Archive for 1997
“To live,” said John Henry Cardinal Newman, “is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Don’t you just hate him! Change, whether welcomed or dreaded, is always disturbing, always stirs us up, always sends us stepping over the edge into the unknown.
Here we are on the brink of great changes: something finished and something about to be begun; some things to celebrate and others to mourn … but all to remember. Here we are in a time between times, gathered around one table to eat the body of a broken bread and be sent, scattering, to the ends of the earth. We welcome that and we dread it.
A time between times. John, in his gospel, promises that the breaking of Jesus will gather the scattered children of God. But, in no time, as the Acts of Apostles relates, the gathering is broken up and the children scattered. Now for some the scattering was just geographical—their bodies moved but their hearts stood still—and they only took the word to their own. But others—no better—were moved by their movement to hand the word humbly to outsiders, to atheists, to enemies—to anyone who would listen. It’s in this scattering that they are called, for the first time, Christians. Christianity is born in this breaking and scattering of both body and soul.
But what lies between these two times? Between the promise of gathering and the reality of dispersal? The hinge turns freely on an axis of love hanging from a tree. Here is the pivot of an arc of renewal that will stretch to embrace the whole world. Here, at the focus of that movement of gathering and scattering, is the body of one human being—friend, lover, brother, … son—dying for life’s sake, dying for a change. And what lies at this burning point of focus? A moment of passion. A passionate end to a passionate life. A passionate prelude to a risen life of even greater passion—A time between times.
It’s the passion of Jesus—that openness to life and death in its fullness—to joy and sorrow in their depth—it’s his passion that brought everyone who knew him to discover their own. And, discovering, to change—one way or another—to reject and betray life, as some did, or to live life with intensity and care, ready to be moved by the passion of others to com-passion—ready—like a mother, like a lover—to share joy and even pain—to bear the life of Jesus into to the world.
We too—most of us—are in a time between times, poised to take new steps. Whatever this experience at Berkeley has been—a time of change, of renewal, of love, of learning, of unlearning—whether it has been a time of rest or a time of frenzy, whether it has been work or play—one thing we pray for. At this burning point of our lives may we have experienced here passion—depth, richness, energy. May we have learned a little better how to really live—vulnerable to suffering, unafraid of joy, and capable of care.
This is our call—as we scatter to the ends of the earth—the call to care with passionate intensity for all that is broken, to carry gently the healing burden of life, … to be the compassion of God for a wounded world.
May 21st, 1997
Don’t you find Ascension to be a puzzle, a mystery? Just as Eastertime is ending it pulls us up short with a reminder of just how deep the mystery of Easter is and how shocked we ought to be by Resurrection.
This is still Eastertime, Christ is still risen, but the strangeness of that is rubbed in once more today. Christ is not dead, Easter proclaims, Christ is alive and is with us. Christ is here … among us. But how? Each of the gospel writers struggles to give a glimpse of how the risen Jesus is present to his people, to his friends, to us. All the resurrection stories are strange — the risen Jesus walks through walls but eats cooked fish; the risen Jesus is alive and happy but bears still the wounds of his cruel death; the Risen Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread but is hardly recognisable to the eye. Is he real or isn’t he? Is he here or isn’t he? The answer: a resounding yes and no. A yes and no that reflects the messy situation of the Christian communities these guys were writing to. They had clear memory and honoured witness that Jesus had not only risen from the dead but had shown himself to people they knew, had spoken perplexing certainties to the doubting, brought a disturbing peace to the troubled, unaccountable comfort to the grieving, a calm courage to the trembling. But they knew, as well, that things weren’t quite the same for them. The Risen Jesus once present in flesh was now only present in memory. Where had the risen Jesus gone? Why did God bother raising Jesus up from the gates of hell if only to take him away from us once more? What kind of consolation is it for us, to know that the one we love is alive but that we can never see him again, can never touch him, can never say all that remains to be said?
This is what Luke is wrangling with. And he deepens the mystery before he releases it. In the Ascension we see the final goodbye: Jesus lifted up and taken from human sight. Another loss. To have lost him once through treachery and death; to get him back only to have him leave of his own accord.
