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Saturday, May 18, 2013 The Unwalled City
My column for the latest issue of Let's Talk is up, on the body, solidarity, and the Boston bombing:
We are perhaps now so accustomed to the “security theater” that has characterized the twelve years of the War on Terror that we have lost sight of the essential vulnerability in which we live. There is a small kind of nobility in the creation of so many “hard targets” such as federal buildings, as if a truck-bomber wouldn’t settle for blowing up the office tower across the street if the reinforced-concrete flower planters thwarted his plan to blow up the place where Social Security checks get printed. But we ourselves are the ultimate soft target. As social beings we like to congregate. We might endure security theater — the ostentatious, if practically dubious, display of anti-terror muscle — at some already unpleasant and unsociable venue like an airport. But until we give up our desire to test ourselves, body and soul, against our limits, and to do it in a pulsing, cheering crowd of our fellow bodies, we cannot be assured that our very desire for embodiment and union won’t be used as a kind of weapon. We human beings, as Lucretius put it, live in an unwalled city.
Read the whole thing! posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:40 PM
Thursday, May 16, 2013 Juvenilia
While cleaning my Augean Stable of personal papers, I came across a poem of sorts that must date from my first year at the University of Chicago (my third year of college):
Every day I cooked breakfast.
I was up long before the sun, making biscuits
Sausages, waffles, hash browns.
I cut up fruit, kneaded dough, cooked grits.
She never came to breakfast, and that made me sad. I worked so hard!
"I can't get up that early," she said.
So I brought breakfast to her room.
Waffles with strawberries and whipped cream,
Pancakes with syrup and scrambled eggs
Biscuits and sausages with gravy.
She at the food slowly and smiled at me.
Every night, when I was about to fall asleep over my books, she shook me awake.
"Let's go to the reservoir."
We skipped stones on the water
Under the moon.
Then I would go to bed, and wake up, and bring her breakfast.
And now I can't look at fresh strawberries
Or biscuits rising in the oven
Or a stone skipping across moonlit water
Without thinking of her.
I remember my awkward stabs at verse, few as they have been, with painful clarity. The only interesting thing about this little scrap of juvenilia is that I can't remember writing it. Who was it about? I don't know, not that there were many candidates around March of 2001. Was it about a person at all? Maybe it was an abstraction, like Poetry or Philosophy? I was probably re-reading Boethius at the time, so that's possible. I was working as a cook, but only making dinners. Why was breakfast on my mind? My last encounter with a reservoir had happened two years earlier at Deep Springs, and I don't recall skipping stones into it.
One of the good reasons for writing as much as you can think to do it is that you can surprise yourself in this way. The answers to the questions this doodle raised for me when I found it, a dozen years after writing it, would only diminish the interest it holds for me. We experience more things and think more thoughts than we can ever write down, and we can write down far more than we'll ever otherwise remember. Our lives as we remember them are composites into which even those things we might preserve in our minds do not always fit and do not thus always find a place. At the time, though, it would be very curious to think, "this is a rather dreary and lost time of my life in which I will write some undistinguished poetry before becoming a Christian." Stashing some artefacts about can help you to have a little compassion on, and a little curiosity about, those past selves whose chief duty was to become you. posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:20 AM
Wednesday, April 10, 2013 Theologian and Martyr (1945)
Last fall I was on the bus to Hyde Park, preparing to lead a class discussion on preaching and politics, when I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's last surviving letter to his parents, from February, 1945:
I'm also writing today because of the People's Sacrifice. I would like to ask you to take complete control of my things. I'm told that even a dinner jacket would be accepted; please give mine away; also a 'pepper and salt' suit which is too small for me and a pair of brown shoes; you, mother, now know better than I do what I still have. In short, give away whatever anyone might need, and don't give it another thought. [emphasis original] If you have any doubts about anything, you might perhaps telephone Commissar Sonderegger! The last two years have taught me how little we can get along with... [elipsis original]
In the inactivity of a long imprisonment one has above all a great need to do whatever is possible for the general good within the narrow limits that are imposed. You'll be able to understand that. When one thinks how many people lose everything each day, one really has no claim on possessions of any kind....[elipsis added]
Now for a few more requests: unfortunately there were no books handed in here for me today; Commissar Sonderegger would be willing to accept them every now and then if Maria could bring them. I should be very grateful for them. There were no matches, face-cloths, or towels this time. Excuse my mentioning that; everything else was splendid. Could I please have some tooth-paste and a few coffee beans? Father, could you get me fromt he library Leinhard and Abendstunden eines Einsiedlers by H. Pestalozzi, Sozialpadagogik by P. Natorp, and Plutarch's Lives of Great Men?
