16 01 2014

My chorus has started working on the music for our next concert.  We tend to do our most dramatic pieces in the March concert, due in no small part to what this time of year signifies in the Christian liturgical calendar.  We’re doing MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words From the Cross” and Lauridsen’s  “Lux Aeterna”… first we crush you with the crucifixion, then we comfort with the promise of eternal light and rest.

I was raised as a Christian.  And even though I have recently veered more in the direction of Unitarian Universalism, all those years of living through the repeating church seasons left a lasting mark on me.  As a child, Christmas is of course the big one. Singing angels!  Rich kings bringing presents!   Everyone bringing presents!

It’s only as you get older that you come to understand the significance of Easter; for me, the importance of Lent was even slower in coming.  I remember vividly the first time I fully participated in Holy Week activities at our church in St. Louis – from the jubilation of Palm Sunday, to the intimate contemplation of Maundy Thursday, to the darkness and despair of Good Friday.  The tenebrae service in that church was unflinching – as the pieces of scripture were read, telling the story, lights were turned out one by one through the church.  The service ended in darkness and we went home in silence; it was the first time I had ever experienced real grief over the crucifixion, and it lingered into the next day.  Easter Sunday, then, was an explosion of joy and thanksgiving that I had never felt before.

That experience has never left me.  So the music we sing during the season of Lent and Easter still moves me in profound ways, and I love singing this music with my chorus.  Rehearsing the MacMillan last night was deeply moving, and I could see it doing the same thing to those that I know don’t have the same religious background I do.  And I found myself wondering – could I find myself similarly moved singing something like this about a religious figure I hadn’t been raised with?  The Christian narrative is familiar to nearly everyone in the United States… but how many other narratives are out there that I don’t know about, that I won’t ever get to sing about?

The answer is that of course I could find a way to connect with another narrative, because as much as this piece is framed by Christian belief, it is also the story of a good man who spent his life loving and encouraging others, only to see the wheels come completely off in the space of a week.  My connection to this wrenching story isn’t based on Jesus as Messiah.  Whether or not you accept the idea that Christ knew who and what he was, and what was expected of him, the story of that last week is brutal and terrifying.  If you really believe that Jesus was fully human, you have to also believe that he was afraid of what he knew was coming.  His night in Gethsemane showed his anguish in not wanting to go through with it, in actually praying that it wouldn’t happen.

The story told during Holy Week – or Passion Week, if you prefer – is tragic and awful.  It’s literally sickening if I spend too much time thinking about it.  I think we have to, though.  Most churches (and really, most Christians) focus very strongly on the yay-we-win of Easter, and not so much on the actual meaning of Christ’s excruciating and humiliating final hours.

I’ve mentioned in other postings that I no longer subscribe to the idea of substitutionary atonement.  I don’t believe that Jesus was created just so God could beat the crap out of him to prove how just God is – because really, what kind of justice would that even be?  But there are things that I do believe about the crucifixion and the resurrection:

I believe that God has reached out to God’s creation again and again.  Countless times that have been recorded in the scriptures of the world, and probably many more times through people who never had books written about them.

I believe that God sent Jesus to the world, reaching out to reconcile the world to God.

I believe that Jesus resisted this idea for a while.  Other biblical heroes have stories of telling God “You’ve picked the wrong person!”  I believe that Jesus had a similar story that didn’t fit the early church’s framing of what Jesus was for and about, and so it never got included in the scriptures.  But I think there’s a reason we don’t hear about what Jesus did for over fifteen years.

I believe that when Jesus did embark on his ministry, he gave himself completely.  Whatever life he had in those intervening years, he walked away from, in favor of pouring his life out in those he loved and wanted to help.  He offered freedom from the law.  He told them that God was already in them, that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  Not in the sense of “God is coming… straighten up!” but in the sense of “God is here already, in you, and you have the power to change the world”.  The law wouldn’t save them, but they could save themselves and each other.

I believe that Jesus entered Jerusalem in that last week pretty sure that it would end badly, even as he hoped for a different outcome.

I believe that his capture and eventual death showed his willingness to love through the worst that Roman justice could throw at him.  Even in the extremity of pain, exhaustion, and thirst, he reached out to those who were being crucified with him.  He showed complete and sacrificial love to those that had followed him; in doing so he changed them forever.

I believe that his resurrection was a triumph over common-sense expectation and authority.  People who die aren’t supposed to rise again. People who have been punished by (in this case) Roman authority were supposed to stay punished.  And yet, Jesus rose.  Enough has been written about the significance of the resurrection that I can’t add much more… but to put it simply, love wins.





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