So there they stand, friends and family, on a hilltop outside the city, straining their eyes to see where he had gone, hanging on to the after-image. Are they left alone? Left to their own devices? Yes and no. As the after-image fades, they have the usual overbearing angels pointing their gaze in a different direction: down the hill, into the city toward the habitat of the human heart. And they also have a promise. “I am going,” says Jesus, “but my Spirit is coming—a spirit that will drench you like a downpour, a spirit of power who will make you my witnesses.” All the gospels explain the absent presence of Jesus in terms of the same exchange: we lose his body but we gain his spirit. Is it a fair exchange?
Well, that all depends. We have to answer that question for ourselves. Is the spirit among us? Is that spirit better than having Jesus present in the flesh? Or are we living for an after-image?
It’s not an easy question to answer. By Mark’s measure in the gospel today you might wonder if the spirit is even here this morning. No snakes being handled, no drinking of deadly poison, no speaking in tongues, no demons being driven out. Mark loves to exaggerate but what’s clear is that expects his community to see some real signs that the Spirit of Jesus is alive among them. And so do we. We need to see the unmistakable signs of Spirit among us. Is that Spirit here this morning? Where can we point to confirm our message, who will be our witnesses?
I want to leave that question open. We have a week. Pentecost is coming. We have our own angels asking us “Why do you stand here looking up to the skies?” Asking us to look for Jesus somewhere else, down the hill, where people live. And we have Jesus, himself, promising us that his own Spirit has soaked us and is waiting to drench us once again.
So do we want that? Are we going to beg for that this week? Has the exchange of body for spirit been worthwhile? What are we waiting for?
May 11th, 1997
Join me for a moment in thinking about the people in your life who you love. Parents, children, husbands or wives, companions or partners, friends, lovers… Remember your first love … remember your latest. When I do that, when I remember the people I love, I see their faces and I imagine their hands. It might be different for you but that’s how it is for me. Somehow love is about eyes to look into, and hands to touch and be touched by. And not just any eyes and any hands but these eyes which look back so tenderly into my own, and those hands with their unique character and texture and weight. I don’t love just anyone — I love real, solid, individual people — in all their distinctive, odd, particularity. Some of are bound to me by bonds of blood. We are tied by kinship and resemblance and long years of familiarity. Some are drawn to me, and me to them, by leading strings of love freely given, freely exchanged, in the friendship of shared desires and humble attractions. But family or friend or lover or life-partner, these are the ones whose faces never leave me, whose features never leave me unmoved. I see them and I am touched, I feel, I hope, I fear, I doubt, … Something shifts in my stomach. They hold out their hand and I want to take it, to hold it, to keep it, to enfold it.
I do not know what love is but I know who these people I love are. And knowing them I catch a glimpse of what love is, of what it is to love. And knowing what it is to love I have the hint of the shape of the outline of what it is to be loved. Not in general, not in abstract, but as me — with these eyes, this flesh, these hands, this body. I know what it is to love someone else — the risk of it, the vulnerability, the fragility, the passion, the pain and the glory of it — and I learn what it is to be loved, to be the object of someone’s desire, their risk, their passion, their pain, their glory. And learning love I learn power and taste freedom and know wonder. Learn the power I have to hurt or to exalt. Taste the freedom to respond or to repel. Know the wonder of love’s innocence and love’s economy.
Can you see the faces of the ones you love? Can you hold their hands in yours? Can you feel that shifting in the pit of yourself that they evoke in you? And you in them?
If you can, then you can say with St. John: “Love consists in this; not that we have loved God but that God has loved us.” Like it or not—understand it or not—feel it or not—God loves us with all the risk, all the passion, all the pain, all the glory, all the delight of the love we cherish for those special to us. Strange to say, we have become special to God. God looks into our eyes and is moved. God reaches out in risk to touch our hands. God has befriended us — has tried to, has made the first move, taken the first risk, and stands like a lover, waiting nervously, fragilely, to see whether our response will bring hurt or delight. Not in general, not abstractly, but for me, for each one of you, in all our distinctiveness, with all our quirks. God is partial to each one of us.
How do we respond?
The readings today have a lot to say about this, offering a vision of a Christian community founded on friendship and built on mutual love. But alongside the warmth of all that particular care and love, those familiar relationships and bonds, alongside that stands a vision of Christian community that is not partial, not exclusive, not particular about who belongs and who matters. The challenge and the call is for us, for you and me, to cherish both visions. That we might a draw in all impartially and love all with great partiality. But can we do that? Don’t we love by accident, on account of particular likes and dislikes? Maybe we do. But at least we know this. God manages to have a passionate, daring, risky, heartfelt love for me, and for you and you and you and you. Not for all but for each. With all the power and passion of particular bonds. With all the impartial generosity of unbounded benevolence.
