Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Resurrection: Mystery of Jesus Risen, Glorified, Sending the Spirit

Paul the Apostle, in 1st Corinthians (15:12-20) so well expresses the bottom line, the reality regarding the Resurrection: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died* in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…
It’s unfortunate that many folks spend so much energy looking for the evidences of the physical happening, forgetting the greater importance of the meaning of the Resurrection, as John expresses it in the Gospel for Easter Sunday (John 20:1-18).  It’s a basic understanding of the Christian Scriptures that the risen Jesus isn’t restored to the normal life which he possessed before his death. He now dwells in eternal life, in God’s presence. The time and place which characterize earthly existence no longer applies to him in the risen state. From the moment that God raises Jesus up, he’s “in heaven”, in the presence of/with God.
What we call The Ascension is merely the use of spatial language to describe Jesus’ exaltation and glorification. Many early statements in the Christian Scriptures speak of the identity between Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. “God raised up Jesus...being therefore exalted at the right hand of God.” (Acts 2:32-33) Christ Jesus “who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God…” (Romans 8:34) “...the resurrection of Jesus Christ who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” (1 Peter 3:21-22)
Not only do the Christian Scriptures identify Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, but also the giving of the Spirit. Jesus had told his disciples at the Last Supper: “If I do not go away, the Paraclete will never come to you; whereas, if I do go, I shall send the Spirit to you.”  The Spirit’s coming follows Jesus’ death and is linked inseparably with the Resurrection and Ascension.
When Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel today of his Ascension, he’s not drawing attention primarily to his own glorification, for that process has been going on throughout his “hour”, as he calls it. Rather, Jesus draws attention to what his glorification will mean to humankind, to us: i.e., the giving of the Spirit which makes us children of God.
So, it’s not the Resurrection as Christ’s being glorified in heaven that we need to emphasize, but the Resurrection as the renewal of personal relations with the disciples and with us. Jesus has these relations in mind when he refers to the disciples as “my brothers” and describes the goal of the Ascension as “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Jesus identifies himself with his followers. He’s ascending to the Father who will now become the Father of the disciples and of all humanity.
Remember back a few Sundays when John told us that they alone are children of God who believe in Jesus (1:12) and are begotten by the Spirit from above (3:5). Jesus’ Resurrection/Ascension makes possible the giving of the Spirit who begets the believing disciples as God’s children. That’s why, in anticipation, Jesus now refers to them and to us as “my brothers”. Paul says that Jesus is the “firstborn among many brothers.” The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “he brought many sons to glory.” 
In the Spirit which Jesus sends, he is continually present here among us. That’s the good news of the Resurrection: that by Jesus’ being raised up, as he said he would be, and glorified, you and I are set in a new relationship with Jesus, our brother, and with God, our Father.
The mystery of Jesus risen, glorified, and sending the Spirit is truly rich and awesome. Perhaps that’s why the Church now allows us 50 days of Eastertide to reflect on, pray over, and try to absorb into our lives the reality of these mysteries.  For now, let us simply pray:
God, it is your happiness and life
that one son of man,
of all the men born into this world,
should go on living with us
and that one name should inspire us
from generation to generation -- Jesus Christ.
We are gathered here
in your presence
to pray that we may
hear and see him
and pass on his name
to all who wish to receive it.
Let your Spirit move us
to receive him from each other
and from you, this man
who is our future,
who lives with you 
for all men and for the whole world.
(Huub Oosterhuis) 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Waiting In Hope

"At this time in human events
The world is going through
'Her change of life.'
In this period of vast dislocation
Words are violent!
Some call it treason
Some call it freedom
Some say it's calvary
Some say it's Easter
No one says it's easy.
Damned if you do
Damned if you don't
Insecurity is a fact of life
And everyone is caught
in the cross fire of rage
In the middle of free-floating hate.
Something has died
No one knows what!
Something is born
With difficult birth! 
The faithful have scattered
To cover their hurt
Each to his own fall-out shelter
Everyone is to blame
Except the one who is to blame
He is the one who has brought us out
Into this desert to die!
Or to trust!

Despite the creeds we mouth
Despite the prayers we say out loud
We are wary of what He is doing to us
By all He has let happen to us
And gingerly we follow
where He leads us
Covering our tracks
In case we want to come back.

