The 40 days of Lent that lead to Easter are the most sacred and spiritually powerful in the Christian calendar. From the Ash Wednesday reminder to 'remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,' to the the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, to the joyful Easter song of 'Christ the Lord Is Risen Today' -- Lent is a time when Christians are invited to examine our faith, and deepen the commitment to live the Christian life.
Starting on February 22, Ash Wednesday, HuffPost Religion offers you the opportunity to walk together with an on-line community of pilgrims through this season of grown and discovery. Each day HuffPost will be updating this liveblog with scripture lessons, prayers, music, poetry, hymns, ideas for charitable service and supportive comments and suggestions from fellow HuffPost Lent community members to help make your fast meaningful and powerful.
We will also be offering daily Lenten reflections by some of the most respected Christian voices who will share with you deep wisdom for your walk with Christ. We will constantly be updating this liveblog with Lenten spiritual resources for your fast. All Christian traditions are encouraged to participate whether or not Lent is observed in your church.
“SEPULCHER” – by George HerbertOh blessed body! Whither art thou thrown? No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone? So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
Receive thee?Sure there is room within our hearts good store; For they can lodge transgressions by the score: Thousands of toys1 dwell there, yet out of door
They leave thee.But that which shows them large, shows them unfit. Whatever sin did this pure rock commit, Which holds thee now? Who hath indicted it
Of murder?Where our hard hearts have took up stones2 to brain thee, And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee; Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,
And order.And as of old, the law by heav’nly art, Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art The letter of the word,3 find’st no fit heart
To hold thee.Yet do we still persist as we began, And so should perish, but that nothing can, Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.
In the Christian scheme, there is a break, a bright hard line in history, represented by the direct intervention, the gratuitous (freely, graciously given) personal revelation of the Creator in the lives of real human beings.
This event is reckoned as the most important of all events: the incarnation of the only begotten Son of the only Father God as a man, Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth, who came to live and die as one of us. You and me. It is a continuing divine revelation in the sense that an assembly of believers has remained in existence ever since, continuously, claiming the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and passed on to succeeding generations the doctrine (that is, the truth) of that greatest-ever happening.
Believers have recorded and codified the manifestation of the Event in the four Gospels of the canon (the small library of books generally accepted by the church's ministerial leadership or hierarchy) that dates to within two centuries of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the same Jesus. The crux of the case for Christianity is the death of the God-turned-man--and his triumph over that death.
Thus, the symbol and source of the Christian belief is the crucifixion, the image of a man writhing in utter agony on a cross of wood, which represents the Roman (read: "human") genius for torture and execution.
Essential, as well, to the understanding of core Christian belief, especially as represented in the Gospel writings, is the concept of mystery.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches, which lay claim to being the oldest in direct apostolic succession among all the Christian churches and denominations, place great emphasis on the "mystery of faith" and the "mysteries" of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. In this context mystery means "not fully knowing" and "not capable of being fully known" by human reason. It does not mean "cannot be known" or "not ever to be fully understood or revealed." Which returns us to the equally poignant concept of time or "salvation history."
Thus the "mystery of the cross" is an invitation for believers to reflect on the willingness of their Creator to suffer the worst degradation imaginable by someone like them--and so unlike them so as to redeem them from their sins.
Christian traditions other than Catholic and Orthodox, such as Bible-based Protestant churches and modern-day evangelicals, may choose to emphasize aspects of the crucifixion other than mystery, per se, though all who believe that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah acknowledge the leap of faith - over the chasm of the unknown and unbelief necessary to achieve the personal relationship with the Savior that fulfills the resurrection-promise of the New Testament. In fact, in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, depictions of Jesus' death dominate depictions of his resurrection.
The death on the cross is the one moment, memorialized on Good Friday in the Church calendar, of the utter humanity, complete and irrevocable, of the Messiah. That point is a pivot from which all else follows in the Christian world view.
What creates this bright-line demarcation on the continuum of history? The four Gospels attributed, in chronological order of their writing, to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, tell the story as it was handed down (perhaps witnessed by one of the evangelists, John). The symbolism emerged in the early centuries of the life of the Christian Church, though it wasn't always the dominant image: Think of the Chi-Rho or the ubiquitous fish.
But through the ages artists seized on this pithy and violent depiction of the one moment and found a bottomless appetite for the image. Every Catholic Church in the world displays the crucifix, as does every Rosary.
There is hope that we can know, but it requires of the believer a total investment of body and soul - and it requires of God, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to move actively in that same body and soul. At least, that is a Christian-Trinitarian formulation of the process of an individual's conversion to belief, to a way of death, which leads to eternal life, represented by the image of the man on the cross, flanked by two thieves or revolutionaries and labeled with a mocking sign.
INRI: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. He died under Pontius Pilate, then . . . well, you know the rest of the story.
And we all know how he died: A particularly gruesome form of public execution known as crucifixion.
But many Christians are less sure of how it works. How is it that Jesus' death accomplishes the forgiveness of my sin? By what cosmic mechanism does that take place?
In other words, there comes a time in every Christian's life when the Sunday School answer, "Jesus died for my sins," falls short. We want to know how it works.