May 4th, 1997
I could have sworn when I read the gospel this week that that last line wasn’t in there — “penance for the remission of sins” — penance? In Eastertide? — hardly! So I looked it up — well it’s there in the New American Bible as large as life. Some other translations have “repentance.” I even tried spelling out the Greek and the word is metanoia — a change of heart, of vision, of imagination — an about-face.
Which is kind of the experience I had with these readings — a little shocked, a little dismayed, a little resentful — at having my Easter joy ruffled by three readings harping on sin and preaching penance. But not just sin and penance: sin, penance, and resurrection. Surprising allies!
There’s a lot of surprise and about-faces in these readings. Peter, a little while ago, coward and traitor, stands confidently preaching to the crowd. The disciples, hearts burning within them after the news from Emmaus, are suddenly struck into panic and fright by a familiar stranger breathing disturbing words of peace. They reach and touch him, they feed him, and still they are agitated but now with what Luke calls sheer joy and wonder. Now the reading doesn’t say so but I imagine they sober up pretty quickly as Jesus reminds them of who he is, of what he’s always preached, and of who they … and are to be—disciples, witnesses, people sent. “Nothing has changed,” he seems to say, “but everything is different.” “Look here I am, flesh and bone, eating cold fish out of ruined hands.”
And he tells them a story, a story they already know, a story we still tell each other, of life and death … and life.
Look how Peter puts it. “This is sin,” he says, “you disown justice and you prefer murder—you put to death the one who brings all things to life.” A better definition of sin than we heard all Lent! Sin is the choice of death when life is offered. And for some reason it’s so easy to die and so hard to live. So easy to repeat the old and so hard to risk the new. We can always find a reason why one should die for the good of the many, a reason why, in my case, laughter is out of the question, a reason why, in the circumstances, darkness is brighter than light.
Jesus chose life—offered to share it—and still we killed him rather than live ourselves. A final confirmation of the wisdom of our reasons. As if to say, “There! Done! Once and for all, proof that life is on a loser!” But just when you think it’s safe to slumber, when you’re sure there’ll be no more interruptions, and God is finally polished off—why then God refutes our reasons, confounds our cases. God denies the world forever the certainty of death. Even death is no longer safe, even hell has been opened and delivered up life, even the grave has become a garden.
“Touch me,” says this new Jesus, “believe I’m alive, believe that death is dead. Touch me and remember.” … Remember! If we have touched his joy we have been made witnesses. If we’ve known him in the breaking of the bread what choice do we have but to testify for life. If we’ve experienced the about-face of Easter then we have to share this with the world wherever it still dwells in the dark, still prefers murder to justice, still puts death to life.
Easter joy has its own challenges. If the Greek word for the about-face is metanoia, the Greek for “witness” is martyr. There’s a challenge, full of irony, that’s guaranteed to send us swaying between sheer joy and sheer panic. “Touch me,” says Jesus, “let my wounds be witness that I am not dead—I am alive. Turn about-face, you are not dead—you are alive. And tell the world—be my witnesses, my martyrs—tell them life is alive.”
April 13th, 1997
Poor Thomas gets such a bad rap for being a doubter, for being a sceptic, for not having the faith to believe when all around him are believing. We remember Thomas for his doubt. It’s kind of comforting for the rest of us to think “Thank God I’m not like Thomas, I haven’t seen but I believe!” But why do we believe? Belief has bad press at the moment—people do weird things because they believe in something too much.
We remember how Thomas doubted: “Unless I see the marks, unless I touch the wounds, I will not believe.” But Thomas had a better line a few chapters before. Remember when Jesus was breaking it to his disciples that he was going to risk travelling to see Martha and Mary and Lazarus, even though the authorities were trying to find a way of getting rid of him. Then, even as all the other disciples are grumbling and afraid and doubtful, Thomas is the one who grasps the true meaning of what Jesus is about to do. Jesus is going to bring life to Lazarus but Thomas understands that Jesus is also starting the journey that will end in tears and blood and his own death. Thomas believes and says, forthrightly, “Let’s go with him and die with him.”