I'm getting on all right. Do keep well. Many thanks for everything.
With all my heart, your grateful Dietrich
Please leave some writing paper with the Commissar!
I was most likely rather short on sleep, having tried conscientiously both to do my job as a pastor during Advent and to lead the discussion as the guest practitioner in the Divinity School's worship and homiletics course, so it is perhaps not too surprising that this letter left me hopelessly in tears as the hospital express rolled down Roosevelt Road and onto Lakeshore Drive and again an hour later as I wrapped up my little introduction to the day's readings with this same passage.
Yesterday, April 9th, was the 68th anniversary of Bonhoeffer's execution and hence the day of his commemoration by Lutheran churches (and others) around the world. I am sure there is no theologian of the last one hundred years who has been as influential for me personally, and there are very few who have been more influential for theology and the life of the church generally. His major works are all indispensable in their own ways, partly by being so hard to categorize--Creation and Fall, [The Cost of] Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics (unfinished)--but his Letters and Papers from Prison constitute a testament that is at once revolutionary as theology, significant as history, and profound as literature. In it he raises, fearlessly and beautifully, the questions that, to our own day, haunt a church that in both its Protestant and Catholic manifestations is still too obsessed with a fruitless search for moral and philosophical foundations and too timid in facing the history through which it has lived.
Bonhoeffer inspired succeeding generations of badly declined admirers (including yours truly), but that's not his fault. There has perhaps never been a theologian as great as Aquinas--as dominant in his command of his tradition's central texts, as imaginative in his synthesis of source materials, as creative and poetic in his image of the world--and he spawned centuries of utterly worthless imitators. That is the cruel penalty history imposes upon genius: the great ones get pureed, by the imprecise future, with their pale progeny. Calvin and Luther could no doubt sympathize. But no one that I know quite captured, or even really tried to, Bonhoeffer's odd stance in the world. Not that it's easy to do. One can't just make oneself into the scion of a brilliant aristocratic German family, blessed with a library that may be called upon at will even from a Nazi prison (into which one can't simply will oneself nowadays either). As a consequence of his historical circumstances and his peculiar genius, Bonhoeffer became a sort of conservative radical. He lamented the immorality and evanescence of popular culture even as he lit the fuse of a massive bomb underneath the remnants of Christendom theology.
And I would argue, in any case, that there was and is nothing incoherent about that stance in the modern world. The calling of a theologian is not normally a heroic one in the usual sense of the word. Don't get me wrong; it is heroic in a rather less ordinary way. I tend to agree with Luther when he says that it is not by studying but by living, dying, and being damned to hell that one becomes a theologian. A great theologian is a hero of the mind, someone who sees farther, deeper, or more generously than the world sees. Bonhoeffer was most definitely that. But he was also a hero of the world, albeit a comparatively minor one. He faced his age and his fate with the resignation of a Roman senator, the pity of a Christian monastic, and the unifying vision of a Romantic poet.
