23 March 2008

“He is not here…”

What you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning.
[T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding] …

Easter occurs … when we find in Jesus not a dead friend but a living stranger. … Some writers have—carelessly?—spoken of Jesus being raised ‘as’ the believing community, or alleged that the risen-ness of Jesus consists essentially in the persistence of Jesus’ own faith and trust in God within the Church. Yet this sidesteps the whole issue of the strangeness of the risen Jesus. … We have already noted that Jesus as risen is a Jesus who cannot be contained in the limits of a past human life; the corollary of this is that Jesus as risen legitimating and supporting memory of a community. The church is not ‘founded’ by Jesus of Nazareth as an institution to preserve the recollection of his deeds and words; it is the community of those who meet him as risen and the place where all the world may meet him as risen.

Human beings long to be assured that they are innocent. … The gospel will not ever tell us that we are innocent, but it will tell us that we are loved; and in asking us to receive and consent to that love, it asks us to identify with, and make our own, love’s comprehensive vision of all we are and have been. That is the transformation of desire as it affects our attitude to our own selves—to accept what we have been, so that all of it can be transformed. It is a more authentic desire because more comprehensive, turning away from the illusory attraction of an innocence that cannot be recovered unless the world is unmade. Grace will remake but not undo. There is all the difference in the world between Christ uncrucified and Christ risen…

Archbishop Rowan Williams, Resurrection

13 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 4)

It seemed to be no time at all before we were on our way down the slope of Mount of Olives, with the massive sun-bleached walls of the holy city facing us just across the valley. To our surprise there were people there to meet us. Some of them spread their cloaks out on the road for the donkey to walk on. Others had palm branches in their hands and were waving them wildly. There were exuberant shouts of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Now it was all coming clear. The colt, the cloaks, the palm branches, the shouts of “Hosanna!” It was finally happening. The Lord was going to set himself up as ruler of Israel. There had been attempts before to proclaim Jesus as king—I remember it had happened by the Sea of Galilee just after he had fed that hungry crowd of more than five thousand people. But he had always resisted them in the past. He had often talked about waiting for the right time. Perhaps now this was it. One of us (I don’t remember now who it was) reached up into one of the palm trees by the side of the road and tore off some branches. In a moment we too were waving palms and shouting along with the crowd, “Hosanna to the king!” It was a glorious moment.

In the midst of the crowd we could make out some whose somber expressions indicated that they were not prepared to take part in the celebration. Leaning forward from the crowd they tugged at Jesus’ cloak to divert his attention. “Teacher,” they protested. “Make this nonsense stop! If this continues into the city and the authorities see us, it will be the death of us. They won’t tolerate anything that bears even a hint of rebellion.”

But the Lord was not to be put off course. “I tell you,” he said—I haven’t forgotten the words—“I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will take up the chorus.” So it was that, laughing and cheering we continued our way down the steep slope of the Kidron Valley.

It was the happiest, most exultant of occasions, and we were foolish enough to think that it would never end. Of course it did. Within days those glad shouts of “Hosanna!” had turned to angry screams of “Crucify!” The bright sun of that Sunday morning gave way to the darkened skies which clung to Golgotha like a pall as the Lord hung dying on a cross. What shall I say about that day? How weak and short-lived is the voice of human praise! How shallow and fickle is our faith in the one we once hailed as our King!

We thought we had him figured out. Again and again we imagined that we knew his mind. Yet right to the last it was only he who really was aware of what was taking place, only he who knew that what he was riding to was not a throne of gold but a cross of wood. How far beyond our human reason is that love which led him to ride triumphantly to his own death! How inscrutable his compassion to offer up his life for one such as me! The praises we shouted on that day are but a faint echo of the joy which now rings in heaven and through eternity:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
to receive power and wealth
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power
for ever and ever!”

12 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 3)

All of the day’s events were racing through our minds as we pushed on towards Bethany. There we stayed with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Lazarus is a whole other story, and I don’t have time even to begin to get into that now. Martha could not be outdone as a cook and after the long walk from Jericho we were ready for a hearty meal.

As we sat down for supper, though, a strange series of events began to unfold. Mary brought out an enormous jar of expensive perfume and poured it out on the Lord’s feet till it dripped onto the floor. Then she began to wipe it with her hair.

We all thought this more than a little odd. But it was Judas who objected most strenuously. The fragrance had filled the room when he stood up in angry criticism. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”

“Leave her alone,” came the reply. Then the Lord said something very peculiar that sent shivers down our spines—something about the perfume being for his burial. Over the past few weeks we had heard him express these morbid thoughts about suffering and death. We always tried to put them out of our minds but I’ll tell you, it made us worry, and it was a long time before any of us got to sleep that night thinking about it.

