Lent 2008: Week 6, Day 6 Holy Saturday When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea,
named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and
asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.
So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid
it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled
a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene
and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. Matthew 27:57-61
(Note: The following was written by Jesuit Priest, Rev. Nathan Stone, of Dallas)
By Nathan Stone, SJ
This is the most difficult topic. Jesus is buried, and with
him, the beatitudes, the parables, the healings, the hopes, the love of the
Father and salvation. The Kingdom of God is placed in the tomb. Nothing is
left of the Jesus project. The Messiah is dead. The disciples are
dispersed. Everything has become frustration and humiliation. How can we go
on? Why would we continue? We find ourselves face to face with
the dark night of a forgotten promise, a broken alliance, a God who abandons
his own son, and with him, all humanity and creation itself. We are
confronted with the paradox of a redeemer overcome by death. The Almighty
has been annihilated by evil. Who will save us, then? Before
God, a serious complaint wells up. Do you perform miracles for the dead?
Will anyone speak of your goodness and your fidelity in the tomb? Do they
know about your wonders in the place of darkness? The temptation is to run
from the death of the Savior, as if it weren’t real, as if it weren’t the
same death that awaits all flesh. Let’s imagine the mother of Jesus, her
heart broken by this final sword: the humiliating death of her son, the one
for whom the angel told her to rejoice, the one she carried in her womb, for
whom she sang the wonders of the Lord worked within her. Now, that is as if
it had never been. We find ourselves at a paradoxical crossroads. How
can we understand the Alliance of God with his people in these conditions?
How can we understand the Promised Land? Salvation? The commitment of
protection and never-ending mercy? This has happened to
Israel before. In Exile, all was lost. They were chained and taken away to
Babylon. In spite of everything, the people, once again captive, as in
Egypt, lose all but hope. God will not abandon. The Lord is there for his
people. He has salvaged the unsalvageable before. The exiles remember their
Exodus. Stubborn in the face of despair, the deported nation refuses to
forget the seemingly vaporized promise. Jerusalem, if I forget thee, may
my right hand dry up! Let my tongue cleave to my palate, if I do not
in mind thee bear, if Jerusalem be not the crowning of my
joy. Without minimizing the finality of death, how can
we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land? How can we sing of the
Lord of life when he is in the tomb? What meaning could there be in that?
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Let us stand with Joseph of
Arimathea. Let us lend a hand, lower Jesus from the cross, wrap him in new
sheets, and bury him tenderly. Let us simply accompany him, out of love,
facing the questions, which, up to now, have no answers.
I'll never forget Alice. I saw her every week a few summers ago. I didn't know her long and I don't know what ever became of her. She lived in a ramshackle white house on the south side of Midland and each week I knocked on her door and talked to her. It was fairly clear that dementia had set in by the time I had gotten around to meeting her. She took awhile to get to the door, but she was there each and every week. Until one week I went and she didn't answer. After that day, I never saw her again.
She was probably 75 or 80 back then. And although she was unsure of a lot of things in life because of her failing emotional state, she was certain of one thing. She said one thing, and one thing only, every time I saw her:
"By his stripes we are healed."
If I said something -- anything -- to her, that is all she said in return.
"By his stripes we are healed."
Many denominations choose to remember only the resurrection. A few churches take into almost equal account the suffering endured by Christ. Some people wear crosses, some crucifixes. Those who wear crucifixes don't believe in a dead Christ. They believe in one who returned as billed, but also believe that the suffering that went along with the resurrection is just as important to remember.
Today is the day of that suffering.
In America, we call it Good Friday. I read recently that it was likely given that name because it is the day in which God's goodness manifests itself through the crucifixion. Pope Benedict in fact calls Good Friday "the real starting point of Christianity." Until his death, Christ was a Jewish rabbi. On Sunday he became something entirely different.
Faith, hope, and love. All our years we've been told that of the three, love is the greatest. And since faith is what punches your ticket to heaven, that's likely a strong candidate for Important Virtue No. 2. Yet, despite the significance of faith and love, hope is not exactly chopped liver.