That final letter made me think back to an earlier letter to his confidant Eberhardt Bethge in which he remembers Jean Lasserre, a friend from his Union Seminary year. Lasserre (Bonhoeffer does not mention him by name) aspired to become a saint. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, aspired to have faith. What strikes me so deeply in that final letter is that the two aspirations are, ultimately, the same. The saint, like the killed and resurrected person of faith, knows deeply how little we really require and how little claim we have in a world of need. They each come, perhaps by different paths, to the same place of sorrow transfigured, by grace, into a love for their fellow humans that knows no earthly bound. posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:44 PM
Tuesday, April 09, 2013 The Budget's Via Dolorosa
With the president's policy people having semi-officially endorsed the idea of cutting Social Security benefits to a resounding cry of "dead on arrival" from Republicans, I can't resist pointing out that this is a rare area in which I've managed to call the politics pretty presciently. Here we are, back in the dreadful summer of 2011, asking why Republicans are insisting on free falafel. And here we are looking at the politics of this from the Democrats' side of the aisle.
Certain stable facts of American life have been neglected by the Washington media in understanding what is going on with these never-ending budget battles.
1) Republican voters don't want cuts to retirement programs, at least not for themselves.
2) Neither do Democratic voters.
3) But Democratic Party leaders are in many cases interested in fiscal consolidation for its own sake and are eager to cut retirement programs.
4) Republican Party leaders are absolutely unwilling to get more revenue from upper-income people.
I just don't see any way a deal gets done under these circumstances.
The somewhat more interesting, and perhaps tractable, question is why can't American politics be sorted any differently than this? Why do progressivity on the revenue side and ambition on the spending side have to go together, and vice versa? Yglesias got at this recently by wondering why Republicans, instead of promising to slash spending in order to cut taxes on rich people, don't promise to slash spending in order to cut taxes on middle-class people. For the overwhelming majority of Americans there is no actual trade-off between public services like police, schools, and retirement insurance and income lost to the top tax rate. On the other hand, if stingier public services could fund tax cuts aimed at the median and below, voters who aren't ideologically or demographically aligned with the conservative coalition would have a choice to make. You like well-funded schools, but do you like them more than spending more money in a manner of your own choosing?
On the other hand, Democrats have made the question of who pays for new or growing public needs inseparable from whether those needs are genuine. A new cost that is not borne by wealthy people is not, apparently, a cost worth paying. Politically this is smarter than the Republicans' gambit--who doesn't want stuff paid for by other people?--but it comes at a serious cost. For one thing, it feeds an anti-government, anti-public sector ideology among wealthy people, who are in actual fact every bit as likely to benefit from a strong public sector as middle-class people. For another, it suggests to voters at the median that public spending is only worthwhile if they're not paying for it, which is not true even from the standpoint of progressive distributional concerns. Good schools, good roads, and secure retirements have a strongly progressive impact even if they are funded in a flatter manner than the present tax code.
I have attempted to sum up this state of affairs with this crude chart. And my question is, why isn't anyone trying to occupy those empty quadrants?
Friday, April 05, 2013 At Church with Roger Ebert
I remembered over yesterday's eulogies that I once preached in response to one of Roger Ebert's blog posts on God. Reading the sermon tonight, I am not tempted to take any of it back, though I won't exactly mind if none of you bothers to click through. In any case, I have beent thinking about the passage that prompted my sermon in the first place (free media prompted all my best sermons that year--Dan Savage, Roger Ebert, some guy reviewing a movie for The Onion):
I was asked at lunch today who or what I worshipped. The question was asked sincerely, and in the same spirit I responded that I worshipped whatever there might be outside knowledge. I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery. To reduce such a thing to simplistic names is an insult to it, and to our intelligence.
What set me off at the time--and still does, honestly--is the suggestion that speaking to that Mystery by name is insulting to the Mystery and to our own intelligence. It can be, of course. But there are plenty of ways to insult human intelligence (I know nothing about insulting Mysteries, whatever my seminary education was supposed to impart), and they don't all start with naming The Name. I was, and still am, very much in a Bonhoeffer phase in which consigning God (or whatever object of worship) to the void, the mystery, the edge of being was, well, not at all what I thought I should be urging on people.