You'd think that this is among the most central of all Christian doctrines to work out. And, indeed, much ink has been spilled, and many pixels typed, regarding this doctrine, called the "atonement" by theologians. But it's also worth noting that never in the 2,000-year history of the church has one's take on the atonement been a matter of orthodoxy versus heresy. Never was it the subject of an ecumenical council, nor was it ever enshrined in an early church creed.
That historical reality affords us some latitude to consider the major ways that Christians have understood the atonement over the years, and to ponder some minority opinions as well. In each, the crucifixion is the solution. Where they differ is the problem. In other words, what is the problem that the crucifixion solves?
The First Majority Opinion
For the first millennium of the church, a particular view of the atonement held sway. In this take -- alternatively called "ransom captive" and Christus victor -- the problem is Satan. When Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit and were cast out of the garden, this theory goes, humanity was given over to the Devil, and he held us hostage for generations. Eventually, God struck a deal with the Devil, giving his own Son over in our stead. We were released and Jesus was killed. But -- surprise! -- God played a trick on Satan when Jesus rose on Easter morning. God got to have his cake (reunion with humanity) and eat it too (resurrection of his Son).
If this take on the crucifixion sounds familiar, that's because it was enshrined by C.S. Lewis in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Substitute Edmund for humanity, Turkish Delight for the fruit of the Garden, the White Witch for Satan, and Aslan for God/Jesus, and you've got the cast. Aslan offers himself as a ransom for Edmund and is slaughtered on the Stone Table (read, Cross).
But this explanation of the atonement is rife with problems, not least of which is that, in the Narnia version, Aslan is bound by a "deep magic from the dawn of time." It's a pretty weak God who has to obey arbitrary rules like that. And it seems highly unlikely that God would have to negotiate with the Devil for anything.
The Second Majority Opinion
For these reasons, a new version of the atonement rose to prominence about 1,000 years ago. This theory, called "substitutionary atonement," posits that the problem isn't Satan, it's sin.
In this account, when Eve and Adam ate the fruit, they committed a mortal crime. Their rebellion against God was punishable by death, and they lost their immortality. Every subsequent human being has been guilty of the same crime, and each of us has been sentenced to death.
But it's not just physical death. God's sense of justice is perfect, this theory postulates, so God cannot possibly allow a sinful being into his eternal presence in heaven. Thus, we're not only sentenced to die, we're also sentenced to an eternity in hell.
In fact, the offense to God is so great that the debt can only be paid by a perfect, sinless being, and there's only one being in all of creation who fits the bill. So God's Son descends to Earth and pays the price for all of us by dying on the cross. Jesus acts as a substitute for humanity, standing between us and God and absorbing the wrath and punishment that should rightfully be ours.
The substitutionary interpretation of the atonement has problems, too. For one, it binds God to a sense of law and justice; if God is subservient to a legal code of crime and punishment, then the legal code itself becomes God. And for another, the Son is demoted to a junior partner of the Trinity, merely doing the Father's bidding. This has led some theologians to characterize this theory as "divine child abuse."
Recently, alternative understandings of the atonement have been proposed. French anthropologist René Girard sees the sacrificial systems of primitive religions as a release valve in human society. We want what others have; that leads to rivalries; and that leads to violence. In ancient religions, humans regularly laid their sins on an innocent victim and slaughtered it, hoping the blood would appease the angry gods.
Jesus' crucifixion -- the death of the ultimate innocent victim -- shows once and for all that the sacrificial system is bankrupt, proving that violence does not atone for violence.
German theologian Jürgen Moltmann suggests that Jesus' life and death is an act of solidarity between God and humanity. After trying to reunite with us through laws and sacrifice, through prophets and kings, God takes the ultimate step of reunification, becoming human. Jesus' cry from the cross -- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" -- shows that in the crucifixion, God experienced the most human of all feelings: the absence of God. In so doing, God bridged the gap that sin had caused between us.
Coming to Conclusions
One benefit of the atonement not being a matter of orthodoxy is that Christians are free to hold more than one theory of how it works. For that matter, there's no requirement that a follower of Christ affirm any of these notions at all.
As with all theology, talk of the atonement is conjecture. God's truth is ultimately a mystery to which no human being is privy. However, as we approach Good Friday, Christians rightly consider the crucifixion and its implications. I hope that we do so with grace and good humor.
For my part, it's clear. I'm not interested in a God who needs to bargain with the Devil, or in a God who is bound to a legal system, no matter how just it seems to us. The crucifixion was the single most pivotal event in the history of the cosmos. In it, we see that the true character of God is love. God loves with an immensity that is hard to fathom. So much, in fact, that he forsook much of that divinity in order to find solidarity with you and me.
Tony Jones is the theologian-in-residence at Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis. He blogs at Patheos.com, and his most recent book is "A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin."
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
As the Gospels tell it, Jesus went into the final evening of his life aware that he would die soon. How could anyone in his circumstances have expected anything else? His recent words and deeds gave the ruling authorities little choice.
Assassination or execution certainly awaited him. The only unknowns were when, and by what means.
