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Flowers Delivered and Hell Harrowed: The Everyday Rhythms of Hope

It’s an early Saturday morning. Gentle rays of sunshine are trickling through stained glass, kaleidoscoping around the baptismal font. I lift the wooden lid from the font and liberate a small spider who had wandered in there, who knows how long ago; the stone hasn’t felt water’s blessing for some time.

I unlock the front door of the church to help Mary bring in the Easter lilies from her car; she’s perfectly named for this occasion. Mary co-directs the altar guild and there’s work to be done, even when the sanctuary will remain mostly empty of people tomorrow and we stream prayers and chants and bread and wine through pixelated images into people’s homes.

Margie and David were just here and we all looked for David’s glasses; he thought he might have left them in the sanctuary after preaching one of the Good Friday homilies yesterday afternoon. We looked in the sacristy but didn’t see them anywhere amidst all the religious hardware strewn about, the candlesticks and altar books and kneelers and linens that had been stripped away from the Altar on Thursday evening.

Tom arrives, and then Valerie, all of us in casual Saturday morning garb—I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and the leather jacket I bought with my mother at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The sixth anniversary of her death was this past Wednesday, and the rectory has been filled with the smell of roses since then; Bobbie and Margie brought the roses to me that afternoon, to help me mark that mid-week moment.

It’s a wonderfully strange day, this Saturday that sits betwixt and between, this day of ordinary patterns of everyday life that carry charged particles of hope and anticipation.

Not somewhere else, but here; not in some other time, but right now God moves and stirs among us. Holy Saturday reminds me every year about this everyday character of Christian hope. The drama of Maundy Thursday and the heartache of Good Friday have unfolded with whatever poignancy they hold for each of us still and then…Saturday. There’s cleaning to be done, some fussing with flowers, returning fair linens to the Table, freeing a spider from a dry font.

Meanwhile, as early traditions would have it, Jesus is not quietly dead in his tomb nor merely resting on this day but busily harrowing Hell. Descending among the dead, he tramples Hell’s gates beneath his pierced feet—the gates are destroyed, not only so no one need ever enter through them again but also to ensure that everyone there is freed—every single one.

One of my favorite icons of this underworld drama depicts Jesus yanking Adam and Eve from their graves, both of them apparently startled and maybe even a tad reluctant, unsure of what this new life might mean.

I appreciate that reminder, too: resurrection is not resuscitation, but something utterly new and fresh and disorienting. And also this: no one is left out of this shocking newness and no one is left behind.

Not a single one.

Harrowing of Hell, Church of the Holy Savior, Istanbul

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The Good Friday of Solidarity and the Vulnerability of God

The story Christians tell on this day, this Friday we insist on calling “good,” is quite familiar. The story is familiar not only to those who have attended church our whole lives or who have the read the Bible through many times, but even to those who may have never attended church or read the Bible even once.

Crucifixion was actually very common in the ancient Roman Empire. It was one of the tools deployed by imperial power to maintain control over unruly provinces. There were times in that period of Israel’s history when the roads leading to Jerusalem were lined with dozens and dozens of crosses, rebels and agitators hanging from them. Anyone who has ever feared state power or law enforcement knows this story.

“Stations of the Cross,” Ben Denison

We should note as well the sexual shame and humiliation that was likely part of this moment of physical torture. We don’t often think about that because it’s not mentioned directly in the biblical text; the biblical writer didn’t have to mention it because first-century readers would have known quite readily that aspect of this form of execution.

As one scholar has noted, “a striking level of public sexual humiliation” was most likely part of this story, what we would today classify as sexual assault, with all the bodily degradation it would have carried both then and now. Far too many people today and throughout human history know exactly what that kind of shame feels like.

There are other reasons why this story is so familiar—it’s so thoroughly human. Is there anyone who hasn’t known at least some kind of betrayal from a friend? Hasn’t everyone felt the fickle loyalties of a crowd, the dread of an angry mob, the terror of a tyrant—whether a neighborhood bully or an imperious thug? Haven’t all of us shrunk from our duties, hid from our obligations, denied our associations with the righteous troublemakers, even just once?

Living through a global pandemic, hasn’t everyone been reminded viscerally of their own mortality? Certainly not everyone has felt it to the same degree—privilege can still blunt the sharper edges of an otherwise precarious life, but certainly not forever.

The arc of this gospel story is, in all these ways, both quite particular and still also universal. This is precisely the source of its transformative power. It’s the familiarity of this story that grabs our attention, how easily it’s recognizable, how quickly each of us can find ourselves in it at least once if not multiple times.

Just there, in its horrifying familiarity, is where we might start to grasp the “goodness” of this day.

I should note first at least two ways in which I have come to appreciate how the story we Christian tell about this day is not “good.” First, it is not good to use today’s story as a way to justify violence as the means to achieve greater purposes. Second, it is also not good to suppose that God the “Father” killed his only “Son” in order to forgive our sins; I actually do embrace the vital notion of atonement as part of the good news of Christian faith, but God doesn’t kill anyone to achieve it.