But looking back on it, I think Roger Ebert and I could pretty much go to the same church. I don't worship the Void, exactly, and I would be lying if I suggested that I spent most of my days contemplating mysteries (profuse though they be). But the reality of Void, Mystery, or simply Openness in a highly determined world is, in some sense, where the notion of God becomes plausible. I don't buy into the whole notion that religion was a big mistake originating in our desire to make it rain on demand (obviously); I think at the very least that religion in its many forms testifies to the vastness and creativity of the human mind, whether or not it touches on anything outside of that mind. And it is that vastness, that openness that reaches back into the world and convinces us, some of us anyway, that the word "God" means something.
But leaving semantics aside, it's clear enough that Ebert really did seek, hope in, and love that edge of the mind where certainty gave off. His remembrance of his moment of death and his wife's conviction that he still lived could have come out of the pages of Letters and Papers from Prison. If I'd care to sum up the difference between how Ebert wrote about these things and how I do (pardoning, if you will, the presumption), it would be by asserting--or at least hoping--that the visible and real is a creature of the mystery, and not vice versa.
The mystery, however, is what matters. As W.H. Auden once wrote, "the course of History is predictable in the degree to which all men love themselves, and spontaneous in the degree to which each man loves God and through Him his neighbour." I would not object if you phrased this insight differently: to the degree that the course of History is predictable, men love themselves; to the degree that it is spontaneous, there is the possibility of love of neighbor, and of God. It doesn't much matter, in the scheme of things, whether you name this spontaneity or not. It's either a real spontaneity or an illusion. For Ebert, unbeliever that he supposedly was, it was real. It's real for me, too. When it comes right down to it, Ebert and I could go to the same church. Really, I love this essay on "How I am a Roman Catholic":
Birth control? Here I subscribe to an unofficial "double" loophole often applied in practice by Catholics faced with perplexing choices: Do that which results in the greater good and the lesser evil. I support freedom of choice. My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child. A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.
I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable. My beliefs were formed long ago from good-hearted Dominican sisters, and many better-qualified RCs might disagree.
No one who told me this would ever be excluded from my church. I don't mean to soft-pedal the differences between what Ebert wrote and, you know, the Bible and the Apostles' Creed. For reasons hopeful, fanciful, or stupid, I imagine that the Open we both worshiped somehow preserves everything in a state of perpetual love and enjoyment. I am, admittedly, not as Stoic as he was in the face of universal extinction. That the soaring bone in 2001 or the towering sound of Bach's "Gratias Agimus Tibi" or the lifetime's memories of the little girl I saw on the Chicago Avenue bus today should not be remembered, in some unfading archive, is harder for me to bear that it apparently was for him.
But that is, in the end, a bit of a quibble. What Christians have too little appreciated (thanks, I suppose, to a rather pinched reading of 1 Corinthians 15:19) is that if this life is not splendid and glorious strictly on its own terms, there are no grounds on which to hope for its eternal prolongation.posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:54 PM
Life Is Brief: Young Maidens, Fall in Love
One of the many things I wish I could remember, but never will, is what exactly possessed me to watch Kurosawa's Ikiru for the first time. It must have been some time around my junior year of high school, when I went through a serious phase with the director, starting naturally with the samurai classics and moving into the modern stuff. I was watching everything, but I don't recall now whether it just happened to be another box on the Kurosawa shelf (God rest you, Video Station) or whether a critic had recommended it.
What I won't forget is the astonishing experience of watching it. Even in those days before Facebook and online video games, the storytelling style of 1950's Japanese film dramas was not quite tailored to the attention span of a suburban American teenager. It's a story of a mid-level Tokyo bureaucrat who discovers that he has inoperable stomach cancer and only months to live. He decides, against the weight of all his experience and temperament, to try to do something useful with his remaining time by turning a drainage field into a proper park. And it is, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest movie ever.
