I Corinthians 12:3b-13
Today’s lessons present us with two very different accounts of how Jesus’ disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first account, recorded in the Gospel of John, takes place in the evening of the first day of the week; that is, on Easter day. The disciples are gathered in a house with its doors locked shut. The gospel writer tells us they are afraid and explains why: they are imagining that the same people who put Jesus to death might now come after them. Without warning, and apparently without knocking or using the door, Jesus appears in the room, standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. He then shows them his hands and his side, proving that he is the same Jesus they knew, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion. The disciples receive him gladly, and he responds by ordering them into the world, just as the Father had sent him into the world. Then, he breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Finally, along with the commission to go into the world and the gift of the Holy Spirit, he grants them power to forgive people’s sins, or to refuse them forgiveness.
It’s a gentle episode – emotional perhaps, but not terrifying; surprising, but not overwhelming. We can imagine Jesus greeting them in a calm, quiet voice to soothe their shock at his sudden appearance: “Peace be with you.” The Spirit comes to them in such a gentle way: Jesus simply breathes on them. The Hebrew word for “spirit” means “breath” or “wind.” Here it comes as a gentle breath.
Romans 6: 3 – 11
Matthew 28: 1 – 10
I’m sure that we all know someone like this. Maybe it’s even yourself. We all know someone who isn’t very good at telling jokes. Sometimes that’s about timing. Maybe their timing is off. Perhaps they don’t have a sense of irony, and take everything too literally. Then again their humour might be too clever, or too dark, or too dry, for you to find funny. Sometimes if the punch line is too obscure, and the joker has to explain things, the joke falls flat, and no one finds it funny, except perhaps the teller. And some jokes, are just really terrible, or even cruel. There is a lot to making a good joke funny, especially if it is one that is retold over and over again. While some jokes never seem to be funny, other are funny no matter how many times they are told.
These last few weeks, I have the feeling that I have been trapped in the middle of a really terrible and cruel joke. This physical distancing, quarantine, self-isolation is wearing really thin. I am so done with it all. I want it to be over. If this pandemic is someone’s idea of a joke, it’s not a very funny one. If COVID-19 is someone’s idea of a joke, it’s a pretty cruel one. Things aren’t funny anymore. They aren’t even fun, and the novelty, or entertainment factor, lost its charm a long time ago.
Why is Good Friday called ‘Good’? This is not a new question. If you do a Google search you will find a supply of answers to this question with no certainty landing on any of them. One explanation is that the title is unique to the English language and is derived from the old English designation, ‘God’s Friday.’[i] In catholic teaching, good is congruent with the word holy. This sounds right considering the sacredness of the Paschal Triduum, the three days leading to the Great Vigil of Easter which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Growing up in an Evangelical tradition of the church, I was taught early on that it was good because of the salvation wrought for us by Jesus dying on the cross.
To be honest, all of these feel right to me. But it is the third explanation, the one I grew up with, that grabs my attention. Mainly, this is because of the paradoxical nature of the idea that someone undergoing torture, pain, and death, is considered good. This is what we hear in our gospel text from John this evening. Jesus and his disciples go across the Kidron Valley to a garden, identified in the other synoptic gospels as Gethsemane, where they say he prayed earnestly while his disciples slept, unaware of the intense situation that was about to unfold. Jesus is betrayed by Judas, a member of his circle of friends, and taken to be questioned by the high priest Caiaphas where he was then subjected to abuse. Jesus interpretation of the Law as well has his claim of God as his father was considered blasphemy. The fact that people were beginning to follow Jesus challenged the power and authority of the Temple leaders. They take him to Pontius Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judea, to be tried and convicted as a criminal. Using mob tactics, the Temple leaders not only rile up the crowd, but insist that if Pilate does not sentence Jesus to death, he will be seen in the eyes of Rome to be disloyal to the emperor Caesar, which would place him in grave danger.
Exodus 12: 1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116 1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
One of the most chilling scenes in all of Scripture, at least for me, comes within the context of tonight’s gospel reading from John. While we did not read it this evening, it forms a piece of the story of that first Maundy Thursday. Jesus and the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room. The foot washing has taken place, and Jesus speaks of the one who would betray him. Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me….So when [Jesus] had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot…. [After] receiving the piece of bread, [Judas] immediately went out. And it was night.