As the Gospels also remember it, on this night -- "Maundy Thursday" in Christian tradition -- Jesus prepared his followers for life without him. The biblical accounts make important contributions to how Christians have understood both the death of Jesus and his living, continuing relevance.
The Last Supper
In three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the centerpiece of the story is a meal Jesus shares with his followers. Remembered as "The Last Supper," it provides the basis for a meal Christians share as part of worship (known, variously, as The Lord's Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist). Several elements of this event stand out on Maundy Thursday:Jesus' instructions to his disciples concerning the meal's location and preparation have a mysterious quality. The clandestine arrangements fit the volatility of the situation. Jesus is a wanted man. The meal transpires with risk in the air. The Gospels describe it as a Passover meal. Jesus interprets parts of the supper (shared bread and a shared cup of wine) in light of himself, as elements of his own body. He does not declare Passover observations obsolete. Rather, he suggests that the Passover setting contributes additional significance to his coming death. Is God about to accomplish a new kind of deliverance? "This is my body," he tells them, passing a loaf of bread around the table. Then the cup circulates; "This is my blood." He interprets the cup as a sign of a "covenant" -- a promise to his followers. The words recall an earlier covenant's ratification in Exodus 24:8. Somehow a new promise is being forged, and the blood Jesus will shed at the hands of the state confirms it. When Christians partake in bread and wine during communion services, they express their participation in this divinely-made promise. They express Jesus' ultimate solidarity with his people, a solidarity enunciated by his tortured, demolished body. As many Christian liturgies remind us, all this happens "on the night he was betrayed." As symbolized in the meal, Jesus gives himself to his followers even though one of them will soon ensure his downfall. Someone, he announces, will hand him over to the authorities. Yet that person, Judas Iscariot, remains welcome at the meal. Jesus hosts his betrayer. Jesus hosts his deserters, too. Sometime after the meal he informs Peter, the most prominent disciple, that he will publicly deny Jesus three times before dawn. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus tells the group, "You will all become deserters."
After the meal, under cover of darkness, they depart together for the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem proper. Jesus' arrest followed soon after. Within just a few hours he was on his way to crucifixion, as Friday morning dawned.
There is nothing like having a toddler around to make you question everything you think you know about words. My daughter is constantly mimicking us these days, both the good and the bad. She is trying on words for size, letting them emerge from her tongue just to hear what they sound like in her own voice. Day by day, her linguistic expeditions discover new lands and possibilities. On these journeys, she is discovering and creating a world at one and the same time. She is only three and a half years old. Our son is only a year and half, but even he is reaching out to the world in monosyllabic words of his own creation. Every dog he sees, he wants to identify, to claim some sort of knowledge and insight that the whole world needs to know.
How do they even learn how to speak? We don't hand them a dictionary and ask them to read it and get back to us. We don't make lists of vocabulary words and drill them. We didn't sign them up for language classes. They simply listen and try. They simply experiment and mimic. But mostly, I think, they see, experience, and feel. They don't learn this marvelous world of words so much as they live into it.
But perhaps no word is more wonderful, more meaningful than "love." Few things are as affecting in this world than when my daughter tells me she loves me. And yet she can't possibly understand what she's saying, can she? Does she understand what love is? If I asked her what love is, she would only laugh at me and return to her toys. How did she learn what it is to be loved?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Lenten season offers us once again an opportunity to reflect upon the very heart of Christian life: charity. This is a favourable time to renew our journey of faith, both as individuals and as a community, with the help of the word of God and the sacraments. This journey is one marked by prayer and sharing, silence and fasting, in anticipation of the joy of Easter.
This year I would like to propose a few thoughts in the light of a brief biblical passage drawn from the Letter to the Hebrews:“ Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works”. These words are part of a passage in which the sacred author exhorts us to trust in Jesus Christ as the High Priest who has won us forgiveness and opened up a pathway to God. Embracing Christ bears fruit in a life structured by the three theological virtues: it means approaching the Lord “sincere in heart and filled with faith” (v. 22), keeping firm “in the hope we profess” (v. 23) and ever mindful of living a life of “love and good works” (v. 24) together with our brothers and sisters. The author states that to sustain this life shaped by the Gospel it is important to participate in the liturgy and community prayer, mindful of the eschatological goal of full communion in God (v. 25). Here I would like to reflect on verse 24, which offers a succinct, valuable and ever timely teaching on the three aspects of Christian life: concern for others, reciprocity and personal holiness.
In the weeks before Easter, during the traditional season of Lent, Christians fix their hearts on the death of Jesus Christ. They reflect upon what he endured because they believe that it was redemptive, meaning that in some miraculous way he suffered what he did for all men. Other faiths do not agree, of course, and the various ways of thinking about the death of this single human being has defined the contours of history ever since.
Yet there is a way in which the meditations of Christians at Lent may overlap somewhat the thoughts of most men about suffering, particularly the suffering of a man being crucified. It takes nothing away from the Christian remembrance of Christ's death -- from absorbing its spiritual meaning -- to think for a moment about the purely human experience of crucifixion. The practice of impaling a man to watch him die hideously is not unique to some distant, barbaric time. It has unfortunately been an ongoing part of the grisly, shameful side of human history and this is a story we ought to know -- to better understand both the glorious and the ghastly in human nature and even to better understand the events of our own time.