The next morning the sun streamed into our room bright and clear. We were ready for a good breakfast, but the Lord had an errand for a couple of us to do. “I’d like you to go over to Bethphage,” he told us. “Just as you enter, you will find a colt which had never been ridden. Untie it and bring it to me. And by the way,” he added, “if anyone asks you why you are untying it, tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

By now we were accustomed to the Lord asking us to do unconventional things, so we didn’t ask any questions. Bethphage was only a few minutes’ walk away and sure enough, there we found the young donkey, just as he had said, right next to its mother.

As we were untying it, someone came out and asked us what we were doing. “Uh, the Lord needs it,” we replied hesitantly and no more questions were asked.

Moments later we were back in Bethany where we found the rest of them waiting for us. They were ready to leave. There was no time for us to have our breakfast. We quickly threw some of our cloaks over the donkey’s back, helped Jesus on top and began the last leg of our journey, the two or three miles to Jerusalem.

11 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 2)

Just down the road, not far inside the gates of Jericho itself, another surprise awaited us. Suddenly, for no reason that any of us could think of, the Lord stopped again. We were under a huge sycomore-fig tree which had obviously stood in its place for many long years. He just stood there, staring up into its vast, spreading branches. It was far too early in the season for there to be any fruit on it, so what was the point of looking for any? Then we began to see what he saw. There was one branch of the tree where all the leaves were shaking. When we peered in a little harder, we could just make out someone sitting in the crook, just where the branch joined the trunk. It was a grown man!

“Zacchæus,” the Lord said to him. (To this day I can’t figure out how he ever knew his name.) “Zacchæus, come down from there right now. I’m planning to spend the afternoon at your house.”

You should have seen the way the little man managed to make his way down the thick trunk and onto the ground. “It would be an honour, sir,” he said, bowing low before the Lord and dusting the bits of leaf and bark off his clothes. “Let me lead the way.”

Around me I could hear mutterings of discontent. This Zacchæus, it seemed, was the local tax collector. He had made most of his wealth by soaking the local people for all they were worth in the name of Rome and then keeping most for himself. If it were not for his squad of Roman guards (or should I say goons?) his life would not have been worth a denarius. What, they asked, was Jesus doing with this turncoat, with this oppressor of the Jewish people? They had heard that he always stood up for common folk. I must admit I shared in their puzzlement and was kind of disappointed that Jesus did not at least take time to explain his interest in this tax collector.

It did not take us long to reach Zacchæus’ house. There we were all treated to a feast fit for a king. From the other end of the table I could see that the Lord had engaged our host in an animated exchange. Over the happy roar of all the other conversations in the room I was unable to catch more than the occasional word or two. Yet I could see on Zacchæus’ face alternating expressions of annoyance, surprise and finally what could not be mistaken for anything but pure, inexpressible joy.

In a moment he was clapping his pudgy little hands. “Quiet, everybody. Quiet, please! I have an announcement to make…” He said some words about what a deeply lonely unhappy a man he had been and about how he had learned what little satisfaction was to be found in money. Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

You could literally feel the hush that followed. It filled the room. No one knew what to say. People just stared at one another in amazement. It was the Lord himself who broke the silence. “Today,” he said, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a child of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to sake and to save what was lost.”

To seek and to save what was lost. That was why he had come. And what we learned that afternoon was that it was just as possible to be rich and lost as it was to be poor and lost. Whether you were a blind beggar sitting by the roadside or the owner of a mountain of cash or somewhere in between, we all need what Jesus came to bring. We had seen it with our own eyes, seen people totally changed, and nothing gives me more joy than to talk about it.

10 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 1)

It will forever be etched in my memory, that day when we entered Jerusalem for the last time. The heat of the spring sun beat down upon us as we made our way up and down the slopes along the steep, winding road to Jerusalem. As we approached the great city a sense of anticipation, of exhilaration, surged through our veins.

Looking back on it all, I cannot put my finger now on what we were really expecting. The days past had certainly had their excitements. There had been the blind man just outside Jericho. How will I ever forget his pathetic cry, just barely audible over the stir of the crowd? “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Some folk tried to shut him up, but he refused to pay any attention to their threats. He just cried all the louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

I knew what the Lord would do all along. He never was one to pass by a person in need. When he heard the man’s voice he stopped dead in his tracks, and all the crowd with him. “Bring him over here,” he said to us. And so we went over and helped the man to his feet. We could hear his knees crack as they straightened out. With his bony hand he grasped onto my arm and haltingly we half-walked, half-stumbled our way over to where the Lord was. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked, as he looked deep into the man’s lifeless and impenetrable eyes.

