In the Lenten season, today is sometimes called Good Friday or Holy Friday. It’s also known as the Day of Anunciation of our Lord. Today many faith communities hold vigil through the long hours we believe Jesus hung on the cross during his execution, dying. He called out to God from the cross. And then for a few days, his human voice was silenced by death and entombment.
How ironic that the word rising up in today’s texts is ANSWER. God is dying today. God is being silenced today. Like those first followers, we hold vigil through the emptiness and absence, where presence was once available. We are keeping watch through the hours when God couldn’t stand with us and answer us, not in the way we expected.
How often have we felt that same isolation and sense of abandonment? Of being left alone in the middle of chaos, without any calm or clarity, without any sense of support or solidarity? This feeling of being left behind, being left alone, to fend for ourselves and mourn and hurt and try to find a way to go on, is part of the Holy Week experience. It is part of the human experience.
On Easter Sunday, we will celebrate the truth that emptiness and absence are good news. That a tomb, once filled with a corpse, is empty. That God isn’t in the tomb anymore, but God’s love and grace are vital, real, palpable and returning to us.
On Good and Holy Friday, when we call out, it seems as if God isn’t answering. And while that may not be true, it feels like our lived reality. I’ve met plenty of people, in the hospital or in their own homes or even in the church sanctuary, who feel abandoned by God.
In the Book of Esther, Hebrew scholars point out that the name of God isn’t mentioned even once, yet a Jewish woman becomes a heroine, saving her people at risk of her own life. Looking at the text, the rabbis say that this is a metaphor for the times when God has been absent from the reality of Jewish lives, such as when they were in exile. And yet the people remained faithful to their covenant with God, worshipping and considering themselves chosen, trusting that God’s hand would move, that God’s power and presence would be revealed, and that their side of the relationship could be upheld, even when God wasn’t evident in the events of that story and the oppression they were experiencing. They found God in their deliverance.
We believe, in our faith tradition, that God continues to share revelations with people today. God’s answers didn’t end in the times recorded in the Bible. God listens and answers now, too. God speaks into our lives in this era, just as God spoke thousands of years ago.
Some of my colleagues hear God’s voice or God’s messengers, either as audible voices, internal leadings, or a dream or other form of message. Personally I often experience God’s influence through life events, and have to look backwards over the past, to identify the pattern of God’s response. I often recognize God’s tangible answer in hindsight.
Listening, and being in dialogue with God, takes practice. Like any form of spiritual exercise, it needs repetition and regular use to be most available to us.
On the other hand, God can hear our most desperate cries, even when we’re not usually in the habit of calling out to God. Anyone can pray. Any words will do. And no words are necessary. Prayer is also a bodily act. It’s an incarnate practice. Just scream. Just hum. Just sigh. Just walk or dance or rock or hug or kneel or lay down or weep or laugh.
So another question we may want consider is, when God calls out to us, do we answer, too? Are we even listening? Trust me, that’s a question I pose to myself regularly, as I discern my way in ministry.
Our relationship is reciprocal, at its best. God seeks us, we seek God. God listens, we listen back. We cry out, God responds. God calls, we answer.
Of course, we always have the choice. We can ignore the call. We can turn away, opting not to answer. Or we can turn toward the call, and say, YES.
Sometimes, like the Friday when we remember Jesus’ death, we are asked to persist through the silence. Raise our voices. Reach out. Seek connection with God. We may feel as if we’re being ignored or forgotten. We may not hear the reply right away. Yet assuredly, God is listening, and God will answer.
Selections from today’s lectionary:
- Isaiah 52:15 — So he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
- Isaiah 53:1 — Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
- Isaiah 53:8 — All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
- Psalm 22: 2 — O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
- Psalm 22: 8 — “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
- Psalm 22: 24 — For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
- Hebrews 10: 8a — Then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.”
- Hebrews 10: 16-17 — “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
- Hebrews 10: 23 — Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
- John 18:4-5 — Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.”
- John 18:23 — Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”
- John 18:37 — Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
In today’s readings, we hear many claims of people being anointed and raised up as leaders, such as King David. And we listen to the prophecy of a coming Messiah. We also hear God’s promise to a whole nation of people, not just those descended from Abraham, but those who share in that same love and faith.