Crucifixion was first devised because every other form of death was thought to be too quick. Most ancient tribes had some version of the practice. They were eager to learn from each other and improve their craft. The Romans became the reigning masters, though neither the traditional methods they perfected nor their cruel innovations died with them. The dark art lived on.
In the medieval era, Christians crucified Jews to remind them of their sins against Christ. Islam absorbed the practice also, with Surah 5:33 of the Quran calling for the crucifixion of those who war against Allah or his Prophet. The Japanese had their version, called Haritsuke, which appeared from time to time over hundreds of years, even into the last century. A Canadian soldier may have been crucified during World War I and many more died by this method in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Tragically, crucifixions may still be taking place in Sudan. We know they were occurring just a few years ago.
Why has this perverse torture survived? Because it is effective. The ancient world had tried strangulation, drowning, burning, boiling in oil and death by spear but found them all too quick -- and boring. Crucifixion slows the process of death, makes the pain more acute and draws a crowd. It also makes criminals and enemies tremble and this has kept it in use.
All crucifixion involves pinning a victim to an unmovable surface so he cannot pull free. Just beyond these essentials, though, is where the cruel art and demonic fun take over, the goal being to produce the most agony, writhing and screams. And to send a message. This may be why the Romans crucified the Apostle Peter upside down, if he did not choose it himself -- to suffocate him, symbolic of silencing his preaching -- and why black men in the American South and in South Africa have been crucified with spikes through their genitals. It was both torture and symbol of determination to end a race.
Yet, it is just at the moment of these vile deeds -- the crucifixion of a living being -- when the human spirit has sometimes revealed itself heroically. After Spartacus led his famous slave uprising and was killed in battle, 6,000 of his fellow warrior/slaves were crucified along the Appian Way. They never ceased to taunt their Roman oppressors, even from their crosses. The Romans also crucified Jews, Josephus tells us, lining the walls of Jerusalem with impaled men. Yet while bleeding out their lives, these valiant Hebrews shouted Psalms to encourage one another. During World War II, an Australian POW was crucified along with two others for slaughtering cattle to feed his comrades. While his two friends died of the ordeal, this man, Herbert James Edwards, hung on that Japanese cross for 63 hours, "just to show the bastards who he was," a fellow soldier said. Edwards was rescued, survived the war, and lived until 2000.
We Christians make no apology for believing that the crucifixion of Jesus was unique, that it was mystically the death of one man for all the world. Yet it is the very fact that our God became a man that makes us turn our hearts to mankind, and in that light we see what men have endured on crosses throughout the world. We see what tormentors have done to the hated and the oppressed. And we see what character has been revealed at just such horrifying moments.
In our faith, the human and the divine are blended. When we honor the sufferings of our Christ, it moves us to honor all who have hung on crosses, all whose lives have ended in the evil of crucifixion. It helps us remember the heroic possibilities of men, and that greatness that can arise even in moments of torture.
This season of Lent, we make the suffering and heroism of mankind our mediation, just as we do the suffering and heroism of our God.
1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?” —they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
These are my questions based on the historical fact -- yes, fact -- that Pilate executed Jesus at Passover. Did Jesus go to Jerusalem to get himself killed? If he did, why, in the tinder-box atmosphere at Passover, did it take him so many days to get his wish?
My answer is that Jesus went up to Jerusalem to make twin demonstrations, first against Roman imperial control over the City of Peace and, second, against Roman imperial control over the Temple of God. In other words, put personally, against the (sub)governor Pilate and his high-priest Caiaphas.
It is not necessary, by the way, to demonize either of those two officials -- even though they represented very bad administration. Pilate was weak because he could be fired by the Syrian governor and Caiaphas was even weaker because he could be fired by Pilate. Be that as it may, why was Jesus not already killed by (our) Palm Sunday evening?
Two reasons. One is that he was protected by a "crowd" composed not only of those who came with him from Galilee but also of those others who had invited him to bring his message of God's Kingdom-on-Earth to Jerusalem for maximum publicity precisely at Passover. Notice how often Mark's gospel emphasizes that protective "crowd" on (our) Sunday (11:8), Monday (11:18) and Tuesday (11:32; 12:12,37) of Holy Week.
Another reason is that every night Jesus withdrew from Jerusalem into the safety of friends and security of supporters away from the city and around the Mount of Olives to Bethany. Notice, again, how Mark emphasizes that point as well (11:1,11,12; 14:3). Bethany was Jesus's protected staging area. In plain language, Jesus was planning, despite those dangerous demonstrations, to leave Jerusalem without getting himself killed. And he almost made it -- until (our) Thursday.
The first demonstration was programmed for (our) Palm Sunday and it was not just a criticism but a lampoon of Roman power. For security and crowd-control at Passover, Pilate came up to Jerusalem with extra troops from his base at Caesarea on the coast. Imagine him coming in from the west on a powerful stallion as Jesus was coming in from the east not just on a donkey but on a nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her -- see my leading image above.