Like a teenager the whole human race
Is being dragged screaming
To our adult place
In a world come of age.
Tell the fishers of men
The good times have come
Their God is too small
The ballgame has changed
Another brand of saint
Is sought
With soul that is world size
This cut of man is
not too large to live
He is happy washing feet
A loving servant 
Who serves God's underworld
All he knows is that he doesn't know
All that is meant by what is said
He will never claim to understand
What men mean by what men do!
Yet indeed, it is a different kind of day
When we wake up to find
Our times up to something great
Around the world
Again shall rise
The loud laugh of hope
That comes from faith in something
Greater than ourselves.
We shall live again
Like children playing
Accepting total joy
As our destined lot
We shall feel again love
come alive in everyone.

The world will be the same
Yet living here will be different.
We will celebrate in wild fiesta
The promises already made
The promises already kept.
Our blood will boil again
with gusto for a world saved.
We will dance together in the streets 
And sing together in our parks.
When once again the impossible is real
Then again shall awe and wonder reign
Fascination and surprise
Excitement will invade
The churches
jumping up and down in the pews
Waltzing in the aisles.
Cynics will melt to smiles
'Til tears run down their cheeks
We will be saved from ourselves
When we realize we are already saved
All we have got to do
Is celebrate!
And so:
And so:
The world waits,
Some for Godot!
Some for the Second Coming!

Oh! reader of words
Whoever you are
A word to remember
Is Easter!"

(Joe McCarthy, Papal Bulls and English Muffins, Paulist Press, 1974)

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Cross: A “Bed of Hope”

There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain...Or so says the legend.” (Colleen McCullough, The Thornbirds)  What an apt description of the terror and the magnificence of Christ’s offering up of his life on the Cross!
It is accomplished.” St. John, more than the other Evangelists, pictures Jesus as reigning from the tree. John’s Christ is the crowned Christus Victor = Christ the Victor. At the beginning of his account of the Gospel, John says: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us...and we have beheld his glory.Flesh refers not only to Jesus‘ taking on our human form, but to his whole observable life, reaching its highpoint in his death. 
The glory, God’s Presence, God’s nearness, is there throughout Jesus‘ whole life, and especially in his dying moment. John clues us in to this by the signs he uses throughout his account: “Behold, the Lamb of God”, recalling the Passover Lamb; Jesus‘ assurance to Mary, in Chapter 2, that his hour hasn’t yet come, and how there’s tension until his hour does come, in Chapter 13; and Jesus‘ declaration, as he cleanses the Temple made with hands, that he’ll replace it with his own body: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” Jesus‘ whole life is lived under the sign of the Cross. All that Jesus announces in the passages about his identity and his revelatory work, all his great “I am” sayings, become true at the moment of his death on the Cross. There for the first time Jesus really is all that he said he was: the bread come down from heaven; the light shining out to the world; the door by which you and I enter life; the noble shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep-herd; the resurrection and the life; the true vine, giving life to the branches.
We grieve, we sorrow, over the fact that Jesus died being so misunderstood and mistreated by people he came to serve. We also rejoice because we see, especially in the Cross, the glory of God present and close and at work, bringing us to new life.
In the Solemn Collects of today’s liturgy, we lament all our sins, individual and corporate, “known and unknown, things done and left undone”. Most appropriately, however, we also share today, of all days, Christ’s body and blood, Christ’s real Presence: the beginning of true life forever. The Eucharist has been shared throughout this Holy Week in different ways. We’ve heard over and over the phrase “we proclaim his death until he comes again”. What could create more hope, more optimism, more faith than this assurance! In the meantime, we silently, prayerfully wait.
Traditionally, in Christian devotion, Jesus‘ burial after his death has been associated with the service of Compline, which “completes” the day. There’s an ancient prayer which suggests that our going to bed each night is a reminder of our mortality, but also a reminder that Jesus‘ burial on this Good Friday is a sign to us of the hope of resurrection. We might consider praying it often as we await the life-giving dawn of the Day of Resurrection:
Lord Jesus Christ, who at this [evening] hour
rested in the sepulcher, and thereby sanctified
the grave to be a bed of hope for your people;
help us to abound in sorrow for our sins
which were the cause of your passion
so that, when our bodies lie in the dust,
we may live with you, who live and reign
with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, 
forever and ever. Amen.      