Two of its scenes changed the way I watch movies. The main character (played by Takashi Shimura) goes on a drunken spree after learning that he is terminally ill. At a dancehall of some kind, he requests a popular song of his own generation--"Life is brief; young madens, fall in love, before the crimson bloom fades from your lips; before the tides of passion cool within you, for those of you who know no tomorrow." The reeling room comes to a standstill as the drunk old man groans out his hymn.
Later on, he is glimpsed on a swingset, in a light snowfall, singing the song again. It is the most beautiful, heartrending, gently overpowering thing I've ever seen in a movie. That brush with mortality and with the heroic battle for meaning and altruism in a fleeting, absurd life really did shake me up.
I thought back to that first encounter with deep existentialism--predating my first brush with Kierkegaard and maybe with Hamlet--as I read one of the many eulogies to Roger Ebert today, this one by fellow Chicago critic Keith Phipps:
One year, Roger hosted a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. His introduction was typically knowledgeable and erudite, delivered in that voice I’d heard since I started watching Sneak Previews as a kid. Then he called it one of the few movies he knew that could “make you a better person.” It’s a bold claim to make for any movie, even Ikiru. But he meant it.
Roger understood how much movies matter, how a good one can burrow into our souls, and he never let anyone forget it.
For all I know, it was Roger Ebert who persuaded me to check out Ikiru in the first place. I grew up watching "At the Movies" every Sunday night just like any other normal, decent human being, and while my concrete memories of it are pretty sparse, I think the idea that movies could be serious and challenging as well as thrilling, funny, and diverting must have come from Siskel and Ebert. The "as well as" there is deliberate. One of the things I've always loved about Roger Ebert is that he wasn't a snob. He didn't like it when movies insulted the intelligence of the audience, but he was always willing to judge a movie more or less on its own terms. A sharp horror flick could get a thumbs-up, even if it never stood a chance of rivaling Aguirre: The Wrath of God in Ebert's pantheon.
But it's the really good movies that make a critic (no one cares, or should care, what Samuel Johnson thought of Arden of Faversham). Partly because the critic can convince others to watch those movies, and partly--maybe more so--because the critic can convince others to see things with new eyes, to expect something more or different from the experience than a childhood of light sabers would leave one expecting. That includes the idea that a movie can, in rare cases anyway, make you a better person.
He wrote with a kind of understated grace that most of us should try to emulate. His essay "Nil by mouth" needs to be read, right now if possible. His 2011 essay on death for Salon is also a little treasure. His willingness to be very honest about his trials and yet fundamentally uncomplaining in light of the happy life he'd been able to lead was remarkable. Age, experience, and presumably many thousands of movies (including all the very good ones, one assumes) seemed to have made him a philosopher, a rare modern exemplar of that ethical and stylistic mean which in former days was the greatest achievement to be sought. He was dubious of religion but respectful of it, earnest and idealistic in politics but not strident or self-righteous, discerning in all things yet charitable. A popular touch is taken by those unfamiliar with humanity to be a symptom of mediocrity, but Ebert's many testimonies suggest otherwise. The kindness he showed to total geeked-out strangers (including preteen aspiring film critics) is an excellence of its own, enabled by but somewhat distinct from his abilities as a writer.
I wish very much that I had gone to that festival screening of Ikiru (today's lesson: go see people you admire when they speak publicly, especially about something you really care about). I wish that I'd ever seen Roger Ebert in the flesh, many years as we shared this city. But at the same time I know it doesn't much matter in the scheme of things. The words and the movies matter, to the critic and his reader anyway, much more than the momentary flash of bodily presence. "My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris," he wrote in that 2011 essay.
He didn't fear his own death, he wrote in quite apparent earnest, but he wanted his friends to weep at his memorial service. That is fitting. A gesture of loyalty is always welcome.
The third time I saw Ikiru, it was showing at the University of Chicago's Doc Films (Ebert had been a graduate student down there, once upon a time). The crowd there is, or was--this is getting to be a long time ago, I realize--rather given to mockery and disdain. The emotionally intense style of Kurosawa's actors, and the sometimes stiff subtitle translation, prompted titters and chuckles throughout the first two thirds of the movie. I was annoyed.
