Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Willing Suspension of Belief

That's what I've been doing in this holy week: willingly suspending what I know the Bible tells us (and what even my heart tells me) of a Christ who rose on Sunday. I've just now been able to articulate that's what I've been trying to do: to walk through this holy week as if I did not know how it all turns out, as if I only knew what Jesus' friends and contemporaries knew.

Through this week, I've tried to worship and pray each day as if I were witnessing those long-ago events. Without using my knowledge of the resurrection to numb or deflect the pain of betrayal and suffering. Because that's how it was some two millennia ago for those who knew Jesus. Maybe that's even how it was for him. He suffered the betrayal and loneliness on Thursday night. He suffered the humiliation and physical torture on Friday. Apparently, he even suffered the spiritual torment of believing God had forsaken him. When his followers – even the previously "secretive" ones – took his broken, dead body and placed it in a tomb at dusk on Friday, that was it. The end, as far as they knew.

This Saturday that we now call "Holy Saturday" must have been the saddest, most despair-filled day to all those who had known Jesus. Recalling how he had loved them, how he had healed people, how he had been a true lover of their souls … it must have seemed to them on Saturday like a dream followed by a nightmare, from which they had to wake and face the sad reality of a life without Jesus. They must have questioned all their hopes, all their faith, everything.

So tonight, I am not trying to race into Easter. I'm imagining what it must have been for those people who surrounded Jesus. I imagine all these memories kept running through their minds and breaking their hearts. As one image in this video reminds us, surely even the angels must have wept at Jesus' death.

Video courtesy of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts

My "willing suspension of belief" allowed the Maundy Thursday service to tear my heart out. Celebrating a meal with my community of believers. Taking communion for the last time. Watching in my darkened church as the altar guild stripped the church of every sacred symbol that speaks to Christ's continuing life and presence. Gone are the candles, the cross, the reserved sacrament, the lovely paraments – all the things that remind us we are "Easter people." It forced me to confront what life would be like had Jesus died and that-was-that. It forced me to confront the "What-if?" It forced me to confront what a pitiful life I would have, what hopelessness we would have, if the crucifixion really had been the end of the story.

At noontime on Friday, I joined my parish in a simple liturgy of the Stations of the Cross. Then I returned to church last night for the Good Friday liturgy – a simple and stark service in a bare church, in which I had to bear the entire Passion story again. As much as I could, I allowed myself to step back in time and take in the events of that day, the humiliation Jesus must have felt, the heartbreaking grief he must have felt as the world he came to save rejected him, sentenced him to death. I was struck by the realization that he could have destroyed his tormentors with a word. He could have flown away from the cross. Some deep part of my heart kept begging for the events to stop. I wanted the crowd to choose Jesus, not Barabbas. I wanted Pilate to overrule the religious leaders. Throughout his life, Jesus did stunning, miraculous things. But he did not say a word nor lift a finger to save his own life. He went like a sheep to the slaughter. Why? This is the best answer I can offer tonight: I think he suffered all that to teach his followers and us one last lesson: "This is what love looks like."

On Thursday night and again on Friday, I remained kneeling in my pew for quite a while after the service ended, allowing myself to experience the grief and the sense of loss, trying to take in the enormity of what had happened. It's not unlike the way I continued to hold Shug in my arms last month, even after I knew she had passed from life to death. Nor unlike my staying at the cemetery back in October after my mother's funeral, waiting until the last soil had been placed over her grave. Yes, I recognize some will say there shouldn't be an equivalence between them. But I recognize a similarity for, in each case, it's about me not wanting to let go of the living creature, for I don't know what to do next. That's what I would have done, had I been standing at the foot of the cross when Jesus died. I would probably have remained there, trying to let it sink in, thinking, "Surely this cannot be happening!"

Today I found Mark Harris' Good Friday sermon, and it spoke more eloquently about what I was experiencing:

"That is why on Good Friday and every other Friday in people's lives as they come to death, one of the most powerful things we can do is be truly present with them and with one another.

The power in the powerlessness is this: Stay present, stay with it, stay with the grief, the awe in knowing the suffering, stay with Jesus never more human, never more God present with us. Stay with Jesus.
In baptism we die with Jesus and are raised with him into New Life. So today we die just a bit. After all the efforts to make a difference we are brought up short; there is nothing to be done. Time is up. He said it most simply, "It is finished."
Last year on Palm Sunday, I heard a sermon challenging me to walk with Jesus all the way through holy week. I tried last year – missing only a couple of services. And it was a deep experience for me, as I wrote, especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

As Caminante recently preached: ". . . [I]t is so hard sometimes to believe with our heart and soul (much more difficult than with our intellect) that God loves us. For so many of us, we are on a life-long journey to own that good news." Without a doubt, that is a struggle for me. And that's probably why I have tried to stay close to Jesus through this holy week. I want to get as close to the action as I can, in hopes that I may someday grasp he loves me as much as he loved all those around him during his too-short earthy life.

So this year I joined my parish each day, and I have discovered that the power of that "walk" is just immense. I don't think I can ever again jump from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. For me, the resurrection is just too cheap without this walk through the week of Jesus' final lessons, his celebration with his disciples, and his betrayal and crucifixion. I'm not a very disciplined person, and it took a lot of discipline for me to make all these services. But I am glad I did it. I understand a little more what my salvation cost.

I've kept a quiet day on this Saturday, trying to identify with the destitute and bereft feelings Jesus' friends and disciples must have experienced on that Saturday.

Thank God, I do have the knowledge that a marvelous gift will be revealed tomorrow morning when the women discover that empty tomb. But I'm trying not to rush it.


Blogger Caminante said...

Once someone has walked the way of the cross during Holy Week, it is hard to jump from Palm Sunday to Easter. I just wish I could convince more people that coming on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday matters.

It even is possible to walk this all without suspending what one knows. It hits the heart just as hard though in different ways each year.

Glad you did it.

3/24/2008 11:32 AM  
Blogger Fran said...

This is an extraordinary and beautiful post, clearly from your heart.

Thank you for sharing it.

That part about jumping from palm Sunday to Easter will be imprinted up on me and for that I am grateful.

Peace to you.

3/27/2008 8:09 PM  

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