March 29, 2013
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
After all these years, there are still things in our rich tradition that jump out and surprise me: passages of scripture or prayers we recite regularly that I’ve never really heard before, at least in the same way.
This year when I was standing at Kathryn’s desk, preparing the bulletins for Holy Week liturgies, I read quickly through the ones for Good Friday. For some reason, I imagined myself as someone walking in off the street who had never been to a Good Friday service before. What would they experience? Betrayal, beating, distress, scorn, blood, abandonment, packs of encircling dogs, bones out of joint, death, and the grave.
I looked up and said to Kathryn “This is really dark.”
It is dark, the darkest day of the year. And yet millions are drawn to it, all over the world. We always have been. There’s something so compelling about it - an innocent man of love and truth, beaten and hung on a cross, earthquakes and darkness, weeping and despair - described in great detail and laid bare for all the world to see. And yet we come, drawn to it as if it were a magnet.
It’s like the attraction to Ash Wednesday - “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or Dia de los Muertos, with all those grinning skeletons dancing, drinking, getting married. Or the thousands this day on pilgrimage to Chimayo, carrying crosses, re-enacting the Passion. Or Gothic vampire movies, now so popular with young teenage girls.
Are we morbid? What is all this about?
None of us wants to experience suffering or death, and yet we know it comes to all of us. And when it comes, we will not be in control, for it has a life of its own. So perhaps with these ghoulish stories and depictions, we are cautiously trying to make friends with it, so it won’t seem so chaotic, so powerful. After all, isn’t what is known and acknowledged less frightening than what is unknown and repressed?
Maybe by playing with skeletons and vampires, and by praying our way through someone else’s suffering and death, we bring it in closer, but not too close, so that we can make it more familiar, less terrifying, and gain some sense of control. It’s like the old saying “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
But there are times when we can’t embrace the darkness. A devastating loss, a debilitating disease, violence, and even the facing of our own real death when it comes - these things can be impossible to make friends with. They come along like tornadoes, and we are overwhelmed, out of control. No matter how many Good Fridays we’ve been through, we’re not prepared. What do we do then?
In the years I have walked with others through times like these, I have only seen two things that seem to help. And they both are ways in which Jesus himself endured his own Passion.
The first is a return to the present moment in God. By an act of the will, we can choose to focus our attention not on what is churning around in our brain - Why did this happen, how badly this might turn out, what it will be like if it does - but rather, on what is actually happening right now. We look at what we know, not at what we do not know. And what do we know, right now, at any time?
We know the physical sensations of our body, whether we are well or sick, comfortable or in pain. We know what comes through the other senses - what we see, hear, and touch. We know the people who surround us, the love we give and receive. We know the sky above, the earth below our feet. And we know God’s Spirit, always here.
In times of suffering, it is a very simple yet powerful shift to move from what is churning around in our brain to the moment at hand. It takes us away from what might be possible and grounds us in what is actual. This, I believe, is part of what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the kingdom of God. It is here; it is now; it is among you; it is within you, he said.
Even when things are not going well, even when there seems to be chaos, there is our breath. There is the comfort of love, the sunlight through the window, the stillness that opens up and reveals the divine dimension. Returning to the kingdom of God in this present moment, we can move from panic to peace, regardless of our external circumstances.
I think that Jesus carried this sense of the divine dimension, the kingdom of God, through all his trials. I think that when betrayal, arrest, humiliation, and suffering came to him, he was at the same time open to something else, something that could not be harmed or taken away from him. This doesn’t mean that he was tranquil, unperturbed - he was human, like all of us. But I imagine that he was also in touch with the divine dimension, even at the end. How else could he have said, at the end, when things were at their worst, “Into your hands I commend my spirit”?
The second thing that seems to help when we are overwhelmed with difficulties is the big picture. When our friend Ellen Novak died last fall at the much-too-young age of 61, leaving behind two teenage children and a life she loved, she had managed to get to the big picture.
After months of fear and resistance, after feeling that her life was closing down and ending badly, it began to open up. In that opening she could see her whole life, her children’s lives ahead of them, the sweep of humanity, life and eternity, earth and heaven. And it gave her peace.
Every religious tradition, including ours, offers some kind of continuation of life beyond the 8 or 9 decades (if we are fortunate) that we enjoy here on earth. Whether it is heaven or karma or a return to the Source from which we came, there is a conviction that this is not all there is. Spirit is unhindered by time and space, by what we call the physical laws of nature, unhindered by death. We are a part of a reality not only beyond the material plane, but beyond our imagination.
Jesus knew this, of course. At his trial, he said to Pilate, who threatened him with death, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And he comforted the thief hanging on the cross next to him by saying “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Today, in our solemn remembrance of those gruesome last hours in Jesus’ life, we are doing something that is pretty dark. We draw near to the darkness in the hope of reducing its power over us. We face it in the hope of learning something from it.
As we peer into this darkness, we see that this it is filled with God’s loving presence, that the kingdom of God is even there. And as we stay there, looking yet more deeply, we also see that it opens up to a reality beyond our imagination, to eternity. This is why we call this Friday “Good.”