On Friday, a group of us from Madison’s Episcopal churches walked the stations of the cross in the downtown. The Stations of the Cross are a traditional Roman Catholic devotion, consisting of prayers and meditations commemorating Jesus’ journey from his condemnation to death to his burial. Traditionally there were fourteen stations, and they are a common fixture in most Roman Catholic, and many Episcopal churches, with images depicting each of the stations mounted on the walls of naves.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Palm Sunday is an experience of liturgical whiplash. We begin with joy, celebration, with loud hosannas and singing, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” But the mood shifts as we enter the nave and sing Ride On! Ride on in majesty.” It’s a hymn that begins with the Triumphal Entry but ends with a foreshadowing of the cross:
In lowly pomp, ride on to die
Bow thy meek head to mortal pain
In the same way our own emotions and participation shift, too, from praise and joy to condemnation as we shout with the crowd in Jerusalem, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Continue reading
“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
We’ve been singing those words to a simple melody the past few Sundays during communion; we will continue to do so through Maundy Thursday this week. It may be that you found both the words and music monotonous; you may have found them meaningful. It may be that you had no idea where they came from, what they meant, or why we might be using this chant from the ecumenical monastic community of Taize, France. Continue reading
April 1, 2012
“Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabachthani!” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” As I reflect on Mark’s version of the passion narrative that we just heard, I marvel at the enigma with which Mark presents us. Mark gives us little to work with, and what he does give us is profoundly unsettling. In Mark, there is nothing of the familiar Christian understanding of the cross as Jesus dying for our sins, there is no mention of sacrifice, no substitutionary atonement. Instead, Mark challenges the careful reader and the thoughtful Christian to wrestle with the tragedy and the horror of the crucifixion.
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to understand what the crucifixion meant for Mark, we need to begin here, with this question. According to Mark, these are the last words Jesus spoke on the cross. How were they meant? Did Jesus speak them in anger, or resignation, fear or despair?
How are we to understand them? For Christians who know anything about the faith, interpreting these words literally is nonsensical. How can God forsake Jesus? After all, Jesus is God. Remember though, Mark was writing without the benefit of 2000 years of theological baggage, before the centuries of debate and speculation that eventually led to our understanding that Jesus was both human and divine.
Mark meant those words absolutely literally. They are the culmination of the passion narrative, because for Mark, Jesus dies utterly alone, abandoned by all of his disciples. Most of the disciples fled at his arrest, and Mark dramatizes their flight by a puzzling mention of a young man whose robe is torn him from as he tries to run, and he ends up fleeing naked. Peter made it to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house before deciding that “the better part of valor was discretion,” denied he knew Jesus and fled the scene. So at the cross, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus was alone, surrounded only by his executioners. There were, according to Mark, women, female disciples, watching on from a distance, and they would be the first to return.
Jesus dies utterly alone, abandoned by his closest friends, and for Mark, that is precisely the point. Thus the question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” dares us to wonder whether Jesus felt abandoned by God.
But Mark answers that question immediately by giving to the centurion the famous line, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” And again, Mark leaves no room for debate or discussion. He says quite clearly that the centurion was looking directly at Jesus and that it was because of the way in which Jesus died that led him to make that confession. By the way, it is the first time in Mark’s gospel that a human being confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
A few weeks ago, we heard a passage from earlier in Mark’s gospel where Jesus told his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem and be crucified and that if they wanted to be his disciples, they needed to take up their cross and follow him. That’s the message of Mark’s gospel, that’s the meaning of the cross. For Mark, Jesus death is the awaits those who would follow him. It was a death brought about by Jesus’ challenge to the political and religious authorities of his day.
That message is hard to hear; it was hard to hear in the first century, and because of that when Matthew wrote his version of Jesus’ crucifixion, he toned it down considerably. But it has been hard to hear throughout the history of Christianity and for that reason we have over the centuries developed alternative interpretations, many of them.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We, the readers of Mark know the answer to the question Jesus asks God. God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead. But the resurrection for Mark did not lessen the power of Jesus’ death. It gave it meaning. If he had not been raised from the dead, Jesus would have been no different from the countless thousands of others that Rome crucified over the centuries.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Those words of despair and abandonment will accompany us this holiest of weeks. We will hear them again, on Maundy Thursday, as the altar is stripped. We will say them then, as we read together Psalm 22. And again, on Good Friday, we will say them together as we remember and reflect on the crucifixion.
Jesus’ question cries out to us across the centuries. It challenges our faith and devotion; it challenges our experience of Holy Week. We think we know what it all means. Christians have wrapped it all up in a tidy package to make sense of it. But that question, if asked seriously, challenges it all, turns our lives and our faith upside-down and inside out.
This week, we are invited to walk with Jesus as he walks toward the cross. He has bid us to take up our crosses and follow him. To walk with Jesus toward the cross is to accept his vision for the world, his vision of the kingdom of God. To walk with Jesus toward the cross is to be faithful to that vision, to reach out in love to all, come what may. As we make our way through Holy Week this year, I pray that all of us experience anew and with power Christ’s love for us and that we share that love with the world.
April 17, 2011
Palm Sunday brings us back to that familiar place and that familiar story. We have entered Holy Week and are walking with Jesus and his disciples through the last week of Jesus’ life, commemorating day by day the things that took place that week two thousand years ago. Holy Week is full of drama and emotion and if you participate in the services this week, especially Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, you will experience the depths of human suffering and pain, even as we all look forward to the joyous celebration of the resurrection. Continue reading
Holy Week is going to be interesting. I probably didn’t articulate it to myself or to anyone else, but my approach coming into Grace was to experience worship and then to make changes to reflect my own theological and liturgical concerns. My predecessor gave me a very clear road-map and when talking to worship leaders and altar guild, it seemed that they were expecting something of the same of me.
Instead, I wanted to experience it. Part of that has to do with the people, their gifts, assumptions, and needs, but a great deal of it has to do with the space. One of the questions that I ask repeatedly is “How do we best worship in this space?”
But I’m also interested in shaping the liturgy in ways that I find meaningful. There were already some last-minute changes. Someone pointed out to me the rather obvious starting point of the Guild Hall for our Palm Sunday procession, rather than the undercroft. It made sense, both for those of our parishioners who have trouble climbing stairs, and because it was a beautiful day.
There’s the other challenge, the one created by the hybrid nature of Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. How do you move effectively from the joy and celebration of Blessing of Palms and Procession to the Passion?
What I want to know is how to use the church’s space to help make that transition.