That story is told in Matthew 21:1-11 and explained by a quotation from the prophet Zechariah contrasting Macedonia's Alexander and Israel's Messiah. The latter will enter Jerusalem "humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Why? "To cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall com-mand peace to the nations" (9:9-10). Peace on earth, yes, but not peace by Rome's violent victory, rather peace by God's non-violent justice.
The second demonstration came on (our) Monday. Once again it was an action clarified by a prophetic word, that is, an action-parable. The Temple was, of course, the House of God -- for all the nations, in fact, within Herod's huge Court of the Gentiles. But it was also the House of Rome as symbolized by imperial control of the high-priest's sacred vestments and the great golden eagle above its western entrance from the Upper City.
In an earlier demonstration, around the time Jesus was born, a Pharisaic group had been martyred for their attempt to remove that golden eagle. Jesus's own demonstration against Roman control of God's House was accompanied by a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah. He had warned against using worship to replace justice, against turning the Temple into a "den," that is a refuge, safe-house, or hideaway for "thieves." If it continued, said Jeremiah, God would destroy the Temple itself (7:1-15). And that divine threat almost cost Jeremiah his life (26:1-14).
Jesus' action-parable against the Temple fulfills God's threat in Jeremiah 7 just as his action-parable against the City had fulfilled God's promise in Zechariah 9. He symbolically destroys the Temple's fiscal basis by overturning the tables where monies were changed into the standard donation-coinage (Mark 11:15-17). And, again, he got away with it because of the protective screen of "the whole crowd" (Mark 11:18).
By (our) Wednesday morning "the chief priest and the scribes" had decided not to arrest Jesus because it might cause "a riot among the people" (Mark 14:1-2). But by (our) Thursday evening they had discovered -- with or without Judas -- where to intercept Jesus as he went "across the Kidron Valley" from Jerusalem to Bethany every evening (John 18:1).
Jesus was arrested in the darkness apart from his large protective "crowd" and was crucified as swiftly as possible. By the way, do not confuse Jesus' large protective "crowd" with that small "crowd" (six or seven partisans?) who came before Pilate to get Barabbas and not Jesus freed from prison (Mark 15:6-8). If Jesus proclaimed the 'Kingdom of God," sneered Pilate, let him die as "King of the Jews" (Mark 15:2,9,12,18,26).
In Matthew's parabolic aside, the wisest advice Pilate got that day -- our Good Friday -- was from his wife: "Have nothing to do with that innocent man" (27:19). But Pilate replied, I imagine, "What happens in Jerusalem, stays in Jerusalem."
As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the insignificant (as long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the repose that comes afterward, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to join or help us, we start Him whom we will not live to see, just as our ancestors could not live to see us. And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as gesture that rises up from the depths of time. Is there anything that can deprive you of the hope that in this way you will someday exist in Him, who is the farthest, the outermost limit?
As we have been working through this Lenten season, we have been reminded that every Sunday during Lent is a mini-Easter. Whatever we have given up, whatever discipline we have taken on in the work of realizing a new creation, Sundays offer us a break. No matter how more or less rigorous we may have been in keeping our Lenten fasts, Sunday is meant to be a foretaste of the Easter feast.
Those reminders have been working on me. I realize that much of what passes for Christian faith seems to have given up on this rhythm of fasting and feasting. Other traditions, like our Muslim sisters and brothers, make this pattern central to the experience of faith. During the month of Ramadan, daylong fasts give way to evenings of feasting together. When I spent a little bit of time with them last year, I found this pattern both very human and very holy. Christians, it seems to me, either get stuck in fasting mode -- the spiritual life is all about giving up -- or they rush to feasting without any sense of self-examination, reflection on human need, or awareness of the cost our addiction to "abundance" has on our planet. Somewhere along the way we need to be reminded that the spiritual life is a rhythm of feasting and fasting.
I was thinking about this other day in another round of wrestling with the question of "enough." I have become fascinated with this question because the answer seems so illusive in a culture that is consumed by more than enough. What is enough? Would I recognize "enough" if I had it? What passes as "enough" and is really more than enough? I started wondering if there is a connection between the spiritual practice of fasting/feasting and recognizing "enough." Might I better understand what I really need and what is really available to me if I were to spend a period of time both in the reflection of fasting and the celebration of feasting?
And then something else occurred to me. Fasting is something I can do alone. But feasting -- well, that's something best done together! Someone reminded me the other day of a little book by German theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer simply titled, "Life Together." In it he warns of those who know how to be alone but have not learned how to be with others -- and vice versa, of course. For the good of the community, there is a rhythm to being alone and being in community -- or fasting and feasting, perhaps.
So the celebration of Easter is not about giving up Lent -- just like Lent wasn't about giving up Easter. It is all part of the same holy rhythm of discerning enough and learning what life together really means. That is enough -- and, in many ways, even more than enough. So, let the Lenten reflections continue and the Easter celebrations begin!
― Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
and cleanse me from my sin.3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." (Walt Whitman)
I'm the fourth definition of a fool used as a noun, as in -- "He's a dancing fool." Substitute "skiing" for "dancing." In winter, I indulge in my enthusiasm for skiing.