Often we don't know what hope is until we no longer have it. Tomorrow, Good Friday, and Saturday are the darkest days on the Christian calendar. The two days in those earliest years when hope was hard to maintain and many of Christ's followers relied solely on the strength of their faith; faith in a man who proclaimed he was the Son of God but who was now suddenly dead.
In the book "365 Saints," the editors extoll these three greatest virtues and note that of them, hope is the one most closely linked with life on earth.
"The essence of hope is trust -- trust in things unseen and in the love of an unseen God. Once we leave this world, what is hidden will be revealed and then we will no longer have need of hope" (June 11, St. Barnabas, Patron Saint of Encouragement). In many ways, hope is a first cousin to faith.
Today is the day we remember the Last Supper and the washing of the feet. Tomorrow the day when hope was cast out, however temporarily. Saturday is the day when the faith of those early followers was perhaps most tested. And Sunday the day when all those hopes and all that faith came together and the greatness of love revealed.
Faith, hope, and love. Three ingredients essential to building one's relationship with God, they are the groundwork of happiness and perhaps even the signpost to heaven itself. All we need do, then, is keep the faith, never abandon hope and love others as we love ourselves.
As adults, we all know, though, that's easier said than done. Somewhere along the way things get complicated. We grow up, develop our own free will and begin thinking. And with thinking comes questions. We are told that questioning the existence of God and the reality of Christ as the Son of God is natural and OK. People raise doubts about all sorts of things from the virgin birth and the Immaculate Conception to Christ's death on the cross and rising from the dead, and everything in between. Did it happen? How is it possible? Why should I believe?
One prominent atheist today is suggesting that handing down faith to children is tantamount to child abuse and should be prosecuted as such. The alternative of course is that in barring them from learning faith, we remove hope. And without hope, how possible is love? Keeping faith, hope and love from our children is certainly the equivalent of child neglect.
Perhaps instead of barring our children from the teaching of our faith we should instead encourage them to continue to believe just as they do as a child for the rest of their lives. Children are frequently mentioned in the Gospels. We are told that we should have faith like a child. The peacemakers are blessed because they are the children of God, and whoever does not accept th kingdom of heaven like a child won't even get in.
So while it is OK to question some of the more mysterious elements of faith, retaining that "Jesus Loves Me" innocence from our childhood is important to maintaining a strong faith. Keep it simple. It's one of the principles in many facets of life today. It's how you run a successful business. How you succeed in things like sports and writing. So why wouldn't it apply equally to our faith? Keep it simple.
Several years ago, a 3-year-old child was crawling around on a pew in a Midland church, restless because the minister was going long. At one point during his homily, the minister said, "God ... is everywhere!" The child looked around in all directions and at every pew on one side of the church and then the other. She then looked at her mother and in an audible voice said, "Well, I don't see him!"
Would that we could all look at our faith with such honesty, wonder and fascination.
Several years ago, a friend of mine nearly destroyed his marriage, losing everything along the way because of wrong decisions. At the depths of his despair, when it was uncertain whether his family would even remain intact, he told me that he no longer even felt the presence of God. He felt, he said, as if God didn't even exist. He didn't doubt God. He wasn't atheistic or even agnostic. Just that there was not a God and there never had been. His decision was based nothing on religion or theology, but on a big black hole that had consumed him. My friend told me that even after he and his family eventually reconciled, it still took weeks for God to return. "Oh, really? Who moved?" I asked him. He looked puzzled and asked what I meant. "Who moved to make God no longer in your life? Who moved away?" That was the end of that discussion, but judging from my friend today, he figured out the answer. God doesn't desert us. If anyone moves in difficult times, it's us. There is a beautiful song by San Antonio-based Christian singer David Kauffman called, "My God, My God, Why Have You Left Me?" taken directly from the 22nd Psalm and from one of the seven last words Christ uttered as death grew near. The psalm in fact is the story of a man deeply depressed and in great despair; a man who feels like everyone has turned on him. We seldom think of the emotional torment Christ must have endured in his final days and hours. We know he underwent enormous physical agony. But what about the emotional pain? Those closest to him turned from him. That certainly must have been incredibly difficult to bear on top of the physical torture. If you've ever felt disliked, laughed at, abandoned by friends ... magnify that a few fold and you get an idea what Christ must have gone through. Christ certainly felt that he had been abandoned, just as my friend did several years ago. That's the way people feel when, as the psalmist wrote, "All who see me mock me/they shake their heads in hate." When we feel abandoned by friends and family it can often seem like we are also being abandoned by God. But God doesn't move. If we feel abandoned by him, it is only because we have moved, and the only way to get back into his presence is to allow ourselves to move back.
