Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Silence of the Word

During Holy Week, we hear: "The Lord has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak a word to the weary, a word that will rouse them." (Isaiah 50:4-7)

Throughout Jesus' public ministry, we hear him speak again and again a word to the weary to rouse them: "Blessed are the poor in spirit," "Go, your faith has saved you," "The kingdom of God is at hand". We probably all have a list of our favorites, words that have sustained us, inspired us, impelled us. As the evangelists note, Jesus spoke these words with authority, not simply because he had the prophet's well-trained tongue, but because he himself is the Word in human flesh. When he spoke a word of healing, the sick were cured; when he spoke a word of command, demons were driven out; when he spoke a word of forgiveness, the burden of sin was lifted. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council claims that when the gospel is read in the Christian assembly, it is Christ who speaks. His words continue to heal, to liberate from evil, to forgive.

We could sit back now and bask in consolation, but the prophet doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, " I gave my beard to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting." (Isaiah 50:6) After Jesus’ arrest, his words grow sparse. He limits himself to a few stark statements of the one truth for which he stands, but he does not explain or justify them. Otherwise, to his questioners, his tormentors, his mockers, his executioners, he says nothing at all. He gives himself into their hands without a word of protest or self-defense. Ultimately, he ceases to speak at all. On the cross, the Word “goes down into the silence,” a phrase the psalmists use for death (cf. pss 92, 103, Grail translation). What an incredible triumph: evil has silenced the Word itself.

Holy Saturday is the day of great silence. The second reading from Matins quotes an ancient homily for Holy Saturday: “Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.”

I am reminded again of the final scene in the film On the Beach, when the last human being has been snuffed out by the silent spread of the nuclear fallout from the last world war. (See the posting “Bells”, November 17, 2007) In that silence, one hears the flapping of a banner in the wind, the rustle of crumpled papers blowing through the streets, the clanking of a bottle driven against a curb—but one does not hear the one sound sought: the sound of the human voice. And one knows that cherished sound will never be heard again.

The silence of Holy Saturday is not that silence. It is the silence of expectation. We know the end of the story, and we know it is not the final fadeout of the sealed and desolate tomb. In that tomb, life stirs. Tradition speaks of Christ’s descent into the realm of the dead, where all humanity awaits deliverance. I like to think that in every place where the death of the human spirit has imposed the dreadful silence of despair, Christ has gone before us and awaits us, stirring up new life even as the old life falls silent. No matter how great our darkness, Christ has been there before us, and is still there with us, kindling the spark that can explode into the great fire of Easter. We may not see it; we may not feel its warmth; but it is there—the silence of death has not snuffed out the human voice forever.

Tonight, in all our churches, we will sing peals of “alleluias”. They may or may not come from hearts reborn. Life doesn’t always follow the church calendar. There will be people at the Easter services who have tasted the bleak darkness but not yet the light; there will be people whose hearts are keeping vigil with loved ones dying even as we proclaim the victory of life; there will be people who know for sure that the tomb is real but aren’t so sure about the resurrection. It isn’t just the flame of our little candles we are asked to pass on to one another. Whether we are living Easter or still mourning Good Friday, we reach out with the inextinguishable light of Christ