The definition of CHOSEN is broken open, wider and wider, with every generation. Grace overflows. It cannot be limited or contained by our categories and linguisitic terms. Who is CHOSEN by God? As ever, I am grateful that God has the final word, not me.
And yet, I believe the invitation to be in relationship with God, and the work of the Holy Spirit all over the world, channeling the embodied love of Christ, is bigger than we can imagine, and will not be stopped. Christ could not be stopped by locked doors or fearful hearts, when he returned from death. That love will not be stopped by our national borders or political barriers or human desire to control and dictate who belongs inside or outside the circle of community.
Today is also Palm Sunday. In this part of the Lenten cycle, the beginning of what we call Passion Week, we focus on stories of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a white pony or donkey. It echoes the path of a king coming home. Or offers an inversion of that story. At First Church in Ipswich, MA, the congregation walks along the Ipswich river behind a rider on a pony. We sing and carry palms, waving them, recreating a small measure of the jubilee this day must have offered to Jesus and his followers, at least for a short time.
Yet this attention, this triumphal process 2,000 years ago, also heightened tensions in an occupied city, governed by a distant emperor, with uneasy governors in power there. This procession could be considered political, so that it drew attention to a man who already risked his life. Indeed, the nature of his death was a political execution. So along with the Hosannas of Palm Sunday, we hear underlying concern for what is coming next.
When we turn toward a connection with God, and sometimes even when we would rather say no, we are each CHOSEN. We are adopted and desired and beloved of God.
Excerpts from today’s lectionary:
- Psalm 89: 3– You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,I have sworn to my servant David.
- Psalm 89: 19b-20a –I have exalted one chosen from the people.
I have found my servant David.
- Romans 4: 16 –For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us.
- Matthew 1: 21 — She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
In anticipation of the coming Passion Week, which is the holiest week of Christianity between Palm Sunday and Easter, we are reminded that Jesus celebrated PASSOVER with his friends. It was a Jewish ritual.
This seder meal is an act of remembrance of the Jews suffering in Egypt, and God’s act of liberation: freeing the Jewish slaves in the time of Exodus. The great Hebrew narrative goes on to tell of Moses’ leadership through his people’s times of trial and being lost in the wilderness, and acknowledges their wandering and forgetting the covenant with God, and celebrates receiving the ten commandments, and coming to their promised land.
This seder meal continues to be celebrated by Jews each year. Over time and layered by Christian tradition, we now symbolically honor a form of the seder meal as communion: our Last Supper. And during Passion Week, our Maundy Thursday supper is often a seder meal, similar to what we understand was shared by Jesus and his followers.
Below is a diagram of the seder plate in traditional Jewish customs today:
The meal that we celebrate at communion holds echoes that reach back through millennia, into deep memory. Yet it also has meaning now.
People continue to suffer. To seek liberation. To desire their promised land, their home, their place and way of belonging. To need redemption.
I would argue that we share spiritual ancestors and relations. And these meal hold as much meaning now, as they did thousands of years ago. Our faith ties us to our spiritual cousins: Jews and Muslims. We are all connected by our faithfulness to One God.
This PASSOVER meal, now transformed Maundy Thursday’s meal and communion, reminds us that inside Holy Week, Passion Week, which starts and ends triumphantly, also contains the trial and execution of our Messiah. It holds its own time of suffering and loss, and three days of absence and separation. Like those who sat down to the seder meal, remembering their past, when we partake of communion, we also remember oppression and liberation. I don’t claim that it’s the same, but that we are bound together by this shared narrative.
Like the seder meal, the Christian communion also ends in hope. Yes, we look backward, rooting ourselves in time and place and history. And yet, we also look forward with hope, believing in the transforming grace and love of God to heal and restore all of us, and ultimately, this whole world. We hope in God’s capacity to bring all of us to a common table in a mutual home … someday.
Excerpts from today’s lectionary:
- Leviticus 23:4-6 — These are the appointed festivals of the Lord, the holy convocations, which you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord.
- 22 Luke 22:1 — Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near.
- 22 Luke 22:7-8 — Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus[b] sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.”
