It is the conundrum of modern life, and perhaps that complained of as that of “modern life” for centuries: In our day-to-day lives, we seldom take time to respect our spirits. Then, along comes something like Holy Week and we are terminally behind the curve in opening our minds and hearts to the lessons.
At Central Christian tonight, the Good Friday service consisted primarily of lay people giving “meditations” on the seven last thoughts which Jesus expressed on the Cross.
One of the elders, my friend Eddie, laid out a clear and logical path for paying attention to “last words.” Beginning His time on the Cross with a prayer for OTHERS (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”) was an arresting demonstration of who this Christ was.
Parson Jim Norton really stunned me with the power of his reflections. He’s been reading a work on particle physics. He tentatively related the uncertainty and “illogic” of the subatomic world with the need for faith in the human experience. I wonder, for the relation seems more than metaphorical, perhaps he’s nipping at the edges of some truth - THERE would be a true Unified Field Theory.
Pastor Josh reflected on what is, to me, the most obscure of those last words, “Woman, behold your son; behold your mother.” He related the theory of one Tabor, a biblical scholar, that Jesus was addressing James, either as brother-in-genetics or brother-as-in-brotherhood. Josh related this in a limited way to the “passing of the torch,” which for private reasons is exceedingly striking to me. He expanded it to the possibility that Christ was making a general observation on the behavior of the extended Church or extended society as family.
Perhaps the most striking was the reflection of an elder, Kathy, a life-long member of the church. She was so open and clear about her own path in transitioning from the Jesus-Loves-Me Christ to the living person who suffered torture and execution.
“I thirst” - John, one of the elders, gave a thoughtful meditation on how people in crisis want to know that those talking to them have had crises of their own and have lived the troubles themselves. Christ, obviously, is one who knows what we’re talking about when we go to Him in pain. I remembered with some ignominy my own “desperation” years ago when hiking up Turkey Creek Canyon near Elizabethtown, New Mexico, and running out of water on a hot summer day. To me, that was thirst. Little did I know. [Sidenote: In 1899, there was a gunfight in Turkey Creek Canyon where lawmen caught up with train robbers led by Sam Ketchum. The robbers were using the new smokeless powder and steel-jacketed bullets, and escaped after decimating the lawmen, because they could locate the lawmen’s firing positions from the gunsmoke.]
And LaJ closed the series with “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” She departed significantly from her written text and genuinely engaged everyone present - and I was proud of her.
I offer the text of my own meditation on “It is finished”:
St. Augustine in The Harmony of the Gospels, Book 3, records:
“For these are John's words: "When Jesus, therefore, had received the vinegar, He said, It is finished; and He bowed His head, and gave up the ghost." In the interval elapsing between this cry, "It is finished," and what is referred to in the subsequent sentence, "and He bowed His head and gave up the ghost," the voice was uttered which John himself has passed over without record, but which the other three [Gospel writers] have noticed. For the precise succession appears to be this, namely, that He said first "It is finished," when what had been prophesied regarding Him was fulfilled in Him, and that thereafter . . . He commended His spirit, and resigned it. But, whatever the order may be in which . . . these words were spoken, [one] ought above all things to guard against entertaining the notion that any one of the evangelists is in antagonism with another, when one leaves unmentioned something which another has repeated, or particularizes something which another has passed by in silence.” Thus says St. Augustine.
I am absolutely behind the eight ball here. This is the third meditation I’ve done and it says right there on the label that if you study and pray, you will come to greater peace and understanding.
Not me. The older I get, the dumber I feel. And the more questions I have.
St. Augustine started life as a pagan intellectual, a hedonist, and a general devil-raising roué. That, I understand. But prophecy and agreement of the evangelists? That’s outta my league.
That mis-named “Good” Friday could have been finished a whole lot happier and a whole lot sooner. Christ had so many escape routes before he climbed that lousy Golgotha, that “Place of Skulls.” He didn’t use any of them. Learnéd pastors now say that this was because prophecy had to be fulfilled so that Jesus could make the Supreme Sacrifice and pay for all the sin that ever was and all the sin that ever would be. How’s that again?
I confess that I really, REALLY enjoy jabbing my spiritual mentors Josh & Norton with my frustration about this atonement theology thing. But there is a ragged edge in that enjoyment: Why was Christ so determined to die on the cross? Look, don’t blame me. I didn’t want it and I didn’t ask for it. If God wants to punish me for a life of no-fooling, hair-raising sin, me and Augustine before sainthood, I’ll take my medicine like a man. I won’t hide behind the anguish even of Jesus.
But in a chat a couple of weeks ago, Josh & Jim invited me to give it a rest and look at it from Jesus’ perspective. Christ’s best opportunity to put the brakes on the entire process was the interview with Pilate. He wasn’t going to get very far with the Sanhedrin, because they were extremely jealous and more than just a little bit nuts. Pontius Pilate, though, there was a reasonable guy. All he wanted was for everybody to accept Roman rule. Beyond that, he didn’t much care what else they did. And so he asked Jesus, “Are you a king?,” meaning “You aren’t challenging Caesar, are you?” All Christ needed to say was, “Hey, now, are you kidding? I’m a Rabbi, I’m a teacher, I’m trying to help these people out, but, yes sir, Rome is all right by me, and I’m no king.” And Jesus WAS a brilliant teacher, and he knew the layout, and he knew that telling Pilate the truth was a ticket straight to execution.
“You say I’m a king.” Wrong answer. “My kingdom is not of this world.” Wrong again.
And yet Jesus the Christ - OUR Christ - could not have answered any other way. Not because of prophecy. We’re talking honor and honesty. Those, we understand. Christ was saying what it took 2,000 years until Popeye the Sailor for us really to hear clearly: “I am what I am.” He could not lie or deceive, he could only deliver the real thing, proof positive, right then and there.
And so, that last day played out: He was betrayed by one, denied by another, and abandoned by everybody. (Maybe Simon Peter gets half credit?) While Christ had the power to be someone else, the day had to go from start to finish just as it did.
I’m relieved to hear those words, “It is finished,” because whoever he did it for, who can stand to know about those experiences on the cross, not this Golden Cross of Glory but this rough wooden cross-the-torture-device? That it was finished was a really good thing.
As Holy Week comes to an end, I’m reminded of a story out of Iowa 40 days ago where a prosecutor went from a church where he participated in the “Imposition of Ashes” right to a courtroom and a hearing. The defense lawyer made a large enough row that the wire services picked it up. Had this occurred in Marion County, someone would have leaned over to the prosecutory, said “Hey, dummy, you forgot to wash off the ashes,” and we never would have heard another word. Yelling like you’ve been gut-shot just isn’t dignified as we do things here.
I cannot help but be amused at times at the reaction my own ongoing spiritual journey seems to provoke among those who’ve known me for a long time. Not that my path has taken such a drastic turn - it just meandered more into the open. Some wonder how a mind which so respects logic and science is so at home in faith, and in the house of Christ.
I’ll reflect on this on some other occasion. I do not pretend or purport to have all the answers. Hell, I don’t pretend to have ANY answers. And tonight, I’m sitting here in wry amusement over the foibles of my own life and the things we humans seem to think are important.
What IS important?
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
The older I get, it becomes more obvious how little I know.