Fading History

"Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus."
-De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay

(Yesterday's rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.)

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Good Friday

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central mystery of the Christian faith, celebrated annually upon Easter and honored as the feast of victory for the King. But what, exactly, is Easter to modern Christians and what exactly was it to the band of souls who gathered around the man Jesus Christ and chose to believe that he was something greater.

Most explanation of Easter focuses on the resurrection, its spiritual victory over death and the grace which it grants Christians through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But the victory of Easter morning is not as bright without the darkness of Good Friday, whose absence of light is often ignored. It is a solemn and a sobering day. It is not a day of celebration, and yet there is much in it which is crucial to the faith, and at risk of being lost in a casual oversight of its significance.

It is, I think, fair to say that in two-thousand years’ time those who continue the Christian tradition have grown separated from the emotions shared at the crucifixion by Jesus’ followers. The experience of that week, that day, and of the Sabbath which followed is inconceivable to those who have the benefit of historical perspective. Be it two thousand years later or just three days later, the emotional significance of this experience is markedly different from that period immediately following the crucifixion. For at that moment there was no resurrection, no lily covered altar or performances of Handel’s Messiah. More than likely, there was a vacuous sense of despair as the apostles and followers of the Nazarene carpenter were initiated with him into the death of hope.

Initiation is an interesting word, deriving from the Latin, initium, which means "entrance" or "beginning," literally "a going in." As Christians, our initiation into the faith typically involves the ritual of baptism, which Paul teaches us is symbolic of our ritual death and rebirth. Many of us undertake this initiation as infants, and whatever that child may feel, we can be certain that the physical and emotional experience of the baptism has long vanished by the time the Christian initiate has reached adulthood. Is there any value to the experience of initiation, or is it just a task to be checked off of a list, a “must do” in order to enter the kingdom of heaven?

The Greek philosophers on whose teaching so much of our western culture has been based would argue that initiation is a vital part of religious awakening. In the mystery schools of Greece, Egypt and Syria initiation often involved the concept of a grotto, or cave, in which man symbolically entered the underworld, imitating the death and rebirth of their gods. Initiation came to represent a death of the former self and a rebirth into one’s new self, which is so very similar to the Christian concept of being born again, and indeed the fundamental symbolism of Easter itself.

That the disciples saw this parallel is doubtful, on the Friday afternoon when their hopes were taken from them. It is more likely that the disciples felt anger at the crowds who turned so quickly on the one they had only days before welcomed into Jerusalem, shouting “Hosannah!”. It is likely the disciples feared the crowd, feared the turning tide of emotion and the officials who wielded it like a weapon. We know Peter did, from the tale of his rejection of Jesus three times on the night in which he was betrayed. The specter of death had not yet arrived on the scene, and Peter was already so afraid that he denied knowing Jesus when accused by a servant girl. And which of us would have done better?

Worse yet, though, must have been the fear that they had somehow been wrong. These men and women who followed Jesus had given up everything, from their families to their livelihood and their reputations to follow a man who challenged them to “let the dead bury their own dead”. He challenged them to join with him in life, and to abandon the world to the dead whom inhabit it. In so doing he set them apart, like initiates, into a divine knowledge which reclassified the material world, their friends and relatives as already lost, and more importantly set the disciples apart as those who were somehow in the know, set apart and above this world, both now and forever.

And yet, here was their leader, no longer the unstoppable wonder-working rebel, fearlessly pointing out the flaws of the religious establishment. Here he was, in the now, a prisoner of the establishment: dirty, beaten, bleeding and all but broken. He was mocked and abused and seemingly powerless to stop it. And then, after hours nailed to the cross, as some in the superstitious crowd thought he might be calling on Elijah, came instead the heartbreaking words: “eloi eloi lama sabachthani”.

Though John states that Jesus’ last words were “it is done”, the Gospel of Matthew states that his final words instead quoted Psalm 22, crying “Eloi eloi lama sabachthani” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!”.

These are difficult words. We are told that Jesus foretold his death and resurrection. But at that final moment, the moment of crisis, he was not filled with prescient and calming wisdom. He was instead filled with despair, a frightening loss of hope. If, at the edge of the next world, the all-knowing son of God loses all hope then all hope is truly lost. How do we make sense of this?

Perhaps the answer is glimpsed in the mystery schools of the pagan religions which one might say prefigured the death of Christ. For the Greeks understood that the ritual act of Theurgy, or becoming one with God, meant a death to God. Without total separation there is no vacuum, no darkness to set apart the light. To prepare oneself for union there must be separation, and for the ritual death and sacrifice of Jesus to achieve unity with the father it had to involve complete separation from him. No safety net, no understanding of the greater plan, no hope. And that is what the statement relays, a total loss of hope.

One can only imagine the horror of those who stood watching, or heard the report later, that his last words were full of despair and a very human hopelessness. What went through the minds of Peter, or John as he stood with Jesus’ mother and watched the very tangible spectacle before him. Dear God, what have I done? Was everything we believed in vain? Was I wrong to follow him?

And we can hear the devil’s advocate on their shoulder, like some worldly-wise and all too rational advisor: “He is dead, and you will die too. Let the dead bury their own dead. Bury the man you called Christ, it is getting dark.”

Good Friday is not a day of celebration; it is a day of sobering doubt and darkness. It is a day to feel the cracks in the foundation of your faith; a day to fear both the world around you and within you. For today we must forget what the Magdalene found on Sunday morning in the garden. Forget the comfort of your self-righteous belief, and walk today in the valley of the shadow of death. Feel what it is to despair, to doubt, and to truly walk alone in a meaningless and harsh world. Go home, lock your doors, and experience the terror of your mistake. Fear your neighbors, the spark of unrest and the electric hum of the mob. Fear your own misplaced passion and its foolish naïveté. Today, I challenge you to enter the grotto, the underworld of death, and to do so with no hope of salvation. Understand what it is today to die so that, God willing, we may be born again. And let us all hope that at the end of all things love will not suffer a vacuum.


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