Thomas is the faithful one: he knows who Jesus is, and what Jesus has to do. And he has no doubt that he wants to be there too, with him.
What does it take for someone to be willing to die for their belief? What does it take for someone to be willing to give up their lives for their friends?
The 39 who took their own lives in San Diego were willing? Do we want to be like them?
Thomas wanted to be like Jesus even if it meant losing his life. Was Thomas a fanatic like them? What’s the difference?
The difference can only be love. Thomas believed in a person not a cause, not a theory. And he believed because he knew that person, Jesus, intimately, had seen him close up for years, knew they way he lived, knew the way he smiled, knew what got him angry, what made him sad, what gave him joy.
On that first Sunday the Risen Jesus came to his friends and gave them peace and shared his joy. He breathed on them, in person, warm, human breath. It’s ironic that Thomas, the one who wanted to be wherever Jesus was, wasn’t there—he missed out. (See what happens when you don’t go to church on a Sunday!)
So for a whole week Thomas is in limbo. The other’s are telling him to trust them. They offer him second-hand belief—hand-me-down faith. “Thomas! Can’t you just believe because we do? Can’t you trust us? But Thomas’s faith has been in Jesus not his friends, no matter how much he loves them, no matter how much he trusts them. He followed Jesus, not them. He wanted to be with Jesus, not them. Then this morning, this second Sunday, Jesus is again glad to be among his friends breathing peace. His first thought is for Thomas, Thomas who has been waiting for him. He knows what Thomas needs. It’s not evidence he needs to bring him belief, not argument, but a person, a person he knows. Jesus there, for him, in the flesh, marked by the signs of his love. And when he sees, when he touches, he can’t contain himself, he blurts out, “my Lord and my God.” Strange, isn’t it, that this first claim of divinity should be from the mouth of a doubter. Strange, too, that Thomas should recognise God by God’s own wounds? …
None of us can sidestep Thomas’s experience. None of us become real believers, real disciples, without seeing Jesus, without touching him. Our faith can’t be second-hand. We don’t find our deepest faith through other people. We start there. But at some time in our lives that just isn’t enough and then only meeting Jesus himself will do.
In a moment we will baptize ____________ and welcome her into this community of disciples and friends of Jesus. She’s too young to believe for herself right now. That’s why we call on her parents and godparents, and upon this whole community, to carry her in faith until she can. Right now she trusts in Jesus because we do. One day she’ll have to meet Jesus himself and be able to say with Thomas, “my Lord and my God!”
April 6th, 1997
“Try to rest, Mary,” she’s been saying to me since it happened. “Try to rest—your only making it harder for yourself.” She means well—a mother now with no son, trying to be so strong for the daughters she taken under her wing. “If you don’t sleep, Magdalene, you’ll do yourself a damage.” But how can I sleep? How can I sleep with him dead, with hope dead, with all I longed for dead. What is there to sleep for? What is there to wake for?
He was life to me. He was breath and breathing. He was sight and seeing. He was the blood that beat in my veins. He was my food and my drink. I’ve loved him since his first smile, since he first whispered my name. … Enough! There has to be a limit. She’s right—I have to go on. Have to stop these tears and sit still. But I can’t.
I can’t sit still. I can’t wait for morning. I’ve got to do something. Curfew be damned! I’m going out. I’ve got to breathe. I’ve got to be near to him—even now…
That’s better! Just to be moving! In this velvet darkness. With those same stars shining—who’d have thought they still could… Oh, to be doing something at last! … I know there’ll be guards. I know it’s a risk. But anything’s better than pacing those sleepless walls, crying those dry tears. … Anyway, he always liked to take a risk. Used to say his Father had taken a big risk on him so why shouldn’t he be a little daring. A little daring! Raising the dead! Marching on Jerusalem! Turning the Temple upside down! And even when they’d arrested him—even standing there in front of the Governor—he risked defying them—wouldn’t play their games.
Risked too much it seems. We followed him … and watched … and waited. Waited for his risk to pay off. Waited for him to play his trump card. Waiting for the happy ending. Surely he hadn’t risked everything without a safety net? He had to have a way out. I believed that. I trusted that. Trusted him—even right up until the nails were going in … and the screaming started. Then I woke up. He’d gambled and lost. He’d risked everything and there wasn’t a safety net. All he’d said; wasted. All he’d done; a fraud. All he’d told me about myself; lies. All he’d made me hope for; just dying dreams. Oh, yes, I woke up then when he cried out. I haven’t slept since. … I may never …
O my God, did I say I was awake? I didn’t know what awake was until I heard a voice through my tears, say “Mary,” say my name—give me back my name. I didn’t know I was dead until he gave me back my life! … When I saw the tomb empty I fell apart. I could feel the empty tomb inside me. I wailed and ran and fetched the others and then froze there … while all the time the day slowly dawned.