Whenever I read those four words, and it was night, a chill goes up and down my spine.
For our first century forebears, and perhaps for you as a child, night was a time of uncertainty, of loneliness, of isolation, of fear. Who has not, at one time or another, been afraid of the dark, been afraid of the night? Perhaps you still are. I know that as I child, I was. I was afraid of the darkness under my bed, and worse, the dark void of the open closet. I would whimper until one of my older brothers, with whom I shared my bedroom, would get up and close the closet door. Perhaps there is still something about the night that frightens you. Who has not been nervous walking down a dark street in the dead of night? I know that sometimes I am. Perhaps there is still something about the dark that frightens you.
Every time I hear these words, and it was night, a chill goes up and down my spine, because it reminds me that night still has the power to make us afraid.
God, help me. Come quickly. “O Lord, make haste to help me,” cries the Psalmist. “Let those who seek after my life be ashamed. … I am poor and needy.” Don’t delay. “You are my helper.” The psalmist pleads, protests what is wrong, and trusts. You are my helper. You are my God.
About half of the psalms are laments. Lament is a cry of pain, a cry for help, and a cry of trust. Lament is stark and boldly real about pain and suffering, and it assumes being heard. Tonight we will chant Tenebrae, a service of shadows, with lament psalms and haunting solos from Lamentations about people abandoned, isolated, cut-off, and grieving. Though we chant psalms like these all year, tonight they come together in a particular prayer for Holy Week. Jesus was troubled in spirit, and so are we, especially now. The Surgeon General said this may be the “hardest and saddest week” for our country.[i]
Every ten years in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, they hold the world-famous Passion Play. One of the most famous actors who portrayed Christ was Anton Lang. And there’s a story of how one day, after a performance, a tourist and his wife went back stage to meet the actors. After taking Lang’s picture, the man noticed the great cross that the actor had carried during the performance. He said to his wife, “Here, take the camera and I’ll lift the cross on my shoulder, and then snap my picture.” Before Lang could say anything, the tourist had stooped down to lift the prop to his shoulder. He couldn’t budge it. The cross was made with solid oak beams. In amazement the man turned to Lang and said, “I thought it would be hollow and light. Why do you carry a cross which is so terribly heavy?” The actor replied, “Sir, if I did not feel the weight of the cross, I could not play his part.”
To feel the weight of the cross is what we have been doing in different ways during this season of Lent, and what we are about to do in a focused and intentional way as we begin to live this Holy Week. But during this particular Lent, which we have all had to bear, continues to be very, very heavy. In the midst of this pandemic, isolation, anxiety, sickness, bereavement, have already weighed heavily on all of us.
Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scripture bids us fast; the Church says, now:
It is a poem I return to each Lent, because that first phrase turns everything upside down for me. I need to be reminded that Lent is not a time of misery, but of joy and delight. It is the springtime of the Church, and holds within it the promise of new life, similar to what we see emerging all around us, at this time of year.
Like any gardener anxiously eyeing the weather, and scouring seed catalogues, waiting, waiting, waiting, to begin the hard work of preparing the garden for another season, we turn our eyes inward, and begin the hard work of preparation, so that like Mary Magdalene, we too can encounter the Risen Lord in the garden of our souls.
Though her eyes were filled with tears, and at first unable to see clearly, Mary, like Herbert, was richly rewarded.
Who goeth in the way which Christ has gone,
That travelleth byways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
We begin Lent today in this way: kneeling, with ashes on our foreheads, and reminded of our sins. This is not in order to make us feel guilty and miserable, but in order to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, and hands, to the mystery of love, and the One who is Love. With eyes and hands open, we may find God taking us by the hand, and leading us the rest of the way. When that happens we, and all God’s people, will discover the fast which God chooses:
Is not this the fast that I choose: [says God]
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Lent is not a time to be miserable. It is a time to feast on the mercy, love, and justice of God. And that feast begins, kneeling in the garden of our souls.
