[I chose this photograph because, unlike this raccoon I scared, we Christians cannot hide in trees.]
Death is in the air these days. Two hundred and forty eight passengers and crew on a Malaysian Airline flight are missing and their relatives and friends grieve while they do not know the final outcome. Twenty people are stabbed in a horrendous attack at a high school in Murraysville, PA. That same day a motorist rams another car which crashes into a day care center leaving one four-year-old dead and injuring others. A FedEx truck in California crosses the media and hits a bus loaded with prospective college students and their chaperons. Ten were killed and many others injured. We mourn these untimely deaths. We grieve with those who grieve and ask, “Why?”
This week we ponder another death which probably would have gone unnoticed by the media, if there were any media at the time. We ask, “Why?” Why was an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Galilee crucified by the Romans. Forget the sin and atonement theories started by Anselm. The Romans maintained power by fear and oppression. Crucifixion was capital punishment designed to deter those who would dare challenge empire. These who rebelled in Sephoris, near Nazareth, years earlier were hung on crosses lining the roadside to remind people of what happens to those who dare question the vagaries of empire. Perhaps Jesus saw those bodies decaying and being picked clean by vultures as he traveled to work in Caesarea Philippi. Toward the end, he certainly feared going up to Jerusalem because he knew they were out to get him.
Mark begins his Gospel with a bold proclamation—Jesus is Lord. Jesus not Caesar is Lord! High treason. The Gospels recount Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. Pure street theater at its best. Pilates legions coming to bolster security during Passover were entering at the same time through another gate on their majestic horses. If Jesus the Christ is Lord, Caesar is not.
Jesus’ proclamation about the kingdom of God was counter to the ethos of Rome. If Jesus were alive today, he would be on the Mall in Washington denouncing Paul’s Ryan’s budgetary measures. He would be preaching the equality of all people. Some people are not better than or more worthy than others. He would be preaching against American exceptionalism and privilege. He would be preaching against amassing huge fortunes in the silos of off-shore banks. He would be preaching against pipelines which destroy nature at the source and which hold the potential for destroying nature along the path. He would be denouncing the greed and attendant economic policies which keep one out of every six Americans in poverty, not to mention billions around the world. He would be preaching healthcare, education, housing, food, and clothing for all, for the 99 percent. He would be preaching against war, violence, and nuclear proliferation. He would be preaching against abuses in the churches.
His dossier at Homeland Security and the FBI would be expanding exponentially as his every move and word was being recorded. He would be denounced by O’Reilly and Limbaugh. Conservatives would paint him as an out-of-touch madman from the boondocks who really does not understand how things work. Liberals would not dare mention his name with a mid-term election looming.
Maybe not. One commentator speculated that, if Jesus were preaching these messages today, he would probably be ignored.
Jesus’ impact did not end with his death. The one man who had to die to save the Jewish nation from imperial wrath became the Christ to all nations. God vindicated him. The risen Christ is victorious over sin and death. Holy Week is not about ho-hum and the same old same old. It is real. It makes demands on us.
Teresa of Avila reminds us that we are the hands, the ears, the ears, the mouth and the feet of the Risen Christ. Jesus entered deeply into human suffering. The agony on the cross was not play acting. In deep agony and pain, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In Jesus, God suffers and suffers deeply with humanity. This Friday, we will participate in the Ecumenical Good Friday Walk organized by churches in Melbourne, FL. We will pray at Our Lady of Lourdes church and school. We will then process through the streets to a veterans’ relocation facility, the Daily Bread soup kitchen, the His Place homeless shelter, the railroad tracks (refugees and immigrants), and city hall before concluding back at the church. Amid the song and prayer at each site the theme runs boldly—“Where is Jesus suffering today?” By joining in, we are bearing witness to the Gospel values Jesus preached. By joining in, we are promising to proclaim the same values in spite of threats and rejection by the empire and its minions. Like Jesus, we will set our faces like flint and work to alleviate human suffering by challenging structures which oppress and deny justice.
Speaking of death, Richard Rohr teaches us that death is no longer about animal sacrifice and/or the death of others. It is about dying to ourselves:
Sadly, the history of violence and the history of religion are almost the same history. When religion remains at the immature level, it tends to create very violent people who ensconce themselves on the side of the good and the worthy and the pure and the saved. They project all their evil somewhere else and attack it over there. At this level, they export the natural death instinct onto others, as though it’s someone else who has to die.
The truth is it’s you who has to die, or rather, who you think you are, the False Self.
Authentic religion is always about you. It’s saying you change first. (Daily Meditation, April 13, 2014)
As Merton taught:
Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.
Merton also charts our task as followers of the Risen Christ:
It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the whole world. By my monastic life and vows I am saying NO to all the concentration camps, the bombardments, the staged political trials, the murders, the racial injustices, the violence and nuclear weapons. If I say NO to all these forces, I also say YES to all that is good in the world and in humanity. (http://www.fatherjohndear.org/speeches/thomas_merton_wisdom.htm)
[I recommend reading and reflecting on this entire speech by John Dear during Holy Week—it is powerful!]
Isaiah got it right. Proclaim the good news! Set your faces like flint against injustice in our own hearts and the hearts of others. God will be our vindication. In working for justice, we will come to the abyss. We will bottom out and realize that we cannot do it. Like Mother Teresa we are not about results. We are all about being faithful to the message of the Risen Christ.