St. Patrick was known for many things. In today's world, many people think he is the saint of green, the saint of beer, and even the saint of green beer. What he is lesser known for in the 21st century by people who hope just not to be pinched today, is the beautiful prayer, "The Breastplate of St. Patrick," which has been commonly attributed to him for almost 2,000 years:
I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.
I arise today through the strength of Christ with His Baptism, through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension, through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.
I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels, in hope of resurrection to meet with reward, in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets, in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors, in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.
I arise today, through the strength of Heaven: light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire, speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea, stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.
I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me: God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me, God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, God's host to secure me: against snares of devils, against temptations of vices, against inclinations of nature, against everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.
I summon today all these powers between me (and these evils): against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul, against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of heathenry, against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry, against spells of women [any witch] and smiths and wizards, against every knowledge that endangers man's body and soul. Christ to protect me today against poison, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of Christ. May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.
I may have told this story before. Apologies for any repetition. I was born and raised a fire and brimstone Southern Baptist. It was a faith around which my mom and dad fully wrapped their arms and they handed it to me and for that I am thankful. I consider the Rev. Dr. Henry Kinkeade to be one of the giants of my spiritual formation. He was passionate in his delivery of the Word and each and every Sunday he would yell and sweat until he could yell and sweat no more. Or until it was time to beat the Presbyterians to the cafeteria or go home and watch the Cowboys. He usually made his points a little briefer on those Sundays when the Cowboys had the early tee time. As much as I enjoyed Bro. Kinkeade, I distinctly remember visiting my Uncle Bill in Columbus, Ohio, and walking into his Catholic parish for the first time when I was 14. I remember the calmness, the serenity, the peace, and the vastly different approach that my uncle's church took to the Word. Fast forward four years. When I was a teenager, I was blessed enough to be offered a music scholarship to Baylor University and was even offered a spot in the school's woodwind ensemble. I went back and forth in my indecision for several weeks and I decided I would turn down that chance of a lifetime and stay at home and study that grand old profession of radio broadcasting. My choice to forgo my opportunity of a lifetime, forsaking a dream I would never fulfill, had nothing to do with my religion or how I felt about the Baptist church which, at 18, turned out to be not so great at that particular point in life. I hung around my childhood home while I completed my higher education, then it was off to Beeville for a cup of coffee and on to Bryan-College Station where my real career would begin. In 1984, I looked up and saw a beautiful blond woman looking at me in a country-western bar in College Station, sipping water through a straw while I worked as a deejay spinning forgettable '80s tunes like "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closin' Time" and "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places." That water-sipping lady would become my wife and I remember early on she told me she was a Catholic and how important it would be for her if I would at least consider that option and perhaps even raise our children in that faith, a faith handed down by her Polish immigrant grandparents and those who came before them. I said yes and she said yes and we were married nine months after we first laid eyes on each other in that smoky bar and we proceeded to have three well-adjusted, beautiful children who we rate as the richest blessings life will give us. Still today, I think back on that decision I made 30 years ago to not accept that scholarship to Baylor and pursue that dream of mine. Had I said yes, I would have never moved to College Station, and met my wife. Our children would have never been born, I would have likely never been richly introduced to my faith of choice. I began as a Baptist. I will end as a Catholic. But the end result is being able to successfully advance to my hereafter of choice. So what does any of this have to do with a lenten devotional? Only two things: everything in life happens for a reason. That decision I made 30 years ago profoundly affected my life and the lives now of many others, most especially my family. Secondarily, I am reminded of the movie, "The Apostle." I will forever remember the film because of the astonishing performance of Robert Duvall as an abusive, whiskey-swiggin,' self-important, evangelical preacher. At a point late in the movie he happens upon a St. Patrick's Day parade and he meets a Catholic Bishop. The two talk and Duvall looks on in wonder at the pomp and ceremony that accompanies the Catholic tradition. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Duvall delivers to the bishop a line which to me is one of the most memorable lines of any movie I have ever seen. Duvall says, "Padre, you do it your way, and I do it mine. But we both get it done." There are people of all faiths, all doing it their own way. Duvall's line tells me how Christ's hope would be that we would all be respectful, tolerant and accepting of others, regardless how they choose to practice their faith. And that others would be the same to us.
