The story emerges once again on the annual cycle. It has been quietly lingering in the background of life these last few weeks. It threatens to explode out at times and other times silently creeps up ready to expose the frailty and vulnerability of life. The story lurks there threatening to turn everything upside down in a world that worships at the altar of material prosperity, almighty power and control over truth. The story threatens to subvert reality and raise up the riff-raff of life whilst subverting the respectable. It’s a bit like an ICAC enquiry that lifts the lid on lives held up as public examples, responsible and powerful but rorting the system for all its worth. The little ones shake heads and wonder, powerless to change the system that is corrupt and unjust. This 1st century story with 21st century themes!
The story emerges with a donkey ride into town, fun-filled crowds of innocent wondering souls. The powers don’t much care until they realise there’s a barb in the bard, in the poetic storyteller sitting on the ass. The sting in the tail is for them and he wants to shine light onto them and the powers – stupid, ignorant fool! The story doesn’t register with most respectable folk filling the pews last Sunday morn. It’s a lovely way to start this holy week, to sing joyful songs and to praise this king – and to be reassured he’s a king of the heavenly realms come to take us there!
As the week wears on and the story grows darker, this One will endure the scorn of powers rising up to full stretch to threaten and subdue. They’ve had enough of wearisome troublemakers and this one will have to go. The crowds love him, though, and they can’t make a move. They’re afraid of him, not of his power or strength but of his pitiful, fantasy-filled rhetoric that stirs up false hopes and creates a longing in the pitiful crowd that will never be fulfilled. The Romans will never cop this abuse or trouble and if the religious leaders don’t do something it will really get out of hand. They are also afraid of losing their own place in this stratum of power and control – the status quo they’ve earned and cling to with religious zeal. They want to make the world right but need this power to do it – or do they?
The world grows darker, metaphorically speaking, as this week rolls onward and upward. Jesus, the hunted, evades and sidesteps their traps and with each victory over his foes, the crowd grows more vocal and hopeful. The week reveals a strange twist, an upside down revelation that the God-folk, the religious zealots and powerful leaders, are those who side with the powers of Rome! These law-abiding, God-fearing religious professionals do the bidding of Caesar over and against the One who claims the voice of God. It’s easy to call him a madman who is wrong in rhetoric, a fantasy-laden fool whipping up foment and false hope. But is he? His words have that odd ring of truth that flows out of the prophetic past of his people, of God’s way of justice for all and love above everything else. Anyway, they don’t want him and his ideas running amok in their world.
Modern ears often miss the deeper, darker tones of this plot, this story, this drama. We think of him as heaven’s child here to do his bit in getting us into heaven – that’s it. Mel Gibson took this to its full extent relishing in blood and gore to reinforce the suffering of God for you and me in our pathetic, alienated state. He died, he rose and we’re okay – provided we do the works of this thin faith in believing the right things and responding in the right way. In this faith there is no justice, only God’s supposed just hatred of the human race – well, love-hate relationship. This denies the power of the story that holds the world, the vulnerable, fragile world of God’s creation, in the balance. Jesus stands before all the powers who threaten not only human life but the essential way of the world. Before the powers that rule and dominate, justice is a flimsy veneer that surfaces when it suits and love is a weakness that becomes romantic mush lacking fortitude and courage. Jesus stands for God’s Reign that threatens to return everything to its natural, created state and that can’t be allowed – for the secular or religious powers, the well-to-do or respectable. It threatens the whole way of life and we can’t imagine a fair world in which the wealthy and powerful come down a few notches so that those on the bottom can come up and breathe for the first time in their god-forsaken existence.
This is about sacrifice, in case you’re concerned, but sacrifice in the name of God’s way. It is sacrifice in its true sense, where humans sacrifice before God in penitence and praise for God’s grace. God returns the sacrifice to them as a holy feast to celebrate their state of being loved and forgiven. This is grace in the first degree and the way Jesus walked, into this grace-filled life of holiness and justice, of love, courageous and true.
Yes, it was human sin, brokenness, evil, call it what you will, that nailed him to the tree. It was the violent evil that infiltrates human powers and human life emanating in blood shed and crushed bodies. This violent evil is antithetical to God and the way of Jesus who stands in peace, shalom, for the world that God loves. This dark day holds the passion of God as his one confronts the irresistible powers of the world who will kill him. Love and peace are beautiful but seem no contest for violent power – spears and swords, nails and crosses (bombs and guns and nuclear weapons). The powers flex their muscle and Jesus is dead.
The story ends there on a cross before the world. The hopeful words and prophetic promises sounded fine in our ears but were fanciful and thin, the promises of one who had no power to act and enforce, who was gentle and proud but perhaps gullible or mad. So death had its way and the powers breathed yet again. The religious leaders knew that there would now be peace for this holy festival. They smiled once again and Pilate moved on, not a thought for this idiot caught up in who knows what and spreading absurdity that unsettled his people.
The disciples locked themselves in, huddled behind closed doors on that dark Sabbath day. They were afraid, anxious, confused and grieving the whole event that had escalated out of control and buried their hopes and dreams in a stony tomb. What now? Back to the lake? Back to where it all began – start anew?