I watched them go in. I watched them go away, arguing. They didn’t think to take me. I’d be there now but for a hand on my shoulder. A half-familiar hand. And a voice whispering my name. And a face with a smile I knew—knew but could hardly believe. Frozen, I was: I could do nothing, could say nothing. Could I believe my eyes, my ears, my skin? Wouldn’t it just be wishful thinking to hold again what’s been snatched from you? Wouldn’t the others be right about me—not enough sleep and too much hysteria? But still he—he who I didn’t dare name—still he smiled. And the smile was so gentle. And his eyes so eager that I believe. That I not embrace all the anxious inner voices alleging madness, preferring fear.
He spoke my name again. “Mary!” I lifted my hand to nearly touch him. But what if he weren’t real? What if I had to lose him all over again? What would be left of Mary, then? Again my name: “Mary?” Was I so important to him that he would come back to me like this and risk my running away? Was he so much to me that I would risk believing my eyes, believing all that inside me wanted to speak his name and kiss his poor, ruined hands?
Was I going to believe in life or death? Mine to choose. Mine to risk. … I met his urgent eyes. “Jesus,” I said.
March 30th, 1997
I’m Andrew, Peter’s brother. We’ve met, remember? I’m with Jesus. I like to tell people that I was the first one to know him. You remember? I used to be with John, the Baptizer, until he sent us looking for someone greater, remember, someone to finally set things to rights, settle with our Roman friends once and for all. It was three years ago I almost ran into him—Jesus—on the street and stammered some stupid question about where he lived. He must have thought me a right fool. But he just smiled and took me along with him. Did we talk that afternoon?! And not only then. I’ve stayed with him these three years, three long, dusty, confusing years. I’ve wondered, sometimes. Would I have stayed if I’d known what was going to happen? I don’t know. But first-disciples have a responsibility— an example to set for the others. And until this afternoon I’ve always thought I understood him.
Mmm… this afternoon. We’re all dead beat. Him as well. We’ve been too long on the road. Too long hiding from every prying eye that might turn us over to our own priests, of all people. Since the incident with Lazarus we’ve had a price on our heads—at least on his—and it’s taking its toll. He’s been so quiet since then. Not like him — who always has a story to tell. Quiet. Brooding. … Troubled. I sat with him in those days after we ran from Bethany. Sat with him as he stared out into the desert haze. Just there, at his side, as a good first disciple should be. And knew this was make or break—his last choice—his last chance at glory. Lazarus had been the last straw. And the rumors were of a deal between our people and theirs to get rid of him, make an example of him. But we knew we had the popular support, we knew that he only had to say the word and the people would rise up behind him and kick out the Romans army and all! I knew, at any rate. I told him as he sat there “this is the time, this is your hour.” Everyone knew it too. The word was buzzing around the countryside—”What do you think? Will he come? Will he come to Jerusalem for the Passover?”
I told him it’s now or never. “You may as well walk away, go back home, if you don’t do it now, if you don’t march on Jerusalem, now.” “It’s do or die.” That got him to look. To turn away from the desert’s shimmering heat and give me one of those looks of his that made me shiver. What did I say? …
But yesterday I got my wish. We turned our faces to Jerusalem—the whole bunch of us—and trudged back to Bethany. To Martha and Mary and Lazarus again. What a meal! What a party! He seemed his old self again that night—laughing and dancing. So alive. Until Mary brought out her precious scented oil and poured it all over him. “For my burial,” he said with tears in his eyes. The glorious smell was everywhere. Made your eyes water. O, but Judas was furious at the waste!
The party mood was back this morning—hangovers or not—as we saddled him up and prepared to show Jerusalem a thing or two. And how the crowds came out scenting change in the air—shouting, screaming, singing. Though I wish we’d have got him a proper horse and not the weedy thing he insisted on. Still the effect was electric, glorious. Now they’d see. Now something had to begin.
