Saturday, March 26, 2016

Jesus in the Tomb

Holy Saturday is a rather quiet day during Holy Week leading up to the celebration of Easter. Jesus done a lot between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  His death on that day was that of an ordinary criminal which was not a nice, quiet death at all; sometimes it took many hours or even a day or two. In Jesus's case, it took about six hours. The body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb which was then sealed. On Holy Saturday we wait, outside the door to the tomb.

Holy Saturday is the holding period for us. We decorate the church for the Easter celebration and, for many congregations, a celebration of the Easter vigil on holy Saturday evening. It is a retelling of salvation history and leading up to the events of the resurrection. It is a happy joyous service, but first comes the quiet preparation and before that simply the quiet.

We seldom think about the time between Jesus being taken down from the cross and put in the tomb and the vision of the empty tomb on the announcement of Jesus resurrection. In Scripture that's a blank space. Nothing. How did the disciples spend the time other than hunkered down, hoping that they would not be caught and recognized as followers of Jesus, or simply tried to go about daily life which didn't stop just because Jesus has died?

This image, by Jean-Jacques Henner, shows Jesus in a posture of repose but not swaddled in burial shrouds. It shows him all alone, without any company-- no angels, no grieving family, and pictured against a dark background. We seldom think about Jesus that way, but maybe we should.

Jesus was the son of God; that is one belief we Christians have in common. But besides being the son of God, Jesus was also a human being. His conception was a bit extraordinary, but he was born, lived, and died as a human being. Had he simply been in the middle of his ministry and then suddenly be lifted up to heaven,  that might have given rise to some speculation. Jesus came to earth as a human being, a child with skinned knees, a young man leaving the family to pursue a powerful calling, preaching and teaching and healing in all sorts of places and involving all sorts of people. The one thing we don't like to think about is that in order to live a fully human life, Jesus also had to die as a human being.

All humans are born, live their lives, then die. Jesus's stay in the tomb only lasted from the Friday afternoon until when? Was he in the tomb when he visited hell, an event which we call the Harrowing of Hades? Or was he able to be in two places at once? We aren't sure precisely when that resurrection took place other than that Mary, Jesus's mother and her companions --or, per another gospel, Mary Magdalene was there alone--went as early as possible after the Sabbath to anoint him. They had not had time to do so immediately after his crucifixion. But the tomb was empty.

We very easily picture the empty tomb, but not so often the occupied one containing the body of the man called Jesus. We forget that Jesus was human, and we forget that at this time he lay on a bed of stone wrapped in linen and totally alone. It's entirely possible that God sent angels to keep him company, or that the resurrection happened within hours after the tomb was sealed. We simply don't know and will never really know, but one thing we need to consider is that in order to live a full human life, Jesus had to experience death.

He had to experience lying in the tomb had to undergo the same sort of mortal process of death and dying that all human beings have to undergo. None of us like to picture death, much less what's going on in the coffin once it sealed and laid in the ground. Perhaps we needn't think about it at this particular time in the church year either, but the point that I took coming back to is that Jesus, like us, was alone in death, and alone for a time, at least, in the tomb.

Somehow it's comforting to know that the Savior of the world knew what humanity truly felt like because he had experienced it from beginning to end.  At his death, Jesus knew total separation from God. Many feel that way in life and also when life is ending. For us it is an illusion because God never leaves us alone and in the darkness, but Jesus, having experienced it, did not want us to be left in that place of emptiness and despair.

So, on this Holy Saturday, I contemplate mortality and death, but I also hope for the resurrection and joining God in heaven just as Jesus did. Instead of focusing on dyeing Easter Eggs or doing the church flowers, I will be thinking about Jesus knowing true separation from God so that he could bring us all closer to God.

It's a pretty powerful thing to think about on this holy Saturday.

Image: Jesus at the Tomb by Jean-Jacques Henner, 1879 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 25, 2016.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Joseph, Jesus's Stepfather

Once upon a time there was a man and wife and who were expecting a baby. They had to make a trip to another town to take part in a census, but when they got there, there wasn't any place for them to stay. They ended up in a stable and their baby boy was born there. That baby boy went on to change the world, one life at a time.

Of course, that's the story we hear every Advent and Christmas, the story of Jesus and his family, Mary and Joseph. During Advent we have the run-up to this part of the story, the part where Mary has a visitation from Gabriel, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and then returns home. Then there's the part where Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant and knows it is not his. He has a dream where an angel tells him that the child is God's and that he should marry Mary.

So whatever happened in the intervening months between the Advent stories and the trip to Bethlehem we don't know. Evidently Joseph and Mary (and their families) worked out some details and the couple worked out their own. After that, we only hear that they had to flee to Egypt to escape possible death, the child grew to the age of 12 and stayed behind in Jerusalem, panicking his parents. After their reunion we hear no more of the family except in one or two episodes and then the mention is only of Mary, not Joseph.