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday - Giving & Receiving Love

Canon Richard Mansfield writes: "There is a story about a mother and her son having an argument at the breakfast table on Sunday morning, about whether the son was going to go to church or not. Finally, the son said, 'I can think of two good reasons why I shouldn't go to church. First of all, I don't like any of the people there very much. And secondly, none of the people there like me.' The mother answered him right back saying, 'Well, I can think of two good reasons why you should go to church. First of all, you are 45 years old, and secondly, they pay you to be the Rector.'That story pokes fun at something which can and does become an issue in many congregations at times: a love/hate relationship between priest and people, or simply between people and people. Many times, it doesn't degenerate to that level, but there is often estrangement, distance, invisible barriers.

I'm willing to bet that at least some of us will feel uncomfortable reading the Gospel passage for Maundy Thursday (John 13:1-17; 31b-35) dealing with Jesus washing the disciples' feet. Parenthetically, ever notice how difficult it is to recruit volunteers to come forward to have their foot washed on Maundy Thursday?! This year I read of a parish which is going to have a washing of hands instead of feet! I think it's not so much the prospect of washing someone else's feet that makes us uncomfortable. It's having someone wash our feet. We're not the only ones who have felt this way. So did Peter, the leader of Jesus' followers.

It's easier to wash someone else's feet than to have them wash ours. Just as it's generally easier to serve others, than to let them serve us; or to minister to others, than to allow ourselves to be ministered to. It's a way in which you and I can avoid intimacy. It's a way to keep ourselves in a position of control. It's a way to avoid possibly getting hurt. Perhaps people in the helping professions are especially prone to this, but I think that most of us do at some time or other. I suspect that we often interpret this Gospel passage as Jesus' way of showing us that we must do, that we must serve. But maybe there's a deeper message. "What I am doing," Jesus says, "you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.

Intimacy, closeness to another, will never come about unless you and I learn how to receive as well as give. In relationships, it's truly a blessed thing to receive as well as to give. In some way, perhaps, we need God's grace more to enable us to receive than to give.

Could it be that our greatest service to one another is in our accepting the discomfort of receiving, in allowing someone else the happiness of giving to us? The late Henri Nouwen wrote: "...a gift only becomes a gift when it is received and nothing we have to give will ever be recognized as a true gift until someone opens their hands or heart to accept it."

The saving realities which we celebrate and live into anew during Holy Week, especially on this day, remind us how utterly we're on the receiving end -- beneficiaries -- of a caring, loving, gift-giving God. The very name, Maundy Thursday, reminds us that we're recipients of Jesus' novum mandatum = his new command: "Love one another as I love you." We're recipients of his love: in the command to do to each other as he does to us; in the gift of God's Son, enfleshed in Jesus; and in the Holy Eucharist, the real Presence in sign, his abiding Presence in life-giving bread, broken, indeed, but broken so as to be taken and assimilated and to bring forth new life.

In today's Eucharist, in today's washing of one another's feet, in the symbolic stripping of the altar, in sharing an Agape fellowship, we testify to God's incomprehensible love for us, even though we feel so unworthy. But we also testify to our faith, to our acceptance of that great love, by letting ourselves receive love from one another.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday In Holy Week - The Glorifying, Judging, & Saving Word

The liturgical readings for Tuesday in Holy Week (Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36) reflect on the Word of God as the expression of faith.

God living Word, incarnate in Jesus, is a glorifying Word. Glorifying, in the sense that you and I are utter servants of that Word, and as servants our calling is to glorify the Father, to make God known. The Word calls us, even in the womb, and is put in our mouths once we begin our journey of life as God’s servant. Its strength carries us through our labors in God’s behalf. It constantly reminds us that, when we try to go it on our own, it’s in vain. “I will give you as a light...that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”, that God may be glorified.

God’s living Word, incarnate in Jesus, is a judging Word. In Jesus God invites us to share eternal life. The one who rejects Jesus, and therefore God, is judged by the Word spoken by the Father. To reject Jesus is to reject the reign of God over our lives, to reject the possibility of having true life.