“Lord, that I may receive my sight…”

“Receive your sight,” he said to him in a manner that seemed so matter-of-fact, as though it were nothing unusual. “Your faith has healed you.” Even as the words were still on his lips I could see the opaque dullness of the man’s eyes melt into a sparkle. The look of absolute wonderment spreading across his face was enough to tell us all that a miracle had happened.

The next moment we were all praising God for what had happened to the blind man (or I should say, the man who had up till that time been blind). He himself couldn’t stop jumping up and down and coming up to each of us and staring for a moment or two into our faces as though he had lost hold of his senses.

05 March 2008

Bible portraits: Lazarus (Part 3)

It was four days after the funeral that we noticed an unfamiliar figure walking towards us along the path. I watched as Martha caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye. Without a moment’s delay she rose and ran out towards him.

They were just out of earshot, so I can’t tell you anything about the conversation that transpired between them. Yet I could see Martha gesticulating with her hands and I could tell that she was angry. Then I saw him put his hand gently on her shoulder and speak to her, and immediately she became calm. When the conversation had ended, she came back and spoke to Mary: “The rabbi is here…”

So, I thought to myself, this must be the one I have heard so much about, this Jesus fellow from Nazareth. I watched with increased interest as Mary got up to go to him, and a few of us followed her along the path towards the tomb. Poor Mary crumbled down onto her knees before him. Through her sobs she managed to blubber, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It was evident from the drawn expression on his face that this Jesus was deeply moved by what was happening. He must have held Lazarus in great esteem, yet we couldn’t help wondering, if that was the case, why he had not come earlier.

He said to Mary, “Take me to the tomb.” As he stood in front of it, I could see the tears running down his cheeks, glistening in the afternoon sun. His whole body was trembling with emotion. I have never seen anything quite like it. If I had had any doubts about the reality of his grief, they vanished in those brief moments. Then he said, “Take away the stone.” “But Lord,” Mary protested, “what good will that do? His body will already have begun to decompose.” “Move it,” he repeated with a firmness and an authority in his voice that I have never heard in anyone before or since. The words were barely out of his mouth before several of us were heaving the rock away from the entry to the tomb. Jesus stood directly in front of it and lifted up his hands in prayer. Then he spoke into the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!”

I could hear in his voice the same authority that had been there before. Somehow all of us knew almost beyond doubt that something (we had no idea what, but something) was going to happen. In dumb silence we all gazed into the dark entry of the tomb. Peering into the shadows we saw the impossible happen. Still tightly wrapped in his shroud the dead man came forth. All of us were paralyzed with a combination of terror and amazement. Through our numbness we could hear Jesus say to us, “Unbind him and let him free.”

Chills still run down my spine as I think back on that day. It may seem strange to you, but the image that remains with me most is not the figure of Lazarus emerging from his tomb. It is the tears on Jesus’ face and his sobs of grief. Somehow I knew that those tears were not like mine. Jesus was not weeping for himself. He was weeping for me and for each of us who stood outside Lazarus’ tomb that day. He wept for our sorrow, our helplessness, our desperation, our death.

Little more than a week elapsed before Jesus met with his own death. He was dragged before a mockery of a court and hanged from a cross, the death of a common criminal. Since then I have come to be one of those who believe that in his death Jesus did what I began to see him do at Lazarus’ tomb. There he took upon himself not merely our sorrows but all that keeps us from knowing the life that God intends for us—our sins and even our death. As Jesus wept for me in Bethany, so I believe died for me at Calvary. In the words of one of our prophets, “He was … a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…”

Gracious God,
how can we thank you for sending Jesus into our world
and into our lives?
How can we thank you for his tears shed for our sorrows
and for his death for our sins?
Help us to know him truly as the resurrection and the life,
and that whoever believes in him will not die
but have life eternal.

04 March 2008

Bible portraits: Lazarus (Part 2)

Days passed and Lazarus’ condition grew only worse. When we had begun to lose any hope of his recovery, someone—I think it was Mary—came up with the idea of trying to contact a traveling preacher who had become known for his ability to heal. His name was Jesus, and he came from (of all places!) Nazareth, up north in Galilee. “Who ever heard of a prophet coming from Galilee?” I had to ask myself. Yet in recent months we had begun to hear all kinds of stories about him enabling lame people to walk, the blind to see and the deaf to hear, even of his turning water into wine at a wedding reception and feeding five thousand people with just a handful of loaves and fish. Passover was not far away, so perhaps he would be coming through these parts anyway.

The two sisters sent off a message as quickly as they could. A day passed, and another, and another. With each of them Lazarus’ condition only worsened until finally the inevitable happened. Lazarus was dead. Martha and Mary were beside themselves. They had done everything they could to help their brother and more. And it had all proved to be of no avail. Somehow it all seemed so wrong that such a good man, who had done so much to enrich the life of our little village, should be taken away from us. Yet what do the Scriptures say?