- 22 Luke 22:13 — So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
DEATH, the theme that is common to the texts today, technically means cessation of life. It is the end of breath and heartbeat and brain activity. For some people, it implies cessation of being. Our faith promises a different outcome … that our being endures, perhaps in another form.
DEATH often means the ‘enemy’ in our culture. It is considered the enemy, even in Biblical imagery. Death is also considered a failure, when we think of science or medicine.
In some traditions, death becomes a teacher, a mentor, and a way of understanding the fullness of our mortality. This has become more true through hospice and palliative care in our own society, too.
Certainly death has something to teach us. In part, it reminds us to live fully while we are in this world, on this earth. Claim our time with joy and intentionality.
The imminence of our own endings is one of the lessons of Lent. We journey in the shadow of our own human frailty, brokenness and vulnerability. And our whole Christian story walks toward Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. It ends with post-resurrection sightings. With people who broke bread with the Messiah after he died and returned to us. The story ends with the hope of a life beyond death.
Death, as we say, is not the final word. Yet it is a word that we often, nowadays, fear. We use euphemisms, like “passed away” or “lost” or “gone.”
And I would say that one of our human challenges is to find a way to know that DEATH is part of our human experience. Once more, let it become a natural part of our journey, just like childbirth.
We may not want or welcome DEATH. Yet in the past few hundred years, we have become so afraid of death, we have lost language and rituals that make it part of our cultural experience. We tend to isolate those who are dying. We want people to snap out of it, or hide grief, and grieving.
We often medicalize the experience of dying. We offer escalating interventions, which may or may not gain us time, but may also compromise the quality of ouyr loved ones’ remaining time. Finding a different equilibrium is one of the ways of being we may be called to seek in these contemporary times.
More people have surgeries in the last week of their lives, and fully half of all medical expenses occur in the last six months of human lifespans, due to the forms of life-extending treatments and interventions that are possible.
Too often such endings mean that people die in institutions. Yet most people, when asked, say they’d like to die at home.
We will all die. And yet we are promised life beyond death.
Meanwhile, consider entering into conversation about this reality with the more vulnerable members of our family and community. If the subject comes up, explore it. Find out what people hope for the remainder of their lives. And what they fear. What gives meaning and purpose to life, what is worth trading away for more time, and what is worth preserving?
If you want to have a conversation, consider these resources:
Excerpts from today’s lectionary:
- Isaiah 53:12a — Because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
- Hebrews 2:9 — But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Anointings can be a revolutionary act. And it can be done by common people: you and me.
Anointing was first reported in Hebrew scriptures as an event that sets aside priests and prophets. That happens in today’s Exodus text. After the time of Samuel, anointing with oil acknowledges kings and judges, starting with David and Solomon.We see it here in Psalms, when a king raises up a song of victory and praise to God.
In later Christian traditions, oil was also applied sacramentally for healings. Or to bless the dying. It was often called extreme unction or last rites, but has since been called ‘sacrament of the sick.’
In the Gospel story, the woman’s act of anointing is personal. Yet it can also be heard as political and public, since she stands in the tradition of prophets who anoint kings. She marks Jesus as a leader. And as we know, his coming death on a cross was a political form of execution by the Roman empire.
Since this anointing is also done by a woman, in a patriarchal society, it’s even more unusual. Lots of layers of social and cultural and spiritual complexity!
Anointing shows up in today’s texts in more traditional ways. Oil is used to mark something as holy. In Exodus, it is used to mark generations of priests descended from Moses’ brother Aaron. And it marks the tabernacle as holy. Plus anointing shows up in the song of the king.
Yet in yesterday’s story, a woman anointed Jesus. A regular person, a householder, sees the holy identity of God walking among us, and lavishly pours herself and her resources into naming and claiming that One with expensive oil.
Note to self: We tried anointing each other in church yesterday, and I learned not to use tea tree oil again; it’s very pungent. Try olive oil, right? We didn’t have access to nard …
Others in the house, in the Gospel story, protest the expense and waste of pouring so much oil on Jesus. She uses the equivalent of a year’s salary in this act!
Jesus defends her. He says her act shall be remembered, and that she’s preparing him for burial. He foreshadows the events of the Passion Week.
