The experience of ambiguity is inevitable because living with contradiction is a permanent part of contemporary society. Living with contradiction is, however, more than a social necessity. For Christians, Parker Palmer has observed, it means living with contradiction because we follow the way of the cross. ‘The cross speaks of the greatest paradox of all: That to live, we have to die.’ The cross is a symbol of the divine-human, death-life paradox of God in Jesus Christ that shapes us and beckons us. Our stories and God’s story intersect unexpectedly. Ultimately, it is in the stories we tell and the lives we live that the great paradox is exposed: to live, we have to die. To live in this ambiguity we must do so with a spirit of reconciliation and faith that does not demand easy resolution but allows transformation as we never imagined it and grace where we least expect it.
-Anderson and Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals
Contradiction, paradox, ambiguity – those really are the words that define Holy Week, or, what I sometimes call “Sweeps Week” at the church. From Palm weekend on, we try and find a way to walk through the contradiction of Jesus giving the disciples a “mandate” (Maundy/Mandatum Thursday) to love one another on the same night that one of his best friends betrays him, another will slice off the ear of a Roman soldier when Jesus has never responded with violence, he’ll kneel before them as a servant to wash their feet, and tear a perfectly good loaf of bread apart and say it symbolizes his body and lifts a perfectly good cup of wine used for celebration and connects it to his blood shed in death. So love has to do with finding a way through betrayal and denial and the temptation to violence and brokenness and service and sacrifice? That’s what love looks like?
Paradox: GOOD Friday? Really? After a kangaroo court and the worst of humanity caught up in the crowd mentality where Jesus ceases to be human and becomes an object of cruel entertainment for the crowds? I finally believe that we can only be that cruel – to whip and scourge and spit on and deride and cry en masse for someone’s death – when we find a way to define someone as less than human. And I think we only have the cowardly ability to abuse another person when we’re in a group that escalates one another’s hate and fear by finding a way to agree that defining an “other” as an enemy allows us to be less than human ourselves. It seems to me that contradicts everything I consider good. Except…except Jesus doesn’t respond in kind. He could have, but he doesn’t. We do get that, right?! He could have, you know, fought back – violence with violence, hate with hate, anger with anger, abuse with abuse, but he doesn’t. He. Just. Doesn’t. If we call that good, it means we must believe that’s the sacred response – that the best response to his “enemies” is to refuse to hate or abuse or be afraid – even at his own peril. And if that’s his best response, what might that mean for ours?
Make no mistake – Jesus doesn’t abdicate his power in his decision to refuse to retaliate. In fact, he reverses the definition and we see him as the most powerful actor in each step of the Holy Week journey. He decides when and how he will or will not respond to Pontius Pilate, to the crowds, to his disciples, to Judas, to Peter, to his crucifixion, to his death. He decides to walk the way of freedom, from involuntary reaction to measured and compassionate response. He chooses not to be less than human in an inhumane and irrational story of human beings at their worst.
Ambiguity? See “Holy Saturday”. I know, right? What’s Holy Saturday all about? What happens in that tomb in that “in between” day? Some doctrine tells us Jesus descends to hell. I’m okay with that. Wherever God is, hell is not. So if Jesus descends to hell, then hell is no more. I love that. For those who believe in hell as much or even more strongly than heaven and that God will certainly send those we’ve deemed not good enough because they don’t believe the same things we do, to that eternal lake of fire, you can’t have it both ways. If Jesus descends to hell on Holy Saturday, then hell is no more because hell is defined as any place God is not and in Jesus, God was there, so hell is not. Glad we have that pesky needing to judge who’s in and who’s out of God’s grace and eternal life is over.
Dawn will break on Sunday morning – on Easter. Colored eggs and whatever we gave up for Lent is over and maybe some new clothes and trumpets and “Christ the Lord is risen today, Aaaaaaaaleluuuuuuuhjah. Earth and heaven in chorus say, Aaaaaaaaaaaleluuuuuuuuuujah,” 302 in the United Methodist Hymnal – after 30 years, I know it by heart. Love it. And lilies, oh yes, beautiful and intensely aromatic lilies. White trumpeter lilies. Lilies that move with you into the corners of the sanctuary, down the hallways of the education space, to the 3rd floor and down again. Lilies that stay with you into the parking lot and in your car to brunch. These lilies represent eternal life because their intensity refuses to be stemmed. *snort*
But then what. What about the 4th day, you know, Monday? North Korea is still North Korea and Syria is still Syria, and South Sudan is still South Sudan, and there’s still a drought and severe famine threatening starvation for millions of people around the horn of Africa. And there’s still Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, and Orlando, and Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and a guy in San Bernardino so mad at his estranged wife that he takes a gun to her school and shoots and kills her and himself, and oh, by mistake, kills a child who is just behind his wife and injures another who is still hanging on to life but will never be the same. What about the 4th day, you know, Monday? Is it holy too? Can it be? Could we use our power to decide it is? That we have it in us to decide to love one another, to respond to hate and anger and violence and judgment, by not? To be God’s presence in the hell that some in our world are living in and by being there, destroy it? Is there a message of life on the 4th day? I guarantee you, the trumpeter lilies are not done – walk in the sanctuary on Monday, the lilies are so not done. Are we?
So we’re still, well, us. You know, uncertain, imperfect, given to fear and anxiety and unbelieveable courage and heroism all mixed together. Us. Just. Us. Human beings, finding our way, and believe it or not, simply loved by God in the midst of the contradictions, the paradox, and the ambiguities of this gift that is life.
It’s Sweeps Week at the church. Come on by. Maybe it will just be…Grace.