I was right and wrong it turned out when some of my folks from Bethsaida turned up—all dressed up for the festival and wanting a closer look at Jesus. “We want to see him too,” they said, “Don’t hog all the glory Andrew.”
So I took them inside to the room we’d rented, all proud to be his disciple—his first disciple—and there he was, head in hands, with tears running down his nose … and dripping on the floor. He looked at me and once more I shivered. “You were right Andrew: the hour has come. Now you’ll see the glory you wanted.” I couldn’t stop shivering but he kept on, “If I love my life so much I’ve already lost it but if I lose it I might find it again. Like a grain of wheat, unless it falls and dies it’s nothing but a grain but if it dies—if it dies Andrew— well then think of the harvest! There’s glory for you!”
I couldn’t answer him—couldn’t look at him. I’ve been wrong all these three years. Wrong about him. Wrong about glory. Wrong about myself. But right too. I pushed him into this. … Which is why I’m staying. I am the first disciple after all. I have a responsibility. And I have to see him through to the end, I have to know how he can do this, and maybe, if I stay, I’ll get a glimpse of this glory.
March 16th, 1997
What’s worse than being ill? … being ill at night! You’re huddled there, sweating and shivering and aching. You feel like death—in fact you half wish that death would at least get it over with—you feel like death and there in the middle of it all you find yourself wishing the light would come, wishing day was here, wishing night would end. We’d rather be ill by daylight. But why? The ache’s the same. The fever, the shakes, the same. But somehow having them in the light seems different. Easier to bear? Less isolated? Somehow we feel safer when day dawns. So we long for the shades to brighten and night to give way to day.
That’s one experience—when the ache is physical—but I imagine we all also know a parallel longing for the dark. When the ache is emotional, the misery mental, when life seems too much like a pathless wood, when the day is grey inside and clouded. Why, then, we can long for dark to fall and cover us, for light to fade and hide us from other peoples’ joys and our own pretence, for the day just to be over so we can sleep and forget.
If we are honest we have known the attractions of darkness just as we have felt the longing for light. And in both—at the end of our tether—we have cried out in pain and need and rage: Help me God I am beyond helping myself! Save me, I cannot save myself!
Salvation, liberation, healing, justice, eternal life, a new creation. Early and often has the human race cried out in pain and need and rage. Early and often, says the Chronicler, has God sent messengers of freedom and salvation.
We all want salvation. We all want liberation. For ourselves and for others. But it seems the price of freedom has been too much for us to pay, the weight of glory too much to bear. For we are still crying out and still lying in the dark pleading for light and still waiting in the twilight for the dark to hide us. Even though we have heard the gospel’s ringing promise that salvation has been given. “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.” So says John: the light has come into the world once and for all; a light shining in the darkness which the darkness cannot extinguish. A sign of healing lifted up for all to see so that all might believe in God’s love and be saved. But John also knows there’s a catch: Jesus saves, yes, but Jesus reveals. The light of the world that casts shadows, separates light from dark. Where there had been tones of gray there is now sharp contrast. God sent the Son into the world to save it but his coming has been a judgement—literally a crisis. And the crisis is this: before, in the twilight, our options were hidden but now the light shines and the shadows are clear. The world now has fewer options. “Maybe” will no longer do as an answer. Only “yes” or “no.” Which is it going to be: the light or the dark? Since Jesus came there is no evading the choice. A choice that ought to be easy, thinks John.
But it hasn’t been. This is John’s scandal. This is what John can barely believe. That the light has come into the world and yet the world has loved darkness better. How can it be that when salvation is on offer—free, gratis, and for nothing—how can it have been so rejected? He came to his own but his own would not receive him. The light came but we tried to extinguish him. How could we do it? Why is the choice so hard?
There’s a Lenten question for us! If we so want salvation, healing, freedom, why do we so prefer to be lost, to be sick, to be bound? Why do we so prefer to lose, to sicken, to bind? As Lent carries us closer to the drama of Holy Week it must bring us, too, to a crisis. What are we afraid of? What are we hiding? What keeps us out of the light? It’s not as if we had to be perfect—my God, that’s why we need salvation in the first place—we just need to be willing to come out of hiding and to let the light shine on us with all our complex mixture of good and bad, of strength and weakness, of vice and virtue. On pain and need and rage. We just need to be willing to be who we are. To let the light reveal our wholeness so that we might love ourselves the way that God loves us.