Most of all, God’s living Word, incarnate in Jesus, is a saving Word. “The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It’s a strange Word, for it doesn’t make sense by the standards of this world. It’s strange because it’s about a man crucified in behalf of others who showed that they didn’t even love or respect him. It’s strange because it’s proclaimed by people in need of salvation -- sinners -- weak people, unsophisticated people, foolish people, to all appearances. But it’s a saving and empowering Word because the source is Godself, through the Son, Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our rightness, our way of becoming holy, our salvation.

We prepare for to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection by open our hearts and minds to this glorifying, judging, saving Word of God, and by allowing that Word to work in us the salvation which we contemplate and celebrate during this Holy Week.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Monday in Holy Week

"...whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own...I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly* call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:7-14)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Do You Even Give A Damn?

There’s a story about a noted archbishop who was addressing a seminary class. He told them about a young man who, years before, had come into the Cathedral one day. The young man didn’t really care much about churches or religion: in fact, he rather disdained them. To vent his disdain, as a sort of practical joke, he got the idea of lining up with those waiting to make their confession and, when his turn came, to make a confession so obviously preposterous that the listening priest would be embarrassed by it.

When the young man had finished his mock confession, there was a moment of silence, then the priest reached for a piece of paper, wrote something on it, folded it, then slipped it through the grill to the young man. He directed the young man to go out to a large crucifix enshrined in a nearby alcove, and there to read what was on the piece of paper. Taken a bit unawares, but willing to go along with the charade, the young man agreed to do so. As he looked up at the figure of Jesus on the Cross, he slowly unfolded the paper on which the priest had written: “He died for you...and you don’t even give a damn!

The archbishop concluded his story to the seminary class by saying: “I was that young man.

Many of us wonder at times about the whole “Jesus thing”. We wonder what it’s all really about, particularly as it applies to us. Perhaps at those times we would do well to look at a crucifix or a picture of the Crucified Christ. As we stand at the beginning of the holiest week in the Church’s year on this Palm Sunday, we might also do well to stand, at least in spirit, in front of a Cross, look at it, let the reality of it sink into our minds and hearts, and then ask ourselves: “Do you even give a damn?

The events of this Holy Week which we’re about to recall and celebrate were destined to change the entire course of human history. It began on a note of triumph, or so it must have seemed to the crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem like some conquering hero returning to free his people from oppression. Freedom was on Jesus‘ mind, for sure, but freedom of a different kind: a freedom of heart and spirit. Just where and when and how Jesus had come to realize his calling isn’t very clear. We’d suspect that Jesus had at least thought about some of Isaiah’s visions, particularly regarding the Suffering Servant. Also, as a Jew, he surely couldn’t have been unaware of the super-zealous urgings of some of the citizens, who also hailed his coming into the Holy City, to perhaps take the opportunity to overthrow Pontius Pilate. Pilate was surely aware of the threat. It didn’t take long to see that Jesus would, indeed, confront both Pilate and Herod, though quite differently, as he would and does confront all those who wield power that is merely of this world. Jesus‘ power was different: it was the power of self-giving love, encompassing, sacrificing, enduring, like that of the All Holy.

That’s the power of love, hanging on the Cross, upon which you and I gaze at the beginning of this Holy Week. But there’s a caution. As often as we hear the story of Jesus’ passion and death, as we will several times this week, as often as we find ourselves in the place of the centurion at the foot of the Cross, the Crucified One has a way of working his spirit into our hearts and minds and lives. If we really don’t want our life changed, if we’re afraid of his presence, if we don’t want to be refashioned as a new people, to be made more aware of our injustice and inhumanity to one another, then you and I should be somewhere else than in church during this coming week.

Because Jesus befriended the poor, you and I can be enabled to see them with new eyes. Because Jesus reached out to the sick and suffering, you and I can learn how to empathize with others in their pain. Because Jesus loved all human beings so much that he actually died, even death, the inner, daily dying, and our eventual physical dying, can now be seen from a new perspective.

Sacrifice and surrender, clearly, aren’t the only truths of Christianity, as this week will show us. Nevertheless, we all have hard choices to make in daily living. In this “experience of salvation”, as Frederick Buechner calls its, two things happen. First, we lose ourselves; and secondly, in so doing, we discover that we’re more fully ourselves than ever before. The losing of ourselves is a dying, no question, and despite the promise of death and resurrection, symbolized in our Baptism, it’s still hard for us to understand how there can really be life beyond this “death”. Even worse, we’re not always sure that we want to be born to new life, if being re-born means we have to change.

