10 April 2009
It’s been something of a crazy week. Of course churches keep a crazy schedule this week, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Like every Holy Week, it’s been a kind of emotional rollercoaster.
From the child-like exuberance of our Palm Sunday Processions, to its shocking turn toward the solemnity of the rest of the week, there have been many ups and downs. And today is no exception. In the course of just this day our story will take us high upon the cross and low into the tomb – a kind of living image in miniature of the highs and lows of the rest of the week.
I imagine this service must be something like what it was like on that day in Jerusalem so long ago. After the crowd lost the energy of the moment that spurred them on in the trial, after the beatings and abuse, after the humiliating walk to Golgotha, after the hammering of the nails through flesh and into wood and hoisting the cross and its cargo into position… After all of that, there must have been at least a moment. Perhaps some of the crowd grew bored of the spectacle. Perhaps the spectacle began to die. After all of this, there must have been some moment when quiet intruded on agony. There must have been some moment for reflection, even if those present couldn’t really know what they were reflecting upon.
So it makes sense for us to suspend the spectacle and to allow the quiet to intrude and to make space for the real work of today – the work of the quiet.
I’d like to share a poem that I heard this week on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.
Feeding the New Calf
by Joyce Sutphen
by Joyce Sutphen
The torso comes out slick and black,
after hoofs that are yellowed
like smoker's teeth, the back
two legs crossed over each other and
the head last, bunched over front legs.
Minutes later he is standing wobbly,
and the blunt mouth is sucking at my arm,
tongue rough as sandpaper, tickling along my
skin, ripping up the fine hair over my wrist.
I tie him with a rope of bailing twine,
Shake out a chunk of straw around him,
as the dust rises in the sunlit aisle. I pet
the wet coat that curls over his sharp
backbone, scratch ears that are thick as
tulip leaves, bent in the womb. Angus baby.
I think of the blue-gray afterbirth, like a shawl
he wore, now left in the gutter, of his mother,
how she groaned him out of her belly, her back
rocking back and forth in the metal stanchion,
the velvet fold of her throat on the cold cement.
After I pour the milk into a pail, I go to
where he is lunging on the rope, where he is
singing a desperate duet with his mother:
din of soulful mooing. I get him to suck
at the nipple, pulling his mouth over to it
with my hands dipped in his mother’s milk,
my small solid fingers and not her warm udders,
no peach-veined bag to sink his cheek on.
The clouds sunk in his large brown eyes
float blue. He nudges me, hard.
I’m a faithful listener of Writer’s Almanac. I don’t catch every episode, but I always find that whenever I do, something in my soul gets fed in an unexpected way.
Earlier this week, while driving home from a Tenebrae service, I happened to accidentally stumble across Writer’s Almanac once again when I heard this poem. It struck me how much this picture of birth is similar to the picture we paint in our annual reliving of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Birth and death really aren’t that different. They stand together as some of the messiest and most mysterious moments of our lives. Of course, scientists have done amazing work explaining the processes of both to us, but they never can really get at the biggest question around these most significant life transitions – “why?”
Today the story of Jesus’ death was told again. We tell it again and again because we need to hear it again and again. It was messy. In was inhumane. It was wet and cold and lonely.
It was life.
Like the cold, wet, messy story of the birth of a calf, the story of Jesus’ death on the Cross was simply the truth of life. Neither good nor bad in its own merit. Just truth.
Theologians, like scientists, have tried to answer that persistent question – “Why did he have to die?”
If you listen to the story of the Passion as it is told in John’s Gospel, you hear of a Jesus who is in full control. Even to the moment of his death he was at work fulfilling the prophecies of ancient Israel, until at last he speaks those final words, “It is finished.” The words of the prophets have been made true, and now the time of death has come. He submits in humble service to humanity and to God.
So according to John, it seems that the answer to the question of “why” is about fulfilling the prophecy – about making the messiahship of Jesus appear valid to the skeptics.
Others throughout history – and probably people in this room – think that Jesus had to die as a kind of sacrifice for our own fallenness and brokenness. Like the offerings to God in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was the ultimate offering. The best, first, and only Son of God – slain in exchange for our life. He suffered so we wouldn’t have to.
More recently theologians and social theorists have begun to examine the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. As one who challenged the prevailing authorities of his day, Jesus (not surprisingly) encountered resistance. When he refused to back down in the face of that resistance, the social powers began to fear him, and in a predictable reaction, that fear drove them to murder.
It’s a common story. Those who challenge authority risk the wrath of authority. And Jesus certainly challenged the authority of his time.
So, why did he have to die?
All of these are attempts at an answer to that question. I won’t stand here and presume to tell you which one is right. In the mystery of this Holy Week, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that they all are right, in their own way.
But our job here today is not to figure out the answer to that persistent question – why? The “why” can wait. In the weeks and months and years that stretch out before us we can start to tackle that one. Like his friends who were left behind, we, too, who are left behind will have time enough to wrestle with “why”.
Today we are not scientists or theologians. Today we let the questions rest.
Today we are poets. We simply stand in awe and observation like a poet who reflects on the mysterious holiness of the transitions of life.
When the time was right, the calf of Joyce Sutphen’s poem sloughed off its mother’s womb in a messy and lonely journey to all that would lie ahead. A beginning – entirely natural and perhaps even predictable, yet unlike any other.
And when the time was right, our Jesus would become Christ. He would slough off the weight of this world in a messy and lonely journey to all that would lie ahead. “It is finished,” yes. But it’s only beginning.
So we wait.
In awe and wonder at the mystery and the holiness, we wait. And we watch. And like a poet, we take it in, as much as we can, because there will be time enough for the “whys”.