Monday, April 2, 2018

honoring the small presence as the heart of easter...

It is simultaneously serene and stimulating to be back in my Berkshire study today. On the morning after the Feast of the Resurrection, it is once again snowing. This always evokes a certain stillness in my soul that the hillside seems to share: the woods look tranquil, traffic noises are muffled, fewer people step out of their homes, the muck and mire of the season are blanketed with an unblemished frosting, and, at least for a few hours, the very air is hushed. Most everyone in these parts feels sick unto death of winter - yet once again Mother Nature reminds us that we are not in control. Spring will arise eternal in it's own sweet time, so "be still and know that I am God" seems to be the order of the day.

I find such serenity stimulating. My inner proclivity towards anxiety has long trained me to avoid slowing down. I now long to nourish it. Fretting and hyper vigilance were good resources back in the days of danger and dysfunction. Now they have outlived their usefulness and exhaust me. A beloved spiritual director used to say, "You learned a lot of skills growing up in an alcoholic family where violence often hid just around an unknown corner. Now it is time to use those skills for something beyond survival. Now is your season for contemplation, listening, and loving." He was right, of course, but living into such wisdom is hard won. To embody the upside down blessings of God in the flesh demands death before the resurrection: "for whosoever shall save her life will lose it, but whosoever loses that life for my sake shall find it." (Mt. 16: 24) To paraphrase Fr. Rohr: the Cross has become the work of the second half of my life. "For what does it profit us to gain the whole world, but lose our souls?"

In the past week I have been to Ottawa and back - spending part of Holy Week with my L'Arche community - before going to Brooklyn to share Easter with our grandchildren and their dear parents. Each visit was holy in its own way: at L'Arche I was able to be a part of the community foot washing ceremony, play music, and join the Stations of the Cross liturgy; in Brooklyn, we decorated Easter eggs, sang lullabies, feasted, laughed, talked, walked babies, blew bubbles, and rejoiced that the precious gift of new life has saturated us all after a year of trials. As this was the first Triduum in nearly 40 years that I have not celebrated Eucharist, it was also a time uniquely charged with personal significance.

This was a little Easter. A quiet Easter. In some ways even a silent Easter. In the past, the whole of Holy Week was ensconced in public activities: ecumenical, city-wide Palm Sunday processions, rehearsals and liturgies, well-advertised invitations for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, dressing the Sanctuary, and community reflections on the meaning of each and all of these sacred events. Not so this year. There were no trumpet fanfares, no triumphant choral anthems, and no bold explosions of Spring flowers bursting into my observances. Rather, what I experienced in the quiet songs and silences of this year's Holy Week was a presence. Clearly I claim it as the presence of Christ Jesus, but differently from the ways I have searched for him before. The introduction to Jean Vanier's "Way of the Cross" liturgy for Good Friday set the stage:

Who has believed our message: Isaiah described the man of sorrow who was rejected and despised and he continued: 'The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.' (Isaiah 53:5) This prophecy foreshadowed Jesus, a man of sorrow, despised and crucified. Who would believe that by dying this man could give us life? Who would believe that the crucified of our world could give us life? Certainly inspired by this text, the early Church loved to sing the words of Paul:  "He, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2: 6-8) 

Like other contemporary theologians of liberation, Vanier writes that the life, death, resurrection, ascension, ministry, spirituality, and witness of Jesus was not a big event. It was never triumphal and rarely public. "He was a small and weak Messiah," read the words of our Stations of the Cross bulletin, "one who sought not power, but the communion of hearts." So was born yet another "aha" moment that has its origins in my sabbatical epiphanies of three years ago. I heard Vanier linking Tillich, Luther, Niebuhr, Soelle, Rohr, Reuther, Bourgeault, Nouwen and Hall together for me: in Jesus, God has become small for us - vulnerable and tender, hidden in weakness - showing us the essence of God's heart so that our hearts might become whole. Vanier continued:

Jesus took the road of subservience. He went down into darkness and human weakness to take on everything but he was to rise again, with all his brothers and sisters in humanity, to his beloved Father. Jesus invites all of us to follow him on this downward journey in order to rise with him in the glory of the Father. 