He died for you...and you don’t even give a damn!” True or false?? Only you and I, standing before the Cross, know what the answer is as it applies to us. However weak-kneed we may feel about the journey ahead of us this Holy Week, and the rest of our lives, however afraid we might be to allow God to touch us, one thing is for sure. It’s hard to stand before Jesus on the Cross and not sense that, as at the foot of that Cross on the hill of Golgotha, there is here also the sure ground of God’s presence and unconditional acceptance.

In Jesus’ Cross we learn the truth that religion has infinitely more to do with the amazing grace and love of God than it has to do with any unworthiness or success of our own; infinitely more to do with God’s purposes than with fearful and corrupt governors and religious leaders. The story of Holy Week is the story of Jesus’ giving of himself for others: a story so incredible and overwhelming, yet so real and true, that we find it reviving our faith, reborning our hope, and deepening our love.

Because, as we stand at the Cross, looking up at that tortured, dying man, we come to know that, without a doubt, he gave and gives a damn...even for you, even for me, even for every one of us!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reflecting On Holy Week

Some years ago I ran across this statement from Aeschylus, the 5th century B.C. Greek tragic dramatist: 
"He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep 
pain that will not forget falls drop by drop
upon the heart. And in our despair, against our will
comes wisdom, by the awful grace of God."
(Agamemnon, 2nd Choral Ode)

That hit me right between the eyes, coming as it does from an unusual source. It represents to me a sort of summary of what Lent and Easter, and, indeed, the whole Church year, is about: a summary, really, of what our life is about.

I'm amazed at how often I catch myself being surprised and upset when suffering of hardship intrudes on the ordinariness of my life, as if it were something I should never expect to happen, as if somehow I should be immune to it, most of the time anyway. It's always inconvenient. It never fits my schedule, my timing. It has a way of appearing, unwanted, at the most inopportune times, and I often react angrily, with frustration, and eventually with embarrassment. And it is unrelenting: falling "drop by drop upon the heart."

The unconsoling, damnable truth of human and Christian life is that I can learn, can come to wisdom only through embracing my pain and suffering, and that, not even by my own resources and power, but only "by the awful grace of God."

Those men and women before us and with us now whom we call saints affirm and reaffirm over and over that this is the only way to God. In doing considerable research for a past project on classic and contemporary spiritual writers, I was struck by the absolute consistency of how each person, so different in terms of age, family or country of origin has arrived at virtually the same conclusion: that in order to live in Christ, in life, light and true consciousness, one must abandon, must permanently let go of all that smacks of death, darkness and sin. Permanently -- not just for a little while.

Despite the starkness of that reminder, I'm looking forward to Holy Week in which the community of faith will "enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [He] has given us life..." (Collect at the Liturgy of the Palms, Palm Sunday) The liturgies this coming week are full of grace-laden droplets which, if I but allow them, can, together with pain and suffering, fall "drop by drop upon the heart." To single out just a few:

PALM SUNDAY:  "...Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering and also share in his resurrection..."

SERVICE OF TENEBRAE ("SHADOWS/DARKNESS"):  "Christ for us became obedient unto death, even death on a cross..."

MAUNDY THURSDAY:  "Do you know what I, your Lord and Master, have done to you? I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done."

GOOD FRIDAY:  "We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of your cross joy has come to the whole world."

GREAT VIGIL OF EASTER:  "Through the Paschal mystery...we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life."

SUNDAY OF THE RESURRECTION/EASTER:  "Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection."

A blessed Pascha to each and all!       

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"The First Detective Story"

On this Tuesday of Lent 5, the first reading is the story of Susanna, included in the Apocrypha. The New Oxford Annotated Bible's commentary on the apocryphal book, Susanna or Shoshana (Hebrew: שׁוֹשַׁנָּה = lily), describes it as "often called the first detective story". It is an addition to the book of Daniel, and the Greek text survives in two versions: the Septuagint text, appearing only in the Codex Chisianus; and the version of Theodotion, which appears in Roman Catholic bibles. It was regarded as a part of the Daniel literature and was placed at the beginning of the Book of Daniel in Hebrew Scripture manuscripts. 

