy cross of thorns in every eye, thy bleeding naked wounded body in every soul, thy death lived in every memory. Thy crucified person is embalmed in every affliction, thy pierced feet are bathed in everyone’s tears ….” [ii]
Jesus is not only the icon of God but also the representative human, our “Everyman” and “Everywoman,” who bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. A folksong from back in the day said it this way:
If somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me, you would lose them, I know how to use them, give them all to me.[iii]
Why did, and why does, Jesus want to carry the full weight of our human condition? Love. Love so amazing, so divine. God thirsts for us even more than we thirst for God. And as the incarnation of that love, as the divine thirst for communion in human form, Jesus was willing to drink the bitter as well as the sweet.
Why on earth does God desire us so much? It’s not because we’re so easy to love—God knows we’re not. It’s because love is God’s nature, love is who God is. When the eternal self-offering, self-giving, that constitutes the Holy Trinity, got narrowed down into human shape, that loving nature came with it. Jesus loves me, this I know, because Jesus is love incarnate. It’s who Jesus is, and what Jesus does.
And what happens to love in a world gone so wrong? It suffers. Love hurts. On Palm Sunday we sang about “love’s agony, love’s endeavor, love’s expense:”
Drained is love in making full, bound in setting others free; poor in making many rich, weak in giving power to be.
Therefore he who shows us God, helpless hangs upon the tree; and the nails and crown of thorns tell of what God’s love must be.[iv]
Nobody wants to suffer, but it seems to be part of the deal. As Julian of Norwich said in the century of Europe’s most deadly plague:
If there be anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it — for it was not shown me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again, we are always held close in one love.[v]
In early 19th century Kentucky, 3 women founded a religious community called the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were dedicated, in their words, “to bring the healing spirit of God into our world.” One of their current sisters, Elaine Prevallet, has written some very helpful words about suffering:
Suffering is always about change — either something needs to change, or something is changing. And changing means letting go of the way things are, the way I know them, the way I have put and held my life together…The idol of control holds out to us the hope that suffering and death can be eliminated. ..That false hope, in turn, has the effect of setting suffering up as an enemy to be avoided at all costs. [But] if we are unwilling to suffer, we are unwilling to love.[vi]
Nobody gets off lightly on God’s Friday, not God, not the world, not us. But we get through, we all get through—it is the way, the only way in this mysterious universe of freedom and risk, dying and rising.
You can do several things with suffering. You can try to avoid it or at least repress your awareness of it. Some people make that their life’s work. But avoiding suffering means you avoid a lot of love and a lot of life. Jesus considered this strategy of avoidance, in the desert Temptation and in the agony of Gethsemane. But that “adamant young man”[vii] chose instead to embrace the consequences of his divine nature and his human vocation.
Another way to deal with suffering is to struggle against its causes, to work for its elimination. As both healer and prophet, Jesus demonstrated this way, even onto death at the hands of the oppressive powers. But like the weeds among the wheat, violence and suffering remain a persistent part of the fabric of creation, despite our best efforts. We do what we can, but suffering remains.
And so we, with Jesus, come to the third way: to undergo suffering as a means, not an end. To see suffering not as life-threatening, but life-giving. Suffering, instead of thwarting God’s purposes, becomes part of the repertoire of salvation. God does not create suffering, but does deal creatively with it. Suffering becomes, in God’s hands, formative rather than destructive. The Passion is not a detour. It is the way. As a recent hymn puts it, God is “wiser than despair.” [viii]
I once read about a Quaker meeting held on Easter Day. The assembled Friends were speaking, as the Spirit moved them, about the Resurrection. Then one woman got up and said that her only son had been killed in a car crash some months before. A chord of shared grief was struck in every heart. We know about that, don’t we, here on Bainbridge Island, thinking about Hannah, Hazel and Marina.[ix] But then this sorrowing mother said, “My heart is broken, but it is broken open—this is my resurrection and my hope.” [x]
To speak of the way of the cross as the way of life is not to deny its pain or its horror—Jesus himself cried out in deep protest from the cross: Why? Why? And the way of the cross is more than a simple homily about building character or learning compassion or awakening our own vocations to relieve the world’s pain where we can. Those are all valuable outcomes of our suffering, but on this day, at the foot of this cross, we must say something deeper and more difficult to grasp.