I imagined a life as the second definition of fool, when after college, I considered Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, albeit briefly. This idea ended when I mentioned it aloud to my parents. Instead it was off to divinity school for three years of rigorous rational training.
The first, third and fifth definitions of a fool are the three I fear. But allow me a Lenten season confession of a penchant for the practical, the rational, and the empirical. I love science. I always have. Science does not depend on belief. If it did, I would not have such an affinity for it.
Science is so rational as to immediately discard what is proven to be false and adopt what is proven to be true. The sun is not the center of the universe. Evolution exists on a microbial level. The universe is expanding. Dark matter is real. Gravity is a law, and sometimes a nuance. There are at least five dimensions, the traditional four, plus that new discovery, proven to exist by ongoing experiments in quantum entanglement. In science the rules change with accumulation of provable knowledge. Science is rational and evidence based. There is more to the physics of this world, and the inventive capacities of the human mind than we humans imagine, ever since we mated with Neanderthals.
My next confession: I have a disease called The God Madness. I think many otherwise rational people have this disease, too. We believe in God despite there being absolutely no empirical evidence to support our belief. We believe because our hearts tell us so. We believe because God has touched us, just as God has touched all of us. As far as I can tell, nearly every human gets the "finger" of God laid on him or her at some time or another. It's just that believers recognize the touch and choose to believe in God, or they find themselves believing, even against all reason. Belief is not rational. I know how this looks to real rationalists who are agnostics, non-theists, or atheists -- to believe in that which cannot be seen, tasted, measured, or proven. It might make me appear a nut-job, a whack-o, a flake, a fool to those who do not believe in God. I hypothesize that there are many people out there like me -- rationally minded people who also have the dreaded God Madness. Contradictory to all evidence, other than our own subjective experiences of God, we believe.
Even Richard Dawkins, the famed author and atheist, says he is not 100 percent certain that God does not exist. He's right -- how can you know for certain? The answer is you cannot know, you can only believe.*Definition of fool: (from Dictionary.com) Noun 1. a silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgment or sense. 2. a professional jester, formerly kept by a person of royal or noble rank for amusement: the court fool. 3. a person who has been tricked or deceived into appearing or acting silly or stupid: to make a fool of someone. 4. an ardent enthusiast who cannot resist an opportunity to indulge an enthusiasm (usually preceded by a present participle): He's just a dancing fool.
5. a weak-minded or idiotic person.
A poem from Walt Whitman via this great collection of Lent poemsNothing is ever really lost, or can be lost, No birth, identity, form--no object of the world. Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing; Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain. Ample are time and space--ample the fields of Nature. The body, sluggish, aged, cold--the embers left from earlier fires, The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again; The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual; To frozen clods ever the spring's invisible law returns,
With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.
Let me explain. Most of us have favorite holiday seasons. For some it's Christmas, with the family get-togethers and presents. For others it's the Fourth of July and summer, filled by a sense of national pride and beach vacations to boot. But each year at just about this time, it strikes me that very few of us would pick Lent, a season that seems to most of us as grim as the weather that usually attends it.
Think about it: crossing off days on the calendar until Ash Wednesday; leaving work just a little early, saying "I've got to get my Lenten shopping done;" advertisements on billboards and television reading "only 12 more days 'til the day of Ashes;" or little kids going to bed, asking their parents, "How much longer 'till Lent is here?" It just doesn't happen.
The trouble with Lent, I think, is fairly clear. It's buried right in the heart of the primary reading for Ash Wednesday, from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6: "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Sigh) Actually, you don't have to read the whole verse, as the brunt of the problem of Lent is in the first four words, "And when you fast...." And when you fast?! C'mon. Except for the occasional crash diet before summer vacation, who fasts anymore?
And there it is in a nutshell, you see, the trouble with Lent: it feels like this strange, weirdly anachronistic holiday that celebrates things we don't value and encourages attitudes we don't share. No wonder that each year fewer and fewer churches observe this age-old (fourth century!) tradition -- it's too old-fashioned, too "Roman," too medieval for many contemporary Christians to handle.
So let's face it. Lent is in trouble. I mean, even among those traditions that do honor the season, rarely is there the same kind of enthusiasm or expectancy which greets Advent. Notice we don't sponsor Lenten Adventures for our kids; we don't have an Adult Lenten Dinner and Party. We don't pine to sing Lenten hymns ahead of time. Lent is in trouble.
I don't know, maybe it's that there are no presents at the end, and no fun and games along the way. Or maybe it's that Lent asks us to give up things. I mean, my word, haven't we had to sacrifice enough already to get our kids through college, to save for retirement, to put that new roof on the house, thank you very much. Why should we give up anything more for Lent?
Or maybe it's the themes of Lent that trouble us. Penitence. Sacrifice. Contemplation. These are the words of Lent, and I, for one, have a hard time believing they were popular even with the Puritans (you remember, the folks that actually held competitions to see who could resist the greatest temptation or avoid the most pleasure) let alone now.