March 9th, 1997
It’s all a question of knowing where we are going. The first two readings set it up very clearly—in Lent we are heading once more to the Baptismal waters of Easter—but, to paraphrase Eliot, do we go all that way for a birth or a death? … It’s all a question of knowing where we are going.
A friend of mine worked for these past few years with refugees in East Africa—displaced, hungry, shattered people. Even among outcasts there are outcasts, the weakest of the weak—in particular the HIV positive who with little care and minimal medication quickly develop full-blown AIDS. And there in East Africa AIDS it isn’t a rarity, isn’t confined to any one portion of the community, AIDS is everywhere. Yet, for all it is common, its fear dissolves communities as it works the complete isolation of its sufferers. Even what little they have, what little they have been able to keep, is stripped from them as gradually they are edged out of the meagre comforts of the community. Figuratively, and then literally, pushed to the edge and beyond until they are driven into the desert to die alone and un-mourned. Only the kindness of strangers—people like my friend—stands between them and a forgotten death. Hands that will touch, and lift up and carry them back, out of the desert’s dryness, into the oasis of human care, to know life again before they must leave it.
Such a different desert from the one where Jesus, drenched still from the Jordan, is driven by the spirit. Despite the accusation and the testing this desert is for Jesus a place of life, a place of wild but ministering spirits, a place of calling. There, like the great prophets before him, like Moses and Elijah, he is nourished, cared for, and grows to new life, so that he can walk from the desert’s womb and storm Galilee with his message of urgent life: “Spring is here. Something new is here. God is here. Change! Believe the good news!”
Two very different experiences of desert. Womb or tomb? A holy place or a horror? It’s all a question of knowing where we are going. The spirit of life drives Jesus into the desert to be born again. The spirit of death drives the refugee into the desert to dwindle and die.
Entering Lent, we have to ask where we are being driven, and—more—which spirits are doing the driving. Mark paints a picture of Jesus in constant dialogue with angels and demons, companioned by spirits who attract him or repel him, care for him or plot his downfall. He is on first-name terms with darkness. He is fed at the hand of angels. Our difference from Jesus is not that he is a-swim in a sea of spirits and we are not but, rather, that he can tell them apart while we struggle even to feel their influence.
But recognising their influence, and telling them apart, is the key. Who is leading me into Lent? Friend or foe? If I know that I know whether to go hopefully into the desert or to kick and scream and cry out for rescue.
These are the Lenten questions. They are prior to questions of what we will do for Lent. Of what we will give up. Of what we will take up. Of fasting, charity, and prayer. The first question is “Who wants us to do any of this?” Which spirits guide us? Do we go all that way for a birth or a death? … It is all a question of knowing where we are going.
February 16th, 1997
Why do we come here on Ash Wednesday? Why do we come now in greater numbers than on Easter? Why do we inconvenience our work day just to get a blackened brow that will embarrass us and confuse our colleagues? It’s not obligation that brings us—there is none. It may be custom, or habit, or maybe a touch of superstition. But it goes much deeper than that.
I think it goes beneath the surface of success in our lives. It reaches wholeness—that mixture of good and bad, success and failure, hope and fear—that belong to us all. It’s a sign of the cross we leave here with today. A sign of the life and death of one man long ago whose living and dying changed the world. Not the way we’d like to change it maybe. Not very successfully, not very efficiently, not in blaze of light, and not once and for all. The change that Jesus made was messy, dirty, bought at the price of hardship and blood—and it is unfinished. But it is not forgotten. Ash Wednesday intrudes on the daily-ness of our living to remind us of deep and sometimes dark realities. It makes a mark on our washed and shaved and made-up faces—a mark of death and a promise of unlikely life.
2000 years ago someone loved life enough to die for it. 2000 years later we love life enough to never forget his death. By carrying his cross on our blackened faces we refuse to forget him. And we refuse to forget ourselves, our whole selves, with our light and our dark, our ash and our fire, our dirt and our green growth.
Ash Wednesday ought to be a relief to us. The secret is out—plastered on our foreheads. We are not perfect. We are not all we would like to be. But what we are is enough. What we are is enough for God. Someone has loved us enough to die for us. The sign of the cross we accept today is a sign of our willingness to love—to love and to do whatever it takes to continue what he started.
February 12th, 1997