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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.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday: "Making it Real" II

My "Lent book" for this year, Bonnie Thurston's The Spiritual Geography of Mark's Gospel, reminds me that because God suffered alone, no one, ever again, will suffer alone. I'd paraphrase it this way: from this side of the Cross (the Easter side), we know Christ is there in solidarity and love, with all human suffering, having suffered himself. Knowing this provides us with a way through suffering, though it is often hard to feel or see. But when we understand it the Cross becomes a healing image, a reflection of the divine compassion for the whole world, as expressed and lived out in the Incarnation and Passion. As a hymn-hummer, I find this summarized well in a middle stanza of Isaac Watts"s "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross":

See, from his side, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

It's a baroque, vivid image but it stays with me as an image of the divine love.
I think Bonnie's book also does a beautiful job of showing us both the vulnerability and the strength of the suffering Christ, and the paradoxical hope that we find in the mystery of the Cross, so central to Mark's gospel.

But today we are in the gospel of John - as we always are on Good Friday. And the focus is the Love of Christ for us, and the totality of his self-offering, expressed in the events of the Passion. The hymn that springs to my lips is "What Wondrous Love is this, O My Soul!" For Holy Week I've been rereading Martin Smith's wonderful meditations on the Passion according to St. John, Love Set Free. He shows how the Cross, in the fourth Gospel, becomes the moment of union between the divine and the human, when God's desire for us, and our desire for God, is consummated and made real. Ever since I first read Smith's meditations, I have found that the image of the Cross has become, for me, an image for the mystery of God's love, hidden, incomprehensible, and yet manifest in the real events of the Crucifixion, and in the Holy One's willing submission to this.

Martin Smith looks at the moment when Jesus, from the Cross, speaks to his mother and the Beloved Disciple and makes of them a new family. And for Smith, this is the moment when the Church begins, at the foot of the Cross. This moment was made real for me last night and this morning, after the Maundy Thursday service, when we held an all-night prayer vigil in the stripped-bare, darkened church (the only liturgical symbols the black-veiled crosses on the altars.

There were many gifts to me in this time of silent prayer, but perhaps the most impressive was the first hour, when a surprisingly large group gathered in the small chapel, where the altar of repose was (holding the Cross and the consecrated bread and wine being reserved for today's liturgy). There were probably 15-20 of us, and as is typical in our congregation we represented many backgrounds and cultures and languages -- the prayer vigils, held in silence, are impressively the place where the English speaking and Spanish speaking members of the congregation can be fully at prayer together. I thought of Martin Smith's observation about the Church being formed at the foot of the Cross and I was deeply moved by the way this gathering made that real: all of us in deep reverence, puzzled and yet drawn to the mystery of love that we had just re-enacted in the liturgy -- recognizing that every one of us is held in this love, safe in this love and open to prayer. Just the fact of our being there reminded me of a friend who once remarked that "Christianity begins at the foot of the Cross." In that place of shared suffering and growing compassion, we were together. It would be good for the Church at large, with all our truly silly divisions and quarrels, if we could remember this place where we begin, contemplating the mystery of a Love that is beyond our understanding, offered and raised up for our contemplation and deep gratitude.

By the time we get here, to Good Friday, we've done what we can do about our own sins and struggles - that was what Lent is for. Today is about Christ, and what he, in his love, has done for us. We are gathered to be present with Christ, as he desires to be present with us, and to give thanks for what has already been done, once and for all, to bring us back into union with his Love. For that is really all there is to say on Good Friday - a quiet "thank you" for the redemption that has already happened, whether we can feel it or not in the moment. And a waiting, in adoration, for the unimaginable part of the story, which comes next. We do this together. It doesn't make sense any other way.

The starkness of the Good Friday service in the Book of Common Prayer is appropriate for all of this, beginning as it does with a prayer that sums up where we are, praying at the foot of the Cross, aware of both horror and the ultimate promise that it holds:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
(BCP 2760

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