Saturday, March 31, 2018

In Darkness: Lord, Have Mercy

My preferred way to celebrate Good Friday would be to spend the day in darkness. If I had my way, I’d draw the blinds and spend the day alone.

Good Friday, for me, of all days, is the day to acknowledge the depths of our desolation. What kind of world is this, that calls for the crucifixion of the kindest man that ever lived? 
Jesus Mafa - Cameroon, 1970s

Poetic refrains echo in my mind, words of warning, of coming destruction:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
    (Second Coming, William Butler Yeats)
Two thousand years after Christ’s birth, death, resurrection  – with all we’ve learned, all we’ve seen, all we’ve been given - we still spend our energies in building better bombs, arguing for more guns, tricking the poor and hungry into buying seed that will lead to more suffering, spending time and money on food that can never satisfy. 
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,     
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only  
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
    (The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot)
This post was first written five years ago.

Rereading it now, rethinking it now, I realize in many ways the darkness has deepened. The blood-dimmed tide has worsened. 

To go on with the quote from Yeats above: 
The best lack all conviction
While the worst 

Are filled with passionate intensity. 
Most days I live in hope but Good Friday and the Saturday following seem the time to stare most deeply into our depravity, to sound out the word “hopeless.” 

Beyond hopeless. 
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
   (Eliot, Hollow Men)
For me, Good Friday commemorates the journey of Jesus Christ into the very heart of our darkness: his gathering to himself our betrayals, our outrageous inconsistencies, our dirty secrets, our petty, enduring hatreds, our self-righteous explanations for violence and greed.

The least I can do is travel with him, as much as I’m able, examining my own participation in the pain of the world, my own contributions of selfishness and stupidity, my own deliberate defiance, my complicity in the colossal horrors of our day.

There is much to grieve, much to lament, much to repent of. 

When I turn in that direction, I can feel the weight of it – 

The destruction of forests, lakes, rivers in the name of cheaper fossil fuel, ever more electronic tools and toys. 

The enslavement of a new generation of children, in the name of cheap chocolate and coffee, more tee shirts to stack in our already stuffed closets. 

The slaughter of children - in schools, churches, sidewalks, backyards - all in the name of personal freedom, corporate profit and obscene campaign spending. 
Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks! Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch!    (Howl, Allen Ginsberg ) 
Christ is Nailed to the Cross,
Anna Kocher, 2006
I’ve always imagined Jesus, in agony beyond the physical agony of crucifixion, one of the most painful deaths the human imagination has devised. 

I’ve imagined the emotional pain of betrayal and loss, the deep spiritual pain of seeing, carrying, absorbing all our idolatries, hatreds, desperate violence.

But in working my way through the beatitudes I found myself puzzling over these words: 
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
 I had somehow thought that blessing was somewhere off in the future. 

Hang in there, because later it will be worth it. Great is your reward in heaven.

But the blessing described is also now, here, present, immediately available. “Makarious,” that joyful participation in eternity, that deep harmony of love given and received, is available now, as we walk deeper in obedience to God.

Is it possible that Jesus’ hours on the cross were not just hours of suffering, but also hours of joy?

Is it possible he himself was rejoicing even as he struggled for breath and gathered to himself the accumulated darkness of multiplied depravity?

I think of Peter and John, singing in prison, after a painful beating.

And of Stephen, face shining, as he staggered under the weight of his stoning.

In the Good Friday observance of Christ’s seven last words, I’ve often struggled with the only statement  recorded in two gospels: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I’ve seen that as evidence of Jesus’ mental anguish, but have also found it troubling: did God really turn away from his son? Does he turn his back on us? And if God is so holy he can’t look on sin, was Jesus in some way not God as he went to his death?

How to reconcile that loud shout from the cross with verses that say “darkness will be light to me,” or “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ”? Or “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

Puzzling over various explanations, I find myself drawn to the idea of “remez”: a rabbinic practice of using a few words of a passage to refer to the entire passage. For any well-trained Jew of his time, Jesus’ cry, “why have you forsaken me?” would have drawn to mind the psalms that deliberate quote introduced: Psalms 22 to 24, the shepherd song trilogy.

In calling those psalms to mind, Jesus would have been calling attention to the very specific prophecies of Psalm 22: the mocking crowd, the pierced hands and feet, the terrible thirst, the casting of lots for garments.

He would have been proclaiming, for all who were listening: “I am that shepherd you’ve been waiting for, the prophecied Messiah.”

And he would have been calling attention to God’s faithfulness in time of trouble.
Crucifixion, Georges Roualt, 1920s, Paris

 From Psalm 22: 
“He has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
 From Psalm 23: 
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Even while taking on our own sense of distance from God, our own cries of abandonment, our own moments of doubt, Jesus affirmed, through reference to the psalms, his father's unending faithfulness and love, and drew us closer to himself, and his father.

For me, the cross symbolizes the compiled lies, hatred, violence of generations before and after, the futile attempts of the powerful to maintain control, the self-protective withdrawal of those afraid to challenge evil.

Even the word “tree” is symbolic mockery of all that is God-made, good, and beautiful, a misuse of the created tree, reshaped as instrument of death.

Yet the cross symbolizes blessing as well, and belonging, love deeper than I can comprehend, God’s willing acceptance of the worst man can offer, patient forgiveness, extended embrace. 
If we want to see what love looks like as it stares evil in the face, we need only look at the cross. It is the cross that shows us the nonviolent love of God, a God who loves enemies so much he dies for them ... for us. It is that cross that makes no sense to the wisdom of this world and that confounds the logic of smart bombs. That triumph of Christ's execution and resurrection was a victory over violence, hatred, sin, and everything ugly in the world. And it is the triumph of the glorious resurrection that fills us with the hope that death is dead -- if only we will let it die.(Shane Claiborne)
This post was first written as part of a series on blessedness.
Beatitudes: seeking blessing in a fractured land
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God
Blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall see God
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy
Understanding, living into the promise of blessing, in the ways Jesus described, is the work of a lifetime.

And there's no guarantee we learn as we go.

Those religious leaders who argued - passionately - for Jesus' crucifixion, those power-addled, privilege-protecting overseers of misguided faith are with us still, reminding us, still, how easy it is to slide into betrayal.

How easy it is to surrender those calls to blessedness for some pieces of silver, or the familiar safety of the status quo.

Some days, the only prayer I can formulate is the one that carries us through Lent, that leads us to this day of gathering darkness: Lord have mercy.

Today, tired, heart-weary, I rest in that and wait:

Lord, have mercy.