For six hours driving home from Ottawa I wondered where I have known this "little Jesus" - the presence who is often with me quietly - who is so very different from the Christ proclaimed in public. On Saturday, the liturgical time between the Cross and the resurrection when tradition teaches that Jesus descended into the mysterious darkness of hell, I saw a guest editorial by Vanier on line: "Most Christians think of the Resurrection as a victory of life over death. Finally, Jesus has won." That was certainly how I have historically celebrated the Festival of the Resurrection. If Easter was the highest and holiest of our days - and it is - then our celebration must be bathed in bold expressions of strength. I know this is not the humble and tender spirituality of Jesus. It is the paradigm of power and grandeur put into practice by wealthy, Western Christendom. It is the ceremonial form of  the 1%'s hegemony of culture. It is the theology of glory. And still I often went with the flow of the dominant culture. Canadian theologian, Douglas John Hall, cuts to the core when he writes that a theology of glory corrupts the wisdom of the Cross:

The "religion of progress" (George P. Grant) serves only to blind human beings to the reality of their own and their neighbors' vulnerability, pathos and suffering. When the Christian religion allows its witness to stray so predictably from the cross of the Christ to its "glorious denouement," it is simply lending itself to the deceptive project of the technological society—which is (as Ernest Becker so poignantly argued) "the denial of death." When we turn the story of Jesus into a success story, we both cheat ourselves out of its depth and effectively banish from our purview all those (and they are billions now) whose actuality precludes their giving themselves eagerly to stories with happy endings. The gospel of the cross is not about rescuing us from our finitude; it's about a compassionate God's solidarity with us in our (yes, perhaps impossible) creaturehood and the slow grace of divine suffering-love which, without pretending finality, ef­fects its social and personal transformations from within. (https://www.christiancentury. org/article/2010-08/cross-and-context)

I don't know if you have ever seen a significant part of your public identity shift before your inner eye, but it is sobering. Humbling. Disorienting. That is part of this Easter's blessing for me: I saw with penetrating clarity the disconnect between the still, small voice of Christ's presence within; and, some of the ways I have ignored him in public. Vanier's words were clarifying:

The disciples of Jesus were certain that he was the Messiah; he spoke with great authority, he performed amazing miracles. The last of these miracles was the resurrection of Lazarus. They were sure that something great would happen on the feast of the Passover, the anniversary of the great liberation, something which would show clearly that Jesus was the Messiah, the one who had been announced in the psalms as a victorious king.

But what in fact happens? There is no victory. Jesus is condemned to a horrible death. He is stripped of his clothes and of his dignity. He is crucified. His disciples are shattered. Jesus was not the Messiah after all – he couldn’t be, because the Messiah was one who would be triumphant, who would win. So they run away; they fall into a world of depression. They had given everything for Jesus; now they are completely lost. They had been mistaken about him all along. Some, no doubt, even feel angry with Jesus. On Easter morning they find it difficult to believe the women who tell them that they have seen Jesus alive. It can’t be true. The women must be imagining things. Two of the disciples leave the group for Emmaus. Others remain behind locked doors. They don’t know what to do. Then, suddenly, Jesus is among them, even though the doors have not been unlocked. And all he says is, “Peace to you”. He looks at each one of them with eyes of love and of forgiveness.

Like the Lord's first followers, I too have looked for a strong, powerful and triumphant Messiah. I've preached this Christ and wanted him to be real. But this Jesus never shows up. It is a lie and Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life." Jesus remains small. Hidden. A presence beyond the seductive illusions of power. Like those who first loved him, I often misunderstood both his wisdom and his way. Like the other men in his early cadre, I have run away and betrayed him, too. That's not pious hyperbole, but a simple fact. And then, after my fussing and fuming, after my busyness and my addiction to glory, that still small voice and presence from beyond the Cross returns and says, "Peace." Shalom.

Nothing more. (On the first Easter) Jesus lives with each one (of his disciples) in a moment of communion, which is forgiveness. The feast of Easter, the feast of liberation, is essentially the feast of the forgiveness of God. His followers, who had lost faith in him, are liberated from their guilt and shame. Jesus loves each one of them - and he loves each one of us. He wants us all to be alive, to be fully loved and fully loving. He wants us to be “Easter people”, people of the resurrection, people who accept forgiveness, and who forgive others. So often we forget this message of the Gospel. We are taken up by the things of the world. We want to win more money and more power... and Jesus comes simply to forgive, to give his peace.

This year Jesus was among us at our Easter feasting in Brooklyn. It wasn't a traditional public Eucharist - and I missed that - and I will have to figure out new ways of doing public worship, too. Still, as our little family recalled the ways new life, healing, hope and love had come into our midst after a year of fear, anguish, hurt and confusion I heard over and over in my heart: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

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