Jesus’ language of remembrance recalls the sacramental language of the Last Supper. “When you do this, remember me.” And in the versions of the story wherein she pours oil on his feet and washes his feet with her hair, it also recalls the foot-washing by Jesus for his disciples after the Last Supper.
This story shows up in all 4 Gospels, and in two versions, the woman who anoints Jesus is unnamed, in one she’s called a sinner, and in one she’s named as Mary of Bethany. So over the course of history this woman’s identity has often been collapsed into that of Mary Magdalene, and she has been labeled as a sinner, ie prostitute, which makes the scene seem even more sensuous and outrageous. Scholars and church authorities now admit that Mary Magdalene wasn’t aligned with the woman called ‘sinner’ in some texts, so that complexity has been lifted, although its hard to rid ourselves of hundreds of years of storytelling.
Anyway, it’s a sensuous, fleshy story. It’s a bodily sign-act.
Such perfume – nard — is often used to tend to the feet of a corpse. And in one version of this story, Mary and Jesus are indeed in the home of a former corpse, Lazarus, who was raised by Jesus from the dead. More allusions to death and resurrection.
On Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we anointed each other in church. We claimed the same role as the woman in the story. We put oil on each other, and gave each other blessings. Because in the UCC tradition, we are all empowered to do so. We are all ministers. We are all followers and servants and doers.
We are — each and all — allowed to receive such a blessing. And we are invited to offer it! Not just kings and prophets and priests. Regular people. Common folk. Householders. Women. Lepers. People brought back from death, or the edge of death.
When you think about it, the woman in the story lavished such oil on the body of Christ. And who is now the body of Christ? Us … you and me.
Selections from today’s lectionary:
- Psalm 20: 6 — I know that the Lord will help his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
- Exodus 40:9 — Then you shall take the anointing oil, and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it shall become holy.
- Exodus 40:15 — And anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests: and their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout all generations to come.
- Hebrews 10:22 — Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
The lectionary texts today offer up the word WAKE. It’s a call out of sleep, out of rest, and even out of death in these texts. It’s a call to be alive and attentive, to be active and present. Its a call, ultimately, to be connected to self, others and God.
In our times, we’re bombarded with messages vying for our attention. Sometimes we’re hyper-aware, and we need the chance to be peaceful, if not asleep. We require a way to distinguish between the busy-ness of responding to countless demands for our time, energy, and resources versus being awake and present in a more focused, fulfilled and beneficial way.
Sometimes, I feel worn out or frazzled all day long. As if I never catch up on rest and renewal. Usually when I feel so depleted, that’s when I’m neglecting forms of self-care, from eating well and exercising and sleeping enough to maintaining a healthy spiritual practice. At such times, when I’m too exhausted, even though I’m theoretically awake, my attention is divided. Then I’m not ‘awake’ in a way that becomes meaningful in my relationships to others, or in my capacity to work or play. So my own ‘wake up’ call is often noticing that I’m stretched too thin and overloaded, overwhelmed, and tired. Then it’s time to restore self-care practices that contribute to greater psychological and emotional balance, better mind-body connection. From these practices come more attentiveness, more energy, and more capacity to ‘do.’
We can be at peace when we’re awake. For instance, we can become centered and focused by drawing on bodily spiritual and contemplative practices such as breathing, meditation, and prayer. This can take place, varying by the style of practice you use, either in a still position or while moving (you can pray or meditate as you walk, for instance).
We can use such spiritual practices to calm and prepare ourselves for the demands of the day, or to renew ourselves in the midst of such multitasking. We can become more alert and attuned, connecting spiritually with our own emotional and psychological selves, or connecting outwardly to broader consciousness and energy.
In sacred texts, sleep is sometimes equated with being unaware, complacent, or unguarded. Sometimes sleep in Biblical terms is not desirable. Sleep is also used, at times, as a euphemism for death. By contrast, being awake is a chance to revive from an altered, helpless state into a transformed state of agency, authority, and activity. Wakefulness becomes a form of vigilance and activism.
At other times, sleep in sacred texts is the chance to dream and commune with God’s messengers. Thus wakefulness can be the chance to return out of dreams into this reality with a message from God. It offers enlightenment and wisdom. This is true in Christian traditions, and the concept of being awake as an enlightened being is an ideal in other religions, too.