St. Jerome (347-420), in translating the Vulgate, treated this section as a non-canonical fable. He notes that Susanna was an apocryphal addition because it was not written in Hebrew, as was the original book of Daniel, but was written in Greek. Origen observes, in his Epistola ad Africanum that it was "hidden" by the Jews in some fashion. There are no early Jewish references to the book. 

Susanna occurs in the Book of Daniel, as chapter 13, in the Scriptures of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, whereas Protestants generally consider it apocryphal. It is listed in Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and of the Episcopal Church among the books which are included in the Bible for teaching, but not for doctrinal, purposes. It is not included in the Jewish Tanakh.

As the story goes, Susanna, daughter of a possible priest, Hilkiah, and the "very beautiful" Hebrew wife of a wealthy man, Joakim, gets trapped in quite a compromising situation. She and Joakim, from the southern kingdom of Judah originally, apparently had a wonderful villa in Babylon, with a magnificent garden. Because of Joakim's honor and reputation, many folks frequently came and went at their home, including prominent community members such as elders/judges. It was customary for Susanna, once the hubbub of business had subsided in the afternoon hours, to relax by strolling alone in the ample garden. Unbeknownst to her, two of the judges who used to see her "began to lust for her", each of them separately. 

So it was that two "politicians", probably viewed as pillars of the community and upholders of justice and righteousness, secretly in their hearts ignored the principles they were committed to uphold. As it's later pointed out, in fact, one of them had been routinely terrorizing and blackmailing Israelite women into non-consensual sex. One day, as the two judges left the villa for a lunch break, both bade each other farewell and went on their way, only to backtrack, in order to peek in on Susanna. Unfortunately, the paths they chose crisscrossed and they bumped into each other. Embarrassed at catching one another "with their pants down", as it were, or almost so, they compared notes, "confessed their lust, and decided to join forces in carrying out their nefarious mission.

It was a very hot day, and Susanna, instead of walking, decides to bathe in the garden. Her attendants bring her olive oil and ointments, then leave her to herself, exiting by the side doors of the garden. The two judges seize the opportunity, run to Susanna, and confront her: "The garden doors are shut and no one can see us. We're both burning with desire for you and want you to have sex with us. If you don't, we'll tell everyone that you sent the maids away just so that you could be with a young man." Susanna realized immediately that she was trapped in a no-win situation: if she consented, she'd be stoned to death; if she refused, she'd still be hauled to public court and, to make things worse, these reprobates would be the very judges who'd condemn her to death! 

Susanna, whom the writer desribes earlier as "one who feared the Lord" and who'd been trained by her parents according to the law of Moses, declares that she's not about to give in to their perverted wishes, preferring to "fall into your hands, rather than sin in the sight of the Lord." Immediately the two men begin shouting, opening the garden doors, accusing Susanna of shameful acts, to the complete dismay of Susanna's household, friends, and even her servants who "felt very much ashamed, for nothing like this had ever been said about Susanna."

The next day everyone gathers at Joakim's home, including the two self-righteous judges who send for Susanna. She arrives "with her parents, her children, and all her relatives." The author of the story notes that Susanna was both "a woman of great refinement and beautiful in appearance." So much so that she was brought in veiled. The men, who in modern parlance could only be considered "scumbags", actually order her to be humiliated by insisting that she be unveiled [the Septuagint says "stripped"] "so that they might feast their eyes on her beauty." Lest we think it couldn't get worse than that, the author says the two judges then "laid their hands on her head" in harsh judgment, the closest they would ever get to fulfilling their hypocritical sexual fantasies, as Susanna, in tears, raises her eyes to heaven, "for her heart trusted in the Lord." The two judges proceed to repeat their false accusations, and are convincing enough that "the assembly believed them and condemned her to death." All, that is, except one young man, Daniel = Hebrew, my judge is God, standing in the crowd, in whose heart "God stirred up the holy spirit" of prophetic ability and wisdom.