The dark places of life are hard as we wait. We wait in hospital rooms around the bed of the dying – ‘his/her breath go now and some say no.’ We wait in the doctor’s surgery as the clock hands move so slowly; we await the results of tests and fear the worst. We wait and wait for all manner of news or events to take us up into their uncertain future. We wait in this dark, liminal place where time stands still and powerlessness holds us in its desperate grip. Courage fails and hope oozes away until there is nothing left except despair and loss. Saturday is a dark place we all know and fear and hate – that silent relentless grief that seeps into our bones and holds us in cold helpless embrace. All is quiet, an eerie peace that is still and threatening, cold and dark – but also gentle and quiet, like the ye of the storm?
The woman treads the steps of grief and sadness at first light on the first day of the week, of a new world that will burst forth through their grief. This faithful one overcomes fear and dread to honour the one she still holds dear, though none can fathom the events of the last days. He still holds them in his powerful hope and they still need to believe. They can’t yet let it fade or die – they simply can’t let it go! To the tomb she wanders on one of those walks that no-one wants to make – the walk we walk when there is no other choice. The walk that only we can make though everything in us cries out to turn around and go back – but we cannot.
Mary wonders, perhaps, how she will enter the dark tomb, the place that contains the pain and fear, the loss and grief. How will she enter that place that is sealed and closed off to the world, the hiding place where we keep our deepest, darkest secrets. What does she even want to do there, she doesn’t know but simply must be there with him, his spirit still hovering?
As Mary looks up she sees an open tomb and fears the worst – they’ve taken his body and the world starts to spin. She runs to the men; Peter and John take off at a mad dash for the tomb and Peter rushes into the cool darkness where life has broken forth into a new world of eternal hope. In the place of death are the signs of life; out of darkness shines forth light – but how? Where? When? Why? The world is spinning once again. They believe but don’t know what they believe – it’s only an empty tomb and what does it mean? Mary wails in her distress as the spinning world turns faster taking her down into the vortex of confused despair. The gardener materialises in her field of vision and through weary tears she reaches out in longing, asking if he has taken her Lord and friend. ‘Mary,’ in a voice so gentle and familiar that she shakes her head, hearing things in her grief. ‘Mary!’ It rings through her until she cries out, ‘Rabbi! Is it you?’ she wants to hold him but he isn’t in a state, a form to be held or grasped. Spirit bodies in a flesh and blood world – how strange and confusing but hope-filled and life-giving. She ran again to the men and told them she had encountered their Lord, the Risen One. She sounded mad, deranged by the stress and sadness and grief ripping through this small community of his followers. They help her and comfort her but she wouldn’t be comforted or stilled – she had seen him and these faithless fools better understand it, believe it! They didn’t.
The night drew down upon them holding their confusion and despair in its silent grasp, subduing them further in their grief. Behind the locked doors and solid walls these people held one another and sang the sad song of love turned to grief, of hope lost. Not all were there. Thomas, for one had ventured out, perhaps to shake off the mood and kick-start life again? Suddenly, a voice, an apparition for that was all it could be, materialised before them in this darkened room of grief. It was his image but how could that be? He stood there and offered peace and blessing. It was him but it wasn’t – alive but no longer frail flesh but eternal One in the mystery of life beyond death and all that might be. He offered peace and blessing and a mission for the world. Life burst in like light as he breathed God’s Spirit of life and hope into their vulnerable souls defeated by this strange week. Into bodies and spirits dry and cold, he breathed life and hope and the fire of love’s lively existence.
This was a new-old power released once again into the world. The powers won the battle but love conquered all and life that yielded to death lived again in newness and truth and hope for all. They tried to hold onto this one before them. They wanted him to stay and be there forever, to hold onto this moment and never let it ride onwards or upwards into new adventures. They wanted him beside them, agitating them, consoling their failed attempts or fearful lapses. They wanted him but all they could have was God’s Spirit within – it was, after all, the only thing they ever would really need.
He disappeared from sight beyond the locked doors and solid walls of the room they hid within. What to do now? What to make of this mysterious, wondrous experience that can’t be grasped or contained in mere words? How do we think of this God revealed in strange ways and mysterious wonder beyond words or thoughts, gentle and soft, all love and shalom, peace deep within?
There’s the ancient Jewish tradition, well more than a tradition, a way of understanding the Divine by recognising we can’t understand. The Divine is held in the silent space, the open canvas, the musical staff yet to be written. One cannot utter God’s name because it is holy but more than that, the mere utterance defines and reduces infinite mystery to human knowing. God is always beyond our thoughts and abilities to place God in a box, known and anticipated, understood, neat and tidy.
The powers that day thought that God’s way could be stopped with an easy, violent death. For the powers, death and violence is the final statement, the truth that all temporal power seems to believe. Jesus, the gentle one bore this powerful assault and the gentle Divine heart that bears all suffering held this one in deep grace and gentle peace.
How do we name this mysterious, wondrous love? Do we tamp it down with definition and theological tomes? Do we literalise and control the way the story sounds or explain it away from our self-interested perspective? Or, do we allow the mystery to gently settle upon us in the midst of lives lived? Do we surrender to love’s gentle way and follow the peaceful one in courageous pursuit of the dream of God that gently unfolds as we walk in this faith?
The story lures us into lives of open trust before the fear of the world, standing with the One who walked this way into the hope-filled reality of God’s dream for the world – for justice, peace and love.