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.

I knew all that in my head. Yet in my heart it seemed wrong. The week of mourning that would now begin, wearing harsh, coarse sackcloth next to the skin, our heads covered, and no shoes to protect our feet from the harshness of the rocky ground, would help to express our sorrow, our feelings of deprivation, and the wrongness that death is. However it would not console us; it would not subtract from our sense of injustice; and it certainly could not bring our beloved Lazarus back.

Like many of the men of Bethany, I shaved off my beard as a visible reminder of the loss that Lazarus was for all of us. For seven days none of us would wash or anoint our bodies or even eat. As Lazarus had been a man of considerable means, professional mourners were hired to chant the traditional dirges. However, their wails were not the only ones heard in Bethany that week. All of us joined in their lament with its shrill, rhythmic choruses of “Alas! Alas!”

If there is one thing we Jews know how to do, it is to mourn. The centuries of pain that are our history have ingrained that into us. I think of the weeping of our ancestors as they labored hard during their cruel years in Egypt—of men who endured the lash as they slaved under the hot sun, of women who lived in constant fear that their infant sons would be put to the sword before their very eyes.

We can still hear the echoes of the cries of those who watched on as our sacred city of Jerusalem and its Temple were torn down stone from stone and burned to the ground by the Babylonians, with thousands being dragged into captivity hundreds of miles away. To this very day we sing the words our poets wrote as they languished there: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion…”

Now we in Bethany found ourselves weeping once again, for dead Lazarus and for his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Or was it for ourselves, and for the deep loss we all felt in the knowledge that Lazarus would be a part of our lives no longer, but only a memory? Never again would we join with him in his laughter, or sit around his table, or hear his words of wisdom, or be the beneficiaries of his innumerable kindnesses. The thought passed through my mind more than once as I helped to carry Lazarus’ body, tightly wrapped in yards of linen and fragrant with pounds of exotic spices, to its resting place just outside the village, as I grunted to help move the heavy stone across the entry to his tomb, and during the days of deep mourning that followed.

03 March 2008

Bible portraits: Lazarus (Part 1)

Bethany is not a large community by any standards. Sometimes I think the only way people know we exist is that we are the first stop on the winding road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho. I suppose you could hardly say we are a stop, located as we are a mere two miles from Jerusalem, just the other side of the Mount of Olives. Although, when Jerusalem is especially crowded as it very well can be at times such as Passover, Bethany can be a handy spot to hang your hat.

Many people consider that the best feature of Bethany—its closeness to Jerusalem. I suppose it is convenient to know that just half an hour away you have all the amenities of a large city. Yet for me and for most of us who live here, what we like most about Bethany is its smallness. None of the anonymity or the dirt or the crime of the city here! Bethany is small enough that we can all know one another, and as a result there is a great deal of caring that goes on. In many ways we are more like a large household than a village. Besides that, nearly all our families have lived here for generations, so that most of us are related in one way or another.

Nothing can happen here without someone finding out about it pretty quickly. So it was, when one of our most prominent townsfolk, Lazarus, was confined to bed, everybody knew about it. For many of us it did not come as a surprise. We had noticed for a while that Lazarus was not looking himself. Normally he was robust and cheerful, full of energy, the life of the party. He always had time to listen and he would never withhold his help when someone was in trouble or in need. Yet recently he had become withdrawn. He seemed tired, and the color had gradually drained from his face. No one knew what the matter was. And you don’t like to ask in those situations for fear of appearing nosy or intrusive. So we watched as Lazarus gradually went downhill, not knowing what to think or say or do.

Of course his two sisters cared for him wonderfully. Martha has to be the finest cook in town. There is nothing that can equal her fatted fowl or broiled fish with vegetable and herb broth. One of the greatest pleasures was to be invited to Martha’s home for a meal. You knew you would leave more than satisfied. And when Martha cooked for a festival or a social occasion the whole village would be permeated with the delicious aromas that emanated from her kitchen.

Lazarus’ other sister Mary was a total contrast. She was hopeless around the house. Yet she was universally respected as a woman of prayer. Long before anyone else had arisen and long after most of us had retired for the night, you could see the glow of the little oil lamp in Mary’s room as she stood before the Lord in prayer. Mary’s prayer life was such that there were many who, if we had a particular need, would come to her and ask her to pray for us. And we knew that she would pray tirelessly, unceasingly, and bring our needs before the throne of the Lord. If anyone’s prayers in our village were heard, they had to be Mary’s.

So Lazarus could not have been in better hands with his two sisters, the one making sure that he was properly fed and cared for, the other praying for him night and day. Nevertheless, when we heard that he had become too weak to rise from his bed, we began to realize that what was wrong with Lazarus was something that even the best care in the world could not alleviate.