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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Bach, Peter and our failures of faithfulness

This evening we went to a completely riveting and beautiful performance of Bach's St.John Passion at the Washington National Cathedral. I know it well and hear it every year but it is inexhaustible both as a work of music and a work of devotion. One of my favorite moments is an aria sung early in the piece, by a lovely, flutey soprano accompanied by baroque flute, declaring absolute faithfulness: "I'll follow you no matter what, with joyful steps, and never leave you, my Life and my light." (ich folge dir gleichfalls, mit freudigen schritten, und lasse dich nicht, mein Leben, mein Licht.) These are the words we want to say in our best moments of faithful discipleship, words of devotion, trust and love. There is a lovely, lyrical melody carrying the words "mit freudigen schritten" (with joyful steps) in this aria. And it is beautiful. What Bach does later in the Passion is haunting: he uses those same beautiful notes that carried "mit freudigen schritten" (with joyful steps) but sets to them the words of the mocking crowd, the chorus shouting harsh jeers at Jesus as he is condemned to death. So the music that carries faithfulness also carries betrayal, and listening to it, I felt a palpable grief . It's wonderful music, with great spiritual realism. It took me to a place of much deeper devotion and insight about how the desire to be faithful also carries the risk of betrayal -- whether out of not understanding, or having second thoughts, or just terror at where this is leading, certainly understandable in Peter's case, as he watched all their hopes fall apart and Jesus taken away to be tortured. But in this story the strong loyalty and faithfulness Peter expressed earlier makes his denial all the more disturbing. All the more so for me, since I've just been reflecting on faithfulness (see previous post).

We all come to places like this with our faith, the story of Peter reminds us. An excellent sermon I heard this morning also reminded us that Jesus, in Luke, predicted that Peter would be tested, and promised to pray for him. ("but I have prayerd for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." . He declared to Jesus, "I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." And Jesus says "The cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me." (Luke 22: 32-4). The preacher reminded us that we all find ourselves in these places of faithlessness -- if we haven't yet we will -- on our journey of discipleship, and it is a wrenching and terrible place to find ourselves. But Jesus is praying for us. And when we turn back to him, we will ultimately strengthen one another in faith, because of his prayers. I am pondering this insight.

I am also remembering that in Luke there is a moment, right after the cock crows, and Peter remembers that Jesus predicted this, when Jesus meets his eyes. (22:61)And Peter weeps bitterly. How awful that moment of eye contact between the two friends must have been. I may come back to this.

Hearing this sermon and the St. John Passion on the same day reminded me of what a terrible story this is, for all its familiarity. It is a story of human beings doing and being their worst to each other and the the one who is God become human suffering the worst of it, even from his friends. It helps to remember how the story ends. But here at the beginning of Holy Week I feel invited to stay with the part that is troubling and disturbingly familiar, disturbingly like the inhumanities of the world we live in today -- and to contemplate the mystery of how this story of the worst human denial, betrayal, torture, brutality becomes the heart of a story of God's faithfulness to all humanity, a love that persists even when our love falters, and calls us to turn again.

Much to ponder here, as we "enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality. " That's the prayer we said this morning, to open the Palm Sunday liturgy. It is a beautiful and a terrible story, full of paradox and ultimately mystery. A story to carry quietly, honoring the mystery, as I continue through this Holy Week.

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