Stories have come down to us that suggest Joseph had had a family prior to his marriage to Mary but that his wife had died, and then that he had died sometime during the intervening years. What the real story is has been lost to the intervening years.

Joseph's role in Jesus's life has been seen as that of father, stepfather, adoptive father, teacher, and guardian. He was all of them, in one way or another. He fulfilled the role of male parent in the little family, teaching Jesus to use the tools of a tekton and bringing him in to the family business as a money-earner. He made sure Jesus learned how to be a good Jew, how to fulfill all the obligations and responsibilities, prayed the proper prayers, and learned the scriptures. Joseph also modeled a good head of the family, ensuring his family was well provided for, safe, and loved.

Being a step parent or adoptive parent is hard; a person comes into your life that isn't really related to you. You then have to learn to love this alien being and think of him/her as your very own. They may not want you to love them, or want to think of you as their parent. For almost any parent, even the kindest treatment may produce rebellion and disobedience.

Young things have to learn to spread their wings, and that can be a most painful time for those who watch over them. I'm sure Joseph had a few of those moments with Jesus, no matter that he was really God's son. We have to remember that Jesus was human and had to learn just as any child would.

We can think of Joseph as a model for God. That may sound blasphemous, but in a way, Joseph took a child that wasn't his own and raised it with love, kindness, and probably a bit of correction. God does that for us. We humans make mistakes that need correction; God provides the means for us to learn from our mistakes, and to have the opportunity to correct them.

We don't think of Joseph as often as we might. We can celebrate his feast today, dedicated to his role as the husband of Mary. There's another feast day on May 1 which focuses on St. Joseph the Worker. As Mary's husband, it's also a fitting day to celebrate his parenting of a most extraordinary child.

Here's to Joseph, a quiet saint with a tough job. Every child should have a father like Joseph. It would make for a very different world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, March 19, 2016.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Laws, Manners, and Morals

Laws help us to know right and wrong in our public and private conduct, manners help us to know what to do in our social relations with others, and moral principles help us to do the good in our public and private lives. - Stephen Holmgren¹

Another day, another round of news, Facebook postings, emails, phone calls. and the like. The days seem to blur into a repeat of the day before and a herald of the day after. If it isn't the latest political hammerings from one side and then the other, it's something Kardashian, the rise (and downfall) of some sports or entertainment hero, or some other notable figure. It's hard to remain upbeat when just about around seems to be falling into a state of fear, agitation, anger, rudeness, and behavior so mean and ruthless that it's almost unbearable. If someone were depressed, the best thing might be to turn off the TV, cable, Wi-Fi, and radio, cancel the newspaper and magazines, and head for a monastery in the mountains or desert until November-- or later.

We are a nation of laws, manners, and principles. Each one has a role to play in our lives, beliefs, and behaviors. We inherit some of them from our parents, absorb some of them from our environment, and learn about some in our schools, churches, and groups to which we belong. All of them together help to make us who we are, individuals with differences and similarities, but above all, human beings with rights, obligations, freedoms, and choices. That's where the problems come in.

Those of us who claim Christianity see laws as coming from two sources: the governing bodies of the country, state, county, or community, and our religious texts and clergy. We claim the Bible as our source of wisdom, ethics and conduct, and proclaim that we are followers of Jesus. We steep ourselves in the laws (some of them, anyway) of ancient nomadic people who were learning to live with one God instead of a number of gods who governed various parts of life and who had a bunch of children who had to begin learning the basics of life through numerous laws. We proclaim that "Jesus loves me" but beyond the personal, we have prejudices and dislikes and sometimes use the Bible to bolster our beliefs that God loves what we love and dislikes (or worse), and we use the words of Jesus as proof.

Listening to the political slugfests and verbal barrages, I hear derogatory statements about various ethnic and cultural groups, homophobia, sexism, ageism, and disrespect for our president and for the very soldiers the political pundits in Congress sent into war and who have come back maimed in body and soul. How do any of those fit in with "Love your neighbor"?  Or is it just a catch phrase for loving the people just like me and no others?

Laws designating right and wrong seem to be applicable in the eye of the beholder. There are a number of issues where one person feels his or her rights permit something that makes the next-door neighbor feel his/her rights are being violated. Good manners might dictate that each person tries to respect the rights of others whether or not that respect is reciprocated. Moral principles are based on beliefs which dictate how we react to those around us, hopefully with love and respect, but too often it becomes a reason for argument, finger-pointing, name-calling, shouting, and can escalate to violence.