That point deserves repeating: the purpose of the horrific act of humiliation and torture that Jesus endured is not somehow to placate an angry God; honestly, that’s a monstrous idea. No, what is on display in this violent story is instead a profound and even beautiful moment of deep solidarity between God and God’s creation, between God’s own beloved and us. 

God freely chose to enter into our own vulnerability and fragility, to know it and embrace it. And God freely chose to do this because of unimaginable love.

The poet Sylvia Sands has written about this as she reflected on Jesus falling beneath the weight of carrying his own cross to meet his death. This is what she wrote:

Eat dirt.

We all like to see the mighty fallen.
Here’s God in the dust…

Except…
crumpled and tumbled beneath his cross
he resembles nothing so much as
a child.

Grown-ups don’t fall down, do they?
Well, not often.
Not unless they’re
drunk, crippled, down and out,
mugged, starved, queer-bashed,
frail, raped, stoned,
or plain suicidal.

He’s there in all those of course.

Dear Jesus of the gutter,
Friend to all humankind,
I cannot forget it was Roman feet you saw,
ready to kick you onwards…

Just as later,
your sisters and brothers
would see jackboots in Auschwitz.

So it is hard to watch you squirm,
debased, degraded, filthy,
beneath your cross.

But where and how else could we understand
your solidarity with the dispossessed?

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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A Singular Arc of Solidarity

I understand the sequential logic – final meal, betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, resurrection. It follows a perfectly sensible order laid out in a ritual pattern over three days, each punctuated with distinct, poignant moments.

I understand all this but I don’t always experience Holy Week that way. I often find the moments bleeding into each other, I suppose quite literally. The chronology sometimes seems out of whack to me as I feel the final meal digesting quite early in the week, the suffering on a day when feet should be washed, and I see an odd light lingering about the old rugged cross.cross_light

I had similar trouble with distinct chronological moments during my mother’s final illness and her death last year. Next week will mark the first anniversary. Actually, in “liturgical time,” this week is that milestone, since she died during Holy Week.

I thought I could hear the music that would be played at her funeral before it was chosen, while she was still ill in the hospital. I’m nearly sure she laughed and teased me about Judah, the Australian Shepherd dog, while she was barely conscious in hospice care. I could see the shadow of death lengthen across her smile weeks before, but didn’t realize this until much later.

Perhaps most of us live with blurry edges around temporal sequences. I wonder if most of us just make up neat and tidy progressions to make it easier to tell others about what’s happening in our lives and in the world. I wonder if distinct moments in time are simply fictions, or at least their distinctness from all other moments probably is, a grand and pervasive illusion.

I find such queer uncertainty peculiar, yes, but not disconcerting – at least not in Holy Week. The oddities of these particular days trace but one, singular arc of divine solidarity. I mean, the Immanuel we celebrated at Christmas – “God with us” – really is, not occasionally or sequentially or intermittently but always and all the way down, as it were, with us.

That’s what I have trouble with. I have trouble accepting that the God who creates me also chooses to dwell in deep solidarity with me – in every respect, at every moment, under every condition, and for a future beyond my imagining…which may well have already happened.

I do have trouble accepting this, yet the more I do the less willing I am to put up with a world of violence and injustice and speech riddled with hate; to tolerate any city where anyone could be hungry or lonely or afraid; to countenance a neighborhood street where an old woman is too terrified to walk outside, or a dog runs loose and thirsty and panicked, or a child begs to play and no one listens.

I have trouble plunging full-hearted into the Triduum Sacrum – the three sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. I am afraid of what that singular arc will compel me to do and to be. I’m afraid I will no longer care about time and what it costs; afraid that I will let go of the future that has already happened so long ago; afraid that I will simply give myself over to a world in pain, throw myself into it with the wild abandon of trust, loving and hoping it toward the better.

This, surely, was the simultaneous terror and resolve of Jesus.

Lately, I have been appreciating how M. Shawn Copeland reflects on such things, and here, how she brings these three days into a singular focus of unraveling grace:

A Christian praxis of solidarity denotes the humble and complete orientation of ourselves before the lynched Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal. In his raised body, a compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin, of violation and oppression. A divine praxis of solidarity sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination – recreating and regenerating the world, offering us a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self.

I can detect no sensible sequence in her eloquence, no logical passing of one distinct moment to the next. I read only about such chronologies interrupted by the Presence, the One-With-Us, forever and not yet but still now and then, always.

I care about so much that actually matters very little. So each year I try to pause over the slivers and slices, the tiny glimpses that are so easily passed by and over, as if they could not possibly matter – the fragrance filling the room; the drop of a tear on the top of a foot; the brush of a hand against another reaching for bread; a smudge of wine on the lips, a brushing of vinegar; aromatic spices prepared by fingers shaking with grief; streaks of rosy sunlight at dawn.

bread_wineWe need not braid such moments together, as if to construct something useful from fragments, something at last recognizable. The entire arc of solidarity resides in each moment, resides all the way down and rising up always as a singular offering: the Divine Companion.