For this dying man, this Jesus upon the cross, is not just one more victim ground up by the teeth of history. This Jesus “bears in His Heart all wounds”[xi] carries our griefs and our sorrows, carries them into the divine heart, into the deepest place of God. Our pain has become God’s own pain, and however long we must dwell in that Pit where there seems to be suffering without end, God dwells there with us. The One who died abandoned and alone now keeps us company on our own crosses—for as long as it takes.
Jane Kenyon, the poet who died too young of leukemia, knew the truth of this:
The God of curved space, the dry God, is not going to help us, but the son whose blood spattered the hem of his mother’s robe.[xii]
God does not create suffering. But God is the place where all suffering comes to rest. “Give it to me, ” God says. “I can take it. I will transform it.” When our suffering becomes God’s suffering, something new happens. It is no longer the tomb of dead hopes. It is the place of new birth.
How does this happen? How does God bring forth good from evil? How does the cross of Christ make all our crosses into trees of life? How does God turn our abyss into a redemptive journey?
We could discuss theologies of atonement and sacrifice, or reflect upon the spiritual and psychological and social implications of Christ’s death. But on this day, we don’t come to the cross for ideas. We come for love.
In Antonello da Messina’s Crucifixion we see, as in Fra Angelico’s Mocking, two witnesses in the foreground: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple. John is gazing intently at his Crucified Lord, while Mary looks inward, to her pierced heart. For me this image expresses something written by a present-day friend of Jesus, Virginia Stem Owens:
“Good Friday is the day when you can do nothing. Bewailing and lamenting your manifold sins does not in itself make up for them. Scouring your soul in a frenzy of spring cleaning only sterilizes it; it does not give it life. On Good Friday, finally, we are all, mourners and mockers alike, reduced to the same impotence. Someone else is doing the terrible work that gives life to the world.” [xiii]
So here we are, at the foot of the cross on God’s Friday, while Jesus does the terrible work that gives life to the world.
“Give me your pain,” Jesus says. “Give me your sorrow. I will make it the place where your healing begins. I work good in all things. That is my nature. There is nothing that I cannot make into the means of new life.
“Suffering…fear…grief…illness…anger…depression…despair…abandonment…. whatever your burden, give it to me, join your pain to mine, and I promise you: You shall rise up with me.
For there is only one death in the history of the world, and I have made it mine. And there is only one life in God’s universe, and from now until forever it is yours. I give it to you.
“Die with me today…rise with me tomorrow…It is accomplished.”
This sermon may be seen on video in the Liturgy for Good Friday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church (Bainbridge Island, WA), available on YouTube starting at noon on Good Friday, 2021.The link is here.
[i] Personal reminiscence by Will Willimon, in “Stunned observers: A Conversation between Richard Lischer and Will Willimon, The Christian Century (March 24, 2021), 35.
[ii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, i.86.
[iii] Richard Fariña and Paula Marden, “Pack up your sorrows” (1965). I heard Farina and his wife Mimi sing this in concert in my college years. They were local favorites, and I often played their songs on my campus radio show. A promising writer and novelist, Fariña died in a motorcycle accident a year after writing this song. He was 29. To hear the song: https://youtu.be/NHRNqjOcaMM
[iv] W. H. Vanstone, “Morning glory, starlit sky.” This powerful text is set to a beautiful tune, Bingham, by Dorothy Howell Sheets, in The Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585.
[v] Julian of Norwich, Showings (the Long Text), 14th century.
[vi] Elaine Prevallet, Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (“Letting Go,” Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1997), 14.
[vii] I love Dag Hammarskjöld’s use of adamant, a Greek word for a hard stone or diamond. This term for a resistant substance came to mean “invincible.” Jesus’ refusal to let his love be misshapen by the world makes this an apt adjective for him. I found Hammarskjöld’s phrase in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 163.