When the camera rested on Shimura in his swing, singing a tune of his youth in the falling snow, the laughter fell silent. The only sound you could hear, below the actor's rumble, was weeping.posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:25 AM
Sunday, March 31, 2013 Making Arguments
We just finished a messy, splendid, very holy Holy Week at church. Not everything went as planned--it never does, in my experience--but one likes to imagine that grace abounds nonetheless, perhaps even because of, rather than despite, the moments of unevenness. "There is a crack in everything," as Rabbi Leonard of Montreal is fond of singing. "That's how the light gets in." The older I get, the less qualified I am to identify the light of God in distinction from some other experience of illumination, so take it for what it's worth: I saw a lot of light get in this week. My best, deepest wishes for a happy and blessed Easter to you all.
In entirely unrelated news, Michael Sean Winters flags a young priest who is unhappy with the new pope's washing of female feet on Maundy Thursday:
How can I speak about such things - the self-offering of Christ, the 12 viri selecti [chosen men, i.e, the apostles]- when our Holy Father is witnessing to something different?
Winters asks--presumably with a humorous intent--how anyone "who thinks this way" can get ordained. I'll leave that alone, but I am interested in why this ends up, in the priest's diatribe, as a rhetorical question. How indeed? For a moment let's leave the pope's actions out of it. It seems to me that there are two approaches one could take to this sort of question:
a) There are rational things one can say in favor of the confinement of footwashing to males.
b) There are no rational things one can say in favor of the confinement of footwashing to males.
Here's my advice to this perplexed colleague: If a), then say those things. If b), then change your opinion. Now let's add the witness of the Holy Father to the mix:
a1) There are rational things one can say in favor of said confinement, and the Holy Father is wrong to suggest in his actions that these arguments are insufficient.
a2) There are rational things one can say in favor of said confinement, but the authority of the Holy Father overrules them in this instance, and the duty of faith is to find the spiritual truth disclosed in his actions.
b1) There are no rational things one can say in favor of said confinement, and the Holy Father has rightly abrogated it it.
b2) There are no rational things one can say in favor of said confinement, and the Holy Father's action is ultimately irrelevant to that fact.
So there are nuts for four sermons on Maundy Thursday. Each of them can be expressed with good faith, high reverence, and intellectual sincerity. I find the idea that footwashing must be confined to males only to be a little short of offensive on account of its comical triviality, but views differ. The point is not that one view or another is obviously better or more truthful. The point is that arguments either can be made because they exist, or they can't be made because they don't. Unless one's view is totally random and incoherent on its own account, no action or inaction by a person, even a pope, can diminish the arguments in its favor. Either those arguments were bogus from the start (in which case the pope's actions don't add to their error), they are overruled by authority (in which case tough), or they still stand despite what the pope does (hurrah!). Preach it either way!
This is a larger problem with the structure of arguments that shift back and forth between reason and authority. When authority is hostile or (in the case of God, typically) not recognized, the terrain shifts to rational arguments. When rational arguments break down, then authority backstops the law.
This is all a big waste of effort and spiritual energy. Priests (and all clergy) ought to preach the faith by the best lights of reason and tradition available to them. Whether that means deferring to or resisting the example of this or any pope is not for me to say, but answers are surely possible.posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:11 PM
Friday, March 29, 2013
Open Closed Open
Rev. Ben Dueholm
March 29, 2013 (Good Friday, Passion according to John)
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda
What exactly is good about “Good Friday”? This day is observed under many names in different places and in different languages. It is called the Great and Holy Friday, or simply Holy Friday, Sorrowful Friday, or Long Friday. Scholars can’t seem to decide whether our term “Good Friday” came from the German for “Good Friday” or “God’s Friday.”