Daniel interrupts the proceedings, shouting "Are you such fools, O Israelites, as to condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts?" This shocks everyone into a reality check, and the elders, recognizing something special in Daniel, invite him to "sit among us and inform us, for God has given you the understanding of an elder." Daniel immediately demands that the two judges be separated so that he can question each of them. He thereupon proceeds to cross-examine each of them about the details of what they saw. It quickly becomes evident that they disagree about the kind of tree under which Susanna purportedly met her imaginary lover. The Greek text employs a play on words. The first judge says that they were under a mastic = clove tree, and Daniel says that an angel stands ready to cleave the liar in two. The second judge says that they were under an evergreen oak = yew tree, and Daniel says that an angel stands ready to hew the other liar in two. The great difference in size between a mastic and an evergreen oak makes the elders' lie plain to all the observers. The author says that "out of their own mouths Daniel had convicted them of bearing false witness", and so, in accord with the law of Moses, the false accusers are summarily put to death.

It has long disappointed me that this, among other Scriptural stories, whether apocryphal or not, does not appear more in our Christian liturgies. This story is one which will certainly resonate with many in our day and age, bombarded as we are by continual exposés of sexual injustice, violence, manipulation, and demeaning of women in our society and, yes, particularly in our church communities! The story's point, I believe, is not just that virtue triumphs over ungodliness, or that, in the closing words of the story's author "from that day onward Daniel had a great reputation among the people." It's a story dealing with the inherent value and dignity of every human being, and of the absolute injustice and sinfulness of using power over another person for one's own selfish satisfaction; not only that, but of the injustice and sinfulness of allowing or promoting in our society the presumption that somehow men, particularly, have a "right" to such abuse, or the privilege of being "excused" this sort of thing: the old cliché of "Boys will be boys."  

Commentator Cherie Booth observes that the barriers and discrimination against women "are not an accidental byproduct of gender. They exist simply because of it. They rest on the idea, spoken or unspoken, that women are somehow not the equal of men, that their rights, views and interests don't carry the same weight. It is this assumption that underpins and links the pay gap in developed countries, the denial in some developing countries of a woman's right to own property, the practice of abortion or infanticide because the child is a girl, and that allows rape or honour killings to go unpunished. It is the belief that women are worth less than men.There are those who, while appalled at such prejudice in our societies, attempt to excuse it elsewhere as a result of different cultures. They argue that it is wrong to impose our standards across the world, casting doubt on the concept of universal human rights in a world of diverse cultural and religious standards. I believe this is both wrong and patronising. As Rosalyn Higgins, the first female judge on the International Court of Justice, noted, it's an argument advanced by states or by liberal scholars but rarely by the oppressed groups themselves. It's often based, too, on a false belief that the idea of universal human rights, and the UN declaration that made them concrete, is a construct of a few Western democracies foisted on a reluctant world. The declaration was drafted, in fact, by experts from every background and improved by contributions from all the UN's founding members from across the world. It was an express statement that the same human rights belong to each and every one of us, whatever our race, gender, religion or background. They are a recognition of our essential dignity as human beings, something that, I would argue, has its roots deep in all our great faiths. As such, they can't be ignored or watered down..."


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Let The Dry Bones Live!

Ezekiel's dramatic vision (37:1-14) of all those dry bones joining together and coming to life again strikingly resembles the vision of creation in Genesis 2: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." That same breath of God, always associated with God's ruah, God's breath, is what Ezekiel is told in a vision to call upon: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."

In this story God's creating spirit, who in the beginning had brought life into being by breathing into human flesh, is seen recreating life out of death for the whole people of Israel, a people carried off captive into exile, and wondering if ever again they would become a strong, free, living people.

Ezekiel prophesies to them in their near despair, in their living death: "Thus says the Lord God: 'Behold I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel...And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.'" Raising up dry bones, bringing life again where there is the emptiness of death, is the work of God's creating and recreating Spirit, a work which continues in our midst.

As humans, those who follow Jesus must each walk in their personal valley of dry bones in two ways: facing and dealing with the reality of death; and facing and dealing with the reality of limitedness and selfishness, also called sin. They're two unpleasant facts, however tempted we might be to gloss over them or avoid them, or pretend they're not so, or ignore them.