What wakes you up? And I don’t mean the alarm clock. For me, sometimes it’s caffeinated tea that kick-starts my body and lets my mind catch up. More often it’s the ritual of greeting my husband in the morning, going outside for a walk along the river with the dog, checking in with my daughter, connecting with a friend by phone or in person, and singing along to the radio. Small moments recharge and renew me, so that by the time I arrive at demanding, busy parts of my day, I feel more than just awake … I feel alive indeed. I am excited to be where I am, and ready to engage in whatever the day may bring.
Excerpts from today’s lectionary texts:
- Daniel 12:2a — Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life.
- Revelation 3:2 — Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.
- Revelation 3:3 — Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.
Such a small word today: LIFE. It contains the measure of our whole beings from beginning to end, and even beyond. When we speak of life, we mean so many things. We speak of ‘life’ as the actual quickening of cellular activity itself. Yet it is also the spark of intellect and soul that animates the flesh of our bodies.
In this word is one of the ultimate questions. What is the meaning of life?
Sometimes we’re referring to the viability of an individual being, and other times we define it as any form of organic and sentient existence at all. We use ‘life’ to mark the span of time from one creature’s birth until death: moving and breathe and operating as sentient beings. Yet we can also refer to eons of time, such as the age of a planet or a cosmos, as measured by signs of life.
As spiritual creatures, we are always looking past the veil of our own senses, toward a greater and deeper meaning. We reach and imagine beyond the shape and contours of our own mortal bodies to something we cannot quite touch, detect, or cognitively encompass. Our sense of possibility is somehow defined by the limits of our corporeal selves and what we are and are-not.
The concept of life holds, in so many ways, all that contains our meaning. We weigh and express the value of all other ideas and experiences, emotions and thoughts, tangible and intangible treasures, against the weight of our own being, our own lives.
We measure risk by the threat of death and the end of life. Yet isn’t it interesting to consider that sometimes the greatest risk isn’t to face death, but to live our lives fully? To risk life? This is the challenge that today’s texts expose to us.
In today’s text, God’s divine love and presence is considered more valuable than the Psalmist’s own life. Is the writer euphemistic? Could the writer extol God’s love, except by being alive to do so?
In the prophetic text of Daniel, three characters put their lives on the line to defy an unjust law, and to continue faithfully worshiping their own God. Their lives are delivered,. So their faithfulness is measured by their willingness to sacrifice their own mortal span of being. And the power of Godself is revealed to the unjust leaders of the land, when God saves their lives, despite the affliction and torture turned upon them.
In Revelation, Christ is once more described as the one who was dead and then returned to life. Divinity is inextricably bound up with life, survival, and being. The ultimate promise of Godself is that we will have a second life, a different life, a life after death. If life contains all of our meaning, then a life that defies the very strictures that form the boundaries of our capacity to understand and experience the world, a life that overcomes death … that is powerful indeed.
So how do I measure the meaning and value of life? I cannot measure the impact of life by time alone. The import of my younger child Jessie, who lived 9 years, cannot be encapsulated by days and years. That is a poor standard to describe the value and impact of her presence among us.
So how do I describe her life? It’s easier to consider her life, versus my own, since I’m in the middle (I assume) of my own life. Her life was comprised of the relationships she formed and influences through her being. Her life could be measured by her way of being a teacher and mentor to older folks, through her approach to balancing suffering against all that made life worthwhile to her as a child. What made life rch and good to her? Engaging in fierce and deeply-rooted relationships, being able to move and claim her own body, feeding and stretching an inquisitive mind that always wanted to learn and question, acting ethically to support causes she cared about and to change unfair circumstances when she could, experiencing sheer joy through playing and laughing or taking risks … Her life was ultimately measured by her loves.
Whether it’s 9 hours, 9 days, or 90 years … our God’s presence fills up the measure of life for us. What are we willing to put at risk for this love, if not life itself? And as I mentioned earlier, isn’t the greatest risk not to die for this love, but to live for this love?
Excerpts of today’s scriptures:
- Psalm 63: 3a — Because your steadfast love is better than life.
- Daniel 3:28 — 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.
- Revelation 2: 8b — These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.
- Revelation 2: 10b — Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.