On the face of it, there is nothing good about what we commemorate today. It is a killing, an execution, a spasm of violence against a Jewish man by a Gentile state. It is surrounded by the ordinary horrors of death. If you’ve been by the bedside of a terminally ill person as they near their crisis, you have no doubt seen many of the things we hear about in the passion of our Lord. Friends and even family may shy away from the dying person, like the fleeing disciples. Eating stops. Drinking is reduced to a little star-shaped sponge on a stick, moistening the lips of the dying. These things may be done with kindness and humanity. I have done them with kindness and humanity. Death itself may even come as a mercy to some. But it is not good.
I have had to admit that to myself this year, in a way that I don’t think I ever have before as I prepared to open the Scriptures today. It is a Long Friday and a Sorrowful Friday. It wasn’t Great and Holy, or even God’s Friday, until afterward. For the friends of Jesus, for those who had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Jerusalem from her oppressors, it was a terrible and tragic day. Terrible and tragic, but also ordinary. The hard fist of Rome had landed on Jewish rabble-rousers before, after all, and it would again. The life force of loved ones ebbed out before the eyes of all the disciples--almost everyone died at home in those days. A long hunger, a parched mouth, a few exhausted words from Jesus: I don’t blame the disciples for hiding their faces from this day. I do not blame Peter for denying Jesus in order to save himself. I do not blame the rest for running and hiding. To watch a man die is to confront your own mortality. To watch your teacher and leader die on a Roman cross is to remember that your life is in danger, too. To know that the world is going on about its business while your friend, your Lord, your hero is dying is to realize that some day, the world will go on without you.
Before this day was Good Friday, it was something else: the harsh end to a brilliant dream. In John’s Gospel we hear the famous last words of Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage: “It is finished.” How does he say them, when you hear these words in your mind? With a twinge of fear in his voice? With disbelief that it had finally come to this? With exhaustion? With assurance? With relief? What did he think would happen as he closed his eyes on this world of brokenness and injustice, of pain and beauty, of fear and kindness--this world so loved by his Father that Jesus was sent to us to win our trust and our faith?
Throughout all of Lent, we have heard about Jesus’s great and good deeds among his friends. We have heard of the hope that lingers even in bad times because a community of love still exists. We have treasured the good news God brings us through family, through the fellowship of believers, through the gifts of food and forgiveness that we must all give and receive throughout our lives. We have kept our faith because we are not alone, because life goes on and God’s blessings with it.
But not today. Not on Long Friday, Sorrowful Friday. Today there is no moral to the story. There is no gentle blessing. There is no meal shared among friends throughout the ages. There is no community that endures. Today I wish to let us sit, for a moment, with the grief and fear of the disciples. Today, for a moment, let us allow it to be finished.
The Jewish Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, once wrote of human life and death:
Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.
The Word of God was once abroad in the universe. All that came to be, came through that Word. God was One, but God was not lonely. God had the Word, and the Word was near to God’s bosom, and indeed the Word was truly God. And everywhere God was--which is to say everywhere--so was the Word. Together--Father, Word, Spirit--God made the world.
Yet the world was not complete. It would not be complete until the Word became flesh and looked out at the creation with human eyes. The eyes of a frail, mortal creature, but yet a creature tasked with learning, with knowing, with loving, with changing and shaping this vast world. And the Word became flesh, and shut that whole universe of creative power up inside of itself. It flashed out, of course--in healings, in miracles, in feeding the masses, in calling and teaching disciples and in loving everyone he met. Yet for a time, the great God of the whole world walked around in that little world that is a human being.
He ate and drank, prayed and wept, thirsted and hungered, and loved. And then he died, and it was finished. Open. Closed, Open.
So pray with me, sisters and brothers, that our Lord would still guide our hearts and our hands even in this, his hour of need and desolation. Pray with me that we will have the courage to stand here with him despite our own fears and our own grief. Pray with me that our hands would not falter when we must wrap his corpse and lay it in the new tomb. Pray with me that his work would be finished in us, as Jesus falls silent and opens himself once again to be the whole world. Amen.posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:10 PM