Lent, I'm telling ya, it's in trouble. And so each year, as I listen to my non-Lent-observing friends knock it as "works theology" and my Lent-observing friends complain about it as a pain in the @&!, the same question inevitably demands loudly to be answered: Why Lent? I mean, who really needs it?
But you know what? Each year, whatever my feelings approaching Lent may be, the same answer comes whispering back: I do. Just maybe, I need Lent. Just maybe I need a time to focus, to get my mind off of my career, my social life, my next writing project -- and a hundred other things to which I look for meaning -- and center myself in Meaning itself.
Just maybe I need a time (is 40 days really enough?) to help clear my head of the distractions which any involved life in this world will necessarily bring and re-orient myself towars the Maker of all that was given for my pleasure and which I have let become merely distracting.
Maybe I need the opportunity (and perhaps deep down I crave the chance!) to clear my eyes of the glaze of indifference and apathy which comes from situation after situation where I feel nearly helpless so that I can fasten my eyes once more on the almost unbearable revelation of the God who loves God's children enough to take the form of a man hanging on a tree.
And maybe, just maybe -- and this takes the greatest amount of imagination of them all -- just maybe Lent really isn't mine to do with whatever I please. Perhaps Lent isn't even the Church's to insist upon or discard at will. Maybe Lent isn't any of ours to scoff at or observe. Maybe Lent is God's. Maybe Lent is God's gift to a people starved for meaning, for courage, for comfort, for life.
If it is, if we can imagine that Lent is not ours at all but is wholly God's, then maybe we'll also begin to recall, at first vaguely but then more strongly, that we, too, are not ours at all, but are wholly God's -- God's own possession and treasure.
Seen this way, Lent reminds us of whose we are. The "sacrifices," the disciplines, these are not intended as good works offered by us to God; rather, they are God's gifts to us to remind us who we are, God's adopted daughters and sons, God's treasure, so priceless that God was willing to go to any length -- or, more appropriately, to any depth -- to tell us that we are loved, that we have value, that we have purpose.
Yes. I need Lent. I need an absence of gifts so that I might acknowledge the Gift. I need a time to be quiet and still, a time to crane my neck and lift my head, straining to hear again what was promised me at Baptism: "You are mine! I love you! I am with you!"
I need Lent, finally, to remind me of who I am -- God's heir and Christ's co-heir -- so that, come Easter, I can rejoice and celebrate with all the joy, all the revelry, all the anticipation, of a true heir to the throne.
And so yes, I need Lent. And to tell you the truth, I suspect that you do, too. You see, if Lent is in trouble, it's only because we're in trouble, so busy trying to make or keep or save our lives that we fail to notice that God has already saved us and has already freed us to live with each other and for each other all the rest of our days. And so we have Lent, a gift of the church, the season during which God prepares us to behold God's own great sacrifice for us, with the hope and prayer that, come Good Friday and Easter, we may be immersed once again into God's mercy and perceive more fully God's great love for us and all the world and in this way find the peace and hope and freedom that we so often lack.
Very quietlyOur toes, our noses Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.Nobody sees us, Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.Soft fists insist on Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,Even the paving. Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,Perfectly voiceless, Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. WeDiet on water, On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, askingLittle or nothing. So many of us!
So many of us!We are shelves, we are Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,Nudgers and shovers In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:We shall by morning Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.
Read the whole piece on today's scripture lesson here
In John 12, the "Greeks" make a surprising entry upon the scene. They are curious and want to "see" this Jesus. Almost nothing is said about them or why they ask Philip or why Philip asks Andrew rather than going directly to Jesus. By the term "Greeks," a designation here for foreigners (Gentiles in biblical language, that is, non-Jewish foreigners), John indicates the ever-expanding reach of Jesus. The one whom we do not know is now drawing all the nations and all peoples to himself. The Greeks appear and disappear again almost without notice but their sudden irruption within the fabric of the story reveals something to Jesus: the hour has come. Jesus is already being "lifted up" even as he journeys. The hour has come for a full revelation of his identity. It is the arrival of foreigners, of strangers that identifies the crucial hour for Jesus.
This realization (that the hour and the end have come) unsettles Jesus. And we witness another side of Jesus, a more vulnerable side, one that does not appear as often in the Gospel of John. His soul is troubled. We had a glance of this side of Jesus in Chapter 11 when he wept over the death of his friend, Lazarus. We saw it again at the beginning of Chapter 12, when in deep gratitude he relishes in the washing of his feet by Mary. And now here, Jesus reveals a struggle, a struggle deep within his own understanding of identity, a struggle now witnessed in his dialogue with the Father, in prayer.
Once again, there is an irruption within the text. A voice from heaven, now God's voice, breaks in on the scene. It sounds like thunder. A voice from outside (a foreign voice, an unrecognized, non-translatable voice) confirms the identity of Jesus as Word of God.
Thanks to Lorenzo Candelariafor this helpful piece.
The "Golden Century" of Spanish sacred music owes much of its splendor to Cristóbal de Morales -- a Roman Catholic composer whose works were as famous in colonial America as they were in Europe.
A native of Seville, Morales held positions in Ávila and Plasencia before moving to Italy in 1535 where he served as a musician in the chapel of Pope Paul III for 10 years. Returning to Spain in 1545, he became the music director of Toledo cathedral and later at Málaga.