What has happened to us? Where is the Christianity we proclaim we practice? What would Jesus say? Scripture spends a lot of time talking about offering hospitality to strangers, treating the aliens the same as native-born, caring for the less fortunate, feeding those who are hungry, etc. Unfortunately, Scripture is also full of acts of violence, some of them horrific enough that we seldom hear of them in Sunday School, Bible study or sermons.

When was the last time you read the story of the unnamed concubine in Judges 19?  Or Jephtha's daughter in Judges 11? How about the slaughter of every Amalekite man, woman, child, infant, sheep, and ox in 1 Samuel? Instead we hear gospel stories and see pictures of Jesus talking to little children, healing people, and lots of parables reflecting positive outcomes and new ways of doing things. There's nothing wrong with that, but we have to remember there is another side, even in scripture.

So what is our reaction to law, manners and morals? Is it something we pay attention to when it is convenient, or when it suits us, or is it something we live even when we don't really want to? What about what Jesus told us to do?  What about loving one's neighbors and taking care of them? Or would we rather pick and choose which ones we will obey like we do speed limit signs and those telling us not to walk on the grass?

Jesus encouraged us to use manners and moral principles and gave us laws that promoted equality, justice and fair treatment. Can we just do what Jesus asked and encouraged us to do? Can we turn off the hate, anger, and fear, and live in peace?

I wish we could.

¹ Holmgren, Stephen, Ethics After Easter, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000), 93.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 12, 2016.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The song of the stream

If it weren't for the rocks in its bed, the stream would have no song. - Carl Perkins

After years of getting up before dawn in order to get to work, right now I have the leisure to stay in bed until a much more reasonable (to my thoughts, anyway) hour. One of the lovely parts is hearing the birds wake up in the morning. There is always one who starts early, half an hour or more before sunrise, and then others join in. It's like hearing their morning prayers or thanks for being alive for another day.

I've often wondered which I would choose if I had to choose going blind or going deaf. I remember practicing the piano with my eyes closed so that I could play without having the visual cues of either written music or where my fingers were on the keyboard. Even then, hearing seemed so important although I still depended on my eyesight for reading, getting my bearings, and finding my way around, whether it is my kitchen or the world.

Some of my favorite sounds are those made by water. In a quiet room, I can close my eyes and hear the gentle lap of wavelets on the beach, or the crash of larger waves on the rock breakwaters. There is the sound of a fish jumping or a sea bird calling. Then there is the small stream that gurgles and splashes across rocks and sand on its way from here to there. It's a soothing sound, a meditative sound that encourages the passerby to stop and listen to its song.

Sounds are complex. Unless the wind is extremely strong, it doesn't really have a lot of sound until it moves something like a wind chime or the leaves on a tree. Water moves smoothly unless there is something to disturb it, like rocks in its bed. The rocks provide resistance, and even if the water slowly polishes the rough edges, the rounded stones and pebbles add to the water's singing.

One of the metaphors for life is a that of a river moving down its course from its source to its mouth, from the place where it is born until it joins a greater life in a larger river, bay, gulf, or ocean. In its journey, it runs through flat places and rocky ones which seem to be what life is for human beings. There are easy times and rough ones, each marking part of the journey.

Water, being a fluid, moves over each obstacle without harm to itself but leaving a trace of its passing. It leaves ripples in the sand and wears away a minute segment of the rock. Humans, though, are marked by the experiences in life, including having scrapes and scars from those experiences. We can't get through life without at least a few of them, and sometimes a great many. Those experiences help to make us what we are, like a sculptor chisels away at rock to reveal an image s/he sees captured there and freeing it. 

As Christians, we sometimes see God's hand planting a rough patch of stones, a turbulent section, or a quiet stream bed. We visualize the stones and rough patches as part of life, but also we look to see God's guidance and support in the process.  We use the phrase, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger," but tell that to someone fighting cancer or some other chronic disease. It may be a worthy statement, but it tells us we are on our own in fighting whatever crisis there is for us to work through. We may feel that way sometimes but God is still there, even when we don't realize it. The struggles we go through can strengthen our faith, and tune our song just as water wears away the rock and gives the stream its own voice.

What song would we sing if we were a stream or even a human travelling down through a life? Would it be a song of compliant and "Oh, woe is me"? Would we sing a song of hope or remembrance? How about a song of faith and trust in God? Maybe even a song of praise and thanksgiving that God is always with us? Even when going through rapids or rough waters, God is present.

Our song may change as we go through life. The song of the aged is very different from that of the child or young adult. If the song we sing points to God and trust in God's faithfulness, it will be a lovely one that will touch the hearts of those around us. It's our choice to sing or not, what to sing, and when, but God is always listening attentively.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 5, 2015.