First, death. In John's Gospel for Lent 5 (11:1-45) the family and friends of Lazarus, including Jesus, come face to face with Lazarus' illness which leads to his death. Lazarus' sisters, Martha and Mary, and their friends ask, in effect, the question which we all ask at some time or other: "Why? Why did this happen? Why now? Why me, or my loved one?" Ultimately, there's really no satisfying human answer. Among the explanations offered is the one which holds that death isn't a punishment. It's simply a fact of life. All people who begin to live sooner or later stop living. Many believers state that God isn't the problem. It isn't God's choice that a person dies, especially if the situation is a particularly tragic and sudden one: heart attack, cancer, a shooting, an automobile accident. Sometimes, other hold, there's simply no logical reason for death. Sometimes things happen at random, in those corners of the universe where the creative light of God's Spirit hasn't yet penetrated.

For those who try to understand with the eyes of faith, there are further explanations. In its directions for An Order of Burial, the Book of Common Prayer (p. 507) notes: "...It [death] finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised...This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend [Lazarus]. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn." Jesus, indeed, wept at the death of his friend, but he also affirmed that "...the one who believes in me, though he die, yet shall live."

The second unpleasant reality is our human finiteness and selfishness. Most of us, at least periodically, give in and accept this condition as "just the way I am", resigning ourselves to the reality of self-absorption and sinfulness. Look at the Israelites in exile: surely some among them had concluded that, for all the hardships they'd endured, for all the insult and indignity they'd suffered as a captive people, maybe this was the best that life could be for them, that to hope and strive for more was to dream an impossible dream, that it might be better to accept second-class citizenship under foreigners rather than to risk losing even that in pursuing something better.

We've all experienced the strong temptation to just "let things be", to come to terms, perhaps too quickly, and accept the failings of our human lot as a given. Not only that, but aren't we often strongly tempted to make believe that what we've settled for, that for which we've compromised, isn't really so bad an existence after all. At least, it's an "adequate" way of getting by.

Over and against all such glossing over who and where we actually are, Ezekiel throws down before us his vision of this valley of dry bones. He dares us to see ourselves within it. For all our attempts to convince ourselves otherwise, for all our covering up to the contrary, many of us, much of the time, are living in a valley of dry bones. When we gain the courage to face failure and fear, when we stand up and refuse to settle for the shallow, the sordid, the second-best in our lives, then we allow God's creating and recreating Spirit the freedom to raise up our dry bones, to breathe into them the refreshing, revitalizing power of God's presence. This, according to the Gospel, is exactly what Christian faith is based upon. This is what God did for the crucified Jesus, and what God ever does for us all through the Risen Christ. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." We have only to recognize the dryness of our bones to have those bones brought to life again, eternal life, by the power of Christ's Spirit within us.

How do you and I deal with all this during these two weeks before celebrating the great feast of the Resurrection? How do we come to that recognition and hopefulness when we're down and know we're down? Are we, at last, willing to admit it, and to reach out to each other, the community of faith, in whom the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ dwells, the Spirit who reaches out to raise us to new life. In the Eucharist you and I are most dependent on one another as partners in faith: on one another who often, quite unconsciously, through a word, a comment, a gesture, a look in the eyes, convey to each other in a marvelously real way the new life which God is ever holding out to us. We're not doomed forever to our valley of dry bones. Through God's Spirit, groaning within us according to St. Paul, what we bring to and renew in each other is Jesus' own promise: "I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me, even though he die, yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."

Rabbi Harold Kushner relates the beautiful story of a Chinese woman whose only son had died. She went to her holy man and said: "What prayers, what magical formulas do you have to bring my son back to life?" The holy man responded: "Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow, and we'll use it to drive the sorrow out of your life." The woman went out, and in every house she visited she found misfortune, suffering, despair. She began to stay in each house in order to comfort those in grief. Eventually, she became so involved that she forgot about her original quest for the magical mustard seed, never realizing that, in fact, it had been driven out of her life. The lady felt herself awakening. She came to know the power of resurrection in her own life because she was willing to walk with others through their valley of dry bones.

"Prophesy to these bones," Ezekiel was commanded. "Prophesy to them that they shall live." Especially as we near the conclusion of the Lenten season, it's perhaps good for us to both hear and, hopefully, to proclaim that same prophecy by our actions, to both experience and share that same renewing, raising-up Spirit, the Spirit who turns death into life and transforms dry bones into living beings.