Although Spanish by birth, Morales's compositional style reflects the profound influence of his extended stay in Rome. One of his more austere examples, a partial setting of Psalm 17 (Circumdederunt me) was performed by the choir of Mexico City cathedral in 1559 to mark the passing of Emperor Charles V.
Especially pertinent for us at this time of the year is Morales's Lamentabatur Jacob, a Roman work composed for Pope Paul III at the same time that Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the Last Judgment (1537-41) that graces the Sistine Chapel.
Diaries from the pope's chapel reveal that Morales's Lamentabatur Jacob was sung at Mass on the third Sunday of Lent and its performance there became an annual event. As late as 1711, Lamentabatur Jacob was lauded as the most precious composition in the whole archive of the Sistine Chapel.
Nearly half a millenium after its composition, Lamentabatur Jacob continues to move us as an introspective work of somber tones and descending melodies that aptly characterize the lament of Jacob, patriarch of Israel, over losing the only sons born of his beloved wife Rachel.
But the point of the motet is more about Jacob's perseverance in faith than his sorrow. In spite of all that had been taken away, the patriarch responded by tearfully casting himself upon the ground and worshipping the Lord.
For that reason, among many others, St. Ambrose revered Jacob for his patience of heart and endurance during a time of trial -- a useful reminder for those of us who have already tired of the small sacrifices we resolved to make at the start of the Lenten season just a few weeks ago.
As we renew our Lenten resolutions at the midpoint of this season, perhaps we might consider doing so as Pope Paul III did centuries ago -- reflecting on Michelangelo's Last Judgment while listening to its monumental peer in the music of Cristóbal de Morales.
Morales's Lamentabatur Jacob is one of his most widely performed works. But one performance that captured my attention recently was an especially sensitive rendering by Ensemble VIII, an outstanding vocal group under the direction of Dr. James Morrow.The performance featured here was recorded live on October 22, 2011, at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas. The plaintive text -- not without its silver lining: Jacob lamented for his two sons: "Woe, I am bereaved of Joseph, for he is not, and afflicted because of Benjamin who is taken away. I pray the King of Heaven in my distress that He may make me see them again."
Casting himself with tears upon the ground and worshipping, Jacob said: "I will pray the King of Heaven, that I who so deeply sorrow may once again behold them."
Reflecting on those words -- with music or in silence -- may we find strength in the example of Jacob to persevere in the faith of our fathers and never waver in the hope we have placed in the Lord of all. Deo gratias.
I'm not giving up chocolate. Isn't that what I'm supposed to do during the Christian season of Lent?
This year, I notice that this period of time leading up to Holy Week and Easter is less about whatever "give I up" I try and more about what I pay attention to.Those of us planning worship for First Church Berkeley chose for our Lent theme "Matters of Life & Death." It's a bit "straight-to-the-heart-of-it" don't you think? If we're going to take the story of Jesus seriously -- he wandered the earth, he was executed, he claimed new life -- what better time to examine some deep questions. Jesus spent time thinking things over in the wilderness before he returned to Jerusalem to meet his fate (which he may have anticipated) and to experience a transformation (which may or may not have caught him off-guard.)
We, too, have a chance to think things over, whether or not we really stop or slow down our normal lives for a period of time.
Having raised this "life or death" stuff in my own attention, I suddenly notice that it is swirling around me in direct and indirect ways all the time. I'm more aware of the deaths in my friends' lives -- parents, siblings, pets, dreams, hopes, health. I see how attitudes toward life and death can shape political attitudes -- what inspires us and what is deadening. I see which of the paths I take lead toward little or large pieces of new life and which don't.
My mom is 92. When folks ask how she is doing, I often describe her state as "doing a very slow fade." She hasn't had serious medical deals, but is slowing down in a variety of ways. I confess that for the last few years at least I have tried to imagine how and when I might receive news of her death. Losing her at 92-or-older will be different than my father's death at 78. She could go soon or she could live to be 100. Who knows? I certainly don't. And yet I wonder about it regularly.
I witness my own physical state and (at 58) begin to wonder (and predict) which parts of myself will "go first" as I get even older. Death is sneaky and we should probably prepare for it or at least entertain its inevitability before it whacks us upside the head. Being in some sort of distress is a bad time to try to learn the practices that might help you be in that state. Yet it is hard to take those on when we aren't forced to.
Jesus' story opens up some marvelous possibilities for amazing things to happen. When we consider "life and death" we should not focus solely on the second part of the phrase. One of the primary purposes of getting our death-hat on straight is to claim the wonder of life, to make us seize the reins, to join the party, to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again. We will experience loss and we can live again. We can suffer and rejoicing can likely follow. We can watch things end and expect new beginnings.
Where we will end up "in glory" can only be imagined, but life on earth is at least a mini-waltz with death every day. Knowing about resurrection gives us a signpost to the possibility of the new life that we can claim over and over again.
And Lent, whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool practitioner or not, can be a great time to pay attention, to "go inside" and take a look around, to dance in a different way.