A therapist friend of mine told me once that the best way to make it through any extended spiritual season during which you are being aided by a daily devotional is that if you miss a day, skip it. Just pick back up the next day. If you don't you'll fall hopelessly behind, not catch up, and feel like a failure when Easter arrives.
Of course that goes for reading a devotional. Not writing one. I missed a day yesterday. OK, I missed two days. Day before yesterday, too. I was privileged to be in the southern Arizona desert this week, away from the routine and the thought process that has brought this whole discipline along for 21 out of the last 23 days. This desert is a stunningly beautiful and humbling place to be, and a quite fitting one, too, during so sacred a season.
It occurred to me that Saguaro cacti are very much like humans. Perfectly imperfect yet perfectly unique in their own way. Like people.
We all strive to be perfect and when we are not (certainly the overwhelming majority of the time for most of us) we think we have fallen short.
So I missed writing my first Lenten devotional Tuesday. (and then my second Wednesday). But instead of belaboring that point, it only serves me and God if I pick back up again today, no looking back.
I had a bad day Tuesday. I had monumental computer problems and I even think I got a traffic ticket at the end of the day because in Tempe they monitor you by photograph and if you are speeding, a big flash goes off. Click. You're on Tempe PD Candid Camera! I was doing about 10 mph over. I confess. Bad day. I even had to change my purple complaining bracelet back to another arm Tuesday, spoiling nine days of complaining sobriety and assuring that it will be impossible to achieve my magical 21 days of whine-free living by Easter Sunday. Bummer. But I am in the desert, so what else am I to expect but a perfectly imperfect human existence?
One thing about imperfection and falling: God takes us back in with no questions. Just like the father did in the story of the "Return of the Prodigal Son." There were no questions asked. Just a "Welcome Home" hug and a pat on the back, which God gives to each of us over and over and over. No matter how many bad days, traffic tickets or feelings of brokenness and separation in the midst of our imperfections.
If there is a good book to take along during the lenten journey it would have to be Kathleen Norris' "Amazing Grace," a wonderful look into different words that once frightened and confused the author as a child, but are now words she learns to understand and even embrace.
In a chapter entitled "Belief, Doubt and Sacred Ambiguity," Norris tells of the time she confided in a minister her doubts about certain passages in the Creed, a statement of beliefs recited by Catholics and other liturgical faiths.
"How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?" Norris asked her spiritual director.
The advice returned to her: "You just say it. Particularly when you have trouble believing it. You just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually."
It immediately brought to mind a conversation I had with the late Fr. Tom Kelley. I was having problems believing one of the Catholic faith's central beliefs: the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I told Fr. Tom several years ago that no matter how hard I tried, I could not bring myself to believe in the transubstantiation.
Fr. Tom, one of the wisest men I ever met, said to me, "Perhaps it is good enough, then, if you just try to believe."
I packed that along for my faith journey, realizing that his sentiment applied to not only complicated, not-easily understood mysteries such as the transubstantiation, but pretty much any other aspect of faith that we find hard to believe from time to time.
On those days we can't believe, perhaps just trying is the next best thing.