 George Herbert (1593 – 1633), priest and poet
 Herbert, George, Lent as found in George Herbert, The Country Parson, The Temple, The Classics of Western Spirituality, edited by John Wall, Paulist Press, New York, 1981, page 204
 Isaiah 58: 6 – 7
When I was a student in graduate school, our chaplain, Cameron Partridge, introduced me to a concept that has never left me: liturgical hinges, or, those places in the church’s year that are marked by their liminality. Places that sit in a fertile tension between the thematic demarcations of two seasons. Days in the liturgical calendar that begin to ease our praying imaginations into the content of a new season, tantalize us with vexing ideas, incongruities, or questions, or provide us space to step back from our habitual readings of our relationship with God and others. Think of those two peculiar days between the last Sunday of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, or that liminal week after Christ the King as the church begins to hinge itself into the waiting of Advent. If you consult the seemingly arcane groupings of variable propers for the days after the First Sunday of Christmas, you will find that we are, even here and now, in the midst of such a hinge.
I love these oddities of the church calendar because of their signature “fuzziness,” as if we were removing one pair of spiritual glasses—the expanse of Ordinary Time after Trinity Sunday, let’s say—for another—in this case, Advent. We tend to know what to expect from the terrain of Ordinary Time or Advent (or Lent, or Easter). Their contours, while somehow always new, are familiar to us. They remind us that the whole journey of conversion is itself is life-long pivot from the familiar.
I had just loaded my suitcase into the car and was headed toward the back gate of the monastery. I was departing for a week of personal retreat and my mind was already settling into a cabin in the silent, sunlit forest at Emery House. One of my brothers suddenly thrust a small vase into my hands, with three flowers: a bright pink peony, a red rose, and a white lily. He beamed, winked, and then vanished: a guerilla ambush of kindness.
As I set the vase down on the desk in the cabin, and as I gazed at it in the days to come, it became something of a parable. The peony, by nature already large and attention-grabbing, unfolded and unfolded until she was only light and air, all her petals cast with abandon onto the floor by day two. The rose, generous but with a measured gravitas, let her petals drop more slowly. By day four, rose had departed. But the lily was a sharp, closed cone of white: fuller and rounder with every hour but cloistered within herself. I became quite certain that I would see the exact moment she blossomed. I took a long walk on the morning of day six, and of course I returned to the cabin to find her moment had arrived… under the watchful eye of God alone. Yet the fragrance filled the room, as if to thank me nonetheless for my faithful waiting and vigilant watching.
Isaiah 11:1-10 :: Romans 12:4-13 :: Matthew 3:1-12
As the years go by, I find myself more and more aware of a peculiar dissonance. Before the leftovers of our Thanksgiving Day feasts have even cooled, our culture plunges into a season of marked material excess. Commercial advertisements don the gay apparel of remixed, upbeat holiday jingles. Tinsel and lights adorn city streets and public squares. Numberless holiday sales abound, drawing us into a frenzy of stressful shopping, trailed shortly after by the accompanying waste. All attended by the familiar, portly figure of a jolly Santa Claus.
Please don’t misunderstand me; it is not my attempt here to polemicize the popular festivities of our ambient culture. (Not entirely.) There is nothing wrong with the desire to give gifts to one another, per se. There is nothing wrong with warming the dark, frigid nights of a northern December with song, festivities, fellowship, and lights, per se. These are all good things, to be sure, and doubtless God can speak some word of life to us through it all. Nevertheless, the moment our culture attaches the name of Jesus Christ to this prolonged cultural season of excess, I have to wonder if we are really being adequately prepared for the significance of Christmas. The difference of horizon between a season marked by Santa Claus and one marked (at least in part) by John the Baptist, it is safe to say, is a difference not of quality but of kind.
Advent is by contrast a full-blooded, lean, and demanding season in the life of the church. A season characterized by expectant waiting and honest self-examination. A season that seeks to prepare us for a revolution, but not just any revolution. Today and next Sunday are marked by the unmistakable cry of John the Baptist—the gaunt, desert-dwelling prophet, clad in a camel’s hair mantle and a lone leather belt.