[viii] Brian Wren, “Bring many names” (1989): “calmly piercing evil’s new disguises, glad of good surprises, wiser than despair.”
[ix] The tragic death of these three teenagers in an automobile accident last month has deeply shaken my local community.
[xi] The line is from Edith Sitwell’s poem, “Still Falls the Rain.” Written during the bombing of London in 1940, it does not single out the enemy, but laments the collective guilt of a warring humankind. The last lines: “Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man / Was once a child who among beasts has lain—/ ‘Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.’”
[xiii] Virginia Stem Owens, cited in “It Is Done,” a reflection on the Passion by Watchman Nee in Bread and Wine, p. 244. Nee (1903-1972) was a Chinese Christian who spent his final 20 years imprisoned for his faith.
Still louder ever rose the crowd’s Hosanna in the highest! ‘O King,’ thought I, ‘I know not why In all this joy thou sighest.’
— The Merchants’ Carol
Where thy victorious feet, Great God, should tread, In honor this green tapestry is spread; And as all future things are past to thee, The triumph here precedes the victory.
— Giambattista Marino, “Palm Sunday”
An anthem for Palm Sunday, “Ride on! ride on in majesty,” sung by the choir of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA, under the direction of Paul Roy, with the late Darden Burns on piano. Lyrics by Henry Hart Milman, music by Mark Shepperd. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is from “Day of Triumph” (1954) a feature film produced by my father, James K. Friedrich. The palm branches are from Taryn Elliott via Pexels. My footage of the Seattle viaduct, shot the day before its demolition began, imagines Jesus’ entry into our own cities, while the empty road in Montana recalls the spiritual, “Jesus walked that lonesome valley.” The one who rode among the cheering crowds must go alone to the cross. The sun directs its deathly gaze through the smoke of a forest fire in the Bitterroot Mountains. The irony of Palm Sunday’s “triumph” is seen in the video’s final image of Christ, now carrying the cross through a different kind of crowd (Lippo Memmi, Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Tuscany, c. 1340).
The burning of Notre Dame has broken many hearts, including mine. The fact that it happened in Holy Week feels strangely apocalyptic, as if the stability of our world were suddenly under threat. Like the earthquake at the death of Jesus, it suggests a cosmic shaking of the foundations.
Poems from Book of Lamentations, an anguished response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., are often sung during Holy week. Written to grieve the loss of a sacred place, their eloquent images of affliction and grief were later appropriated by Christian liturgy to lament the suffering of Christ. In gratitude and sorrow for our beloved Notre Dame, here are some of my own past views of the cathedral, accompanied by selected lamentations from the Holy Week lectionary.
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations. (Lam. 1:1)
Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and distress, all the precious things that were hers in days of old. (Lam. 1:7)
All you who pass this way, look and see: is any sorrow like the sorrow inflicted on me? (Lam. 1:12)
Listen, for I am groaning, with no one to comfort me. (Lam. 1:21)
For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you? (Lam. 2:13)
Cry then to the Lord, rampart of the daughter of Zion; let your tears flow like a torrent day and night. (Lam. 2:18)
He has walled me about so that I cannot escape. . . though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. (Lam. 3:7-8)
But this I call to mind, and so regain some hope: Surely God’s mercies are not over, his kindness is not exhausted. (Lam. 3:21-22)
It is good to wait in silence for Yahweh to save. (Lam.3:26)
Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
–– Seamus Heaney, “Doubletake”
Heaney’s powerful words seem the perfect epigraph for this amazing day, when hundreds of thousands of people In over 800 communities took to the streets to say “enough is enough.” Enough shootings! Enough victims! It’s time to heal our national gun-sickness. It’s time to choose life.
Have we finally reached a turning point? We’ve seen countless turning points come to naught. We have become well accustomed not to “hope on this side of the grave.” But this new movement, led by highly committed young people not yet practiced in the art of resignation, does feel different. Could this in fact be one of those rare moments, like the end of apartheid or the fall of the Berlin wall, when “hope and history rhyme”?
Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)
Gun worship seems the most powerful religion in America. From presidents to schoolchildren, the blood of countless victims stains its altars. And however much we rage and moan we feel powerless to stay the hand of sacrifice.
After the joy of marching with thousands of beautiful fellow citizens in the streets of Seattle, and later viewing media excerpts of the utterly compelling young voices at the demonstration in Washington, D.C., I felt myself being awakened from the deadly illusion of inevitability. I began to let myself hope again. The kids are leading the way out of the Slough of Despond. How can we not follow?
Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)
I was especially moved by Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Already well known for her prophetic cry against the NRA and its political puppets (“We call BS!”), she began with a brief, heartbreaking roll call of her seventeen dead friends. Then, remaining at the podium, she stood in solemn silence for a very long six minutes––ritually enacting the excruciating duration of the mass shooting.
Ms. Gonzalez had not explained her silence in advance, nor had she invited the crowd to observe it with her. Many in the crowd of 800,000 were undoubtedly bewildered by such an exercise, periodically filling the uncomfortable silence with shouts of “We love you, Emma,” or chants of “Never again.” But the camera also showed many faces mute and tearful. It was a risky liturgical move to immerse that vast multitude in such a long silence (almost unendurable for talkative Americans!) without any advance consensus on its intention or meaning. Those weren’t a million Trappists out there. As far as I could tell from the video, she more or less pulled it off, never quite losing them. I suspect that many will be haunted by the experience for a long time to come. You can watch it here.
Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)
It is late, I am tired from a lot of walking, and I hesitate to reduce what happened today into a few concluding paragraphs. Something great happened out there, and let’s leave it at that for now. But I am prompted to make a brief digression before signing off.
As a priest on the eve of Holy Week, I could not help making connections between today’s events and what Christians will be doing over the next eight days. How could I not carry echoes of today’s joyful urban processions into tomorrow’s commemoration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? Both processions involved cheering crowds envisioning a better world; both posited fundamental challenges to the established powers. As for the fate of today’s crowds compared to the one in first-century Jerusalem, I suspect there are crucial differences as well. While every human dream must endure repeated crucibles of resistance and setback, I suspect that the kids on the streets today will not replicate the failures of the Palm Sunday crowd. In that sense, they may prove to be more like Jesus––enduring faithfully with their eyes on the prize––than like the fickle crowd whose “hosannas” turned so quickly to “crucify.”
The other connection I’m thinking about tonight is Emma Gonzalez’s six-minute silence. Founded on an original experience of unimaginable pain and loss, it created a space where suffering might be both remembered and transcended. Like the rites of Holy Week, it engaged the past as something never to be forgotten, something that is intrinsic to the story, but in the context of a future which can contain and redeem whatever has been lost. We all dwell in the provisional space between memory and hope, where we neither forget nor give up. There is always more to our story than we can ever know. Even in the darkest night, God continues to imagine the dawn.
Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)
At the Easter Vigil next Saturday night, one of the stories we will tell is the deliverance of the biblical Israelites from the powers that enslave them. Instead of an adult reading the story from the Bible, children will act out the Exodus from Egypt. When they reach the Red Sea (adults blocking their way with waves of blue fabric), the congregation will shout “No way! No way!”–– like Congress telling the kids to give up and go home. But Moses will raise his staff, a way will open through the sea, and the Israelites will cross over. One will be carrying a “Never again” sign; another will wear a “March for our lives” T-shirt.
Once they are safely across the sea, Miriam, Moses’ sister, will reflect on what has happened, concluding with a declaration of faith:
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.”
–– Gregory Peck, discussing his role in Moby Dick
What Gregory Peck said about playing Ahab could be said about playing “fools for Christ.” 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?”
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.”
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, 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.”
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?”
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” 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, 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.
 Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, “Brownsville Girl”.
 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.
 The Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is the prime example.
 Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 1987), 43.
 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.
 Lucinda Williams’ song to a friend who committed suicide: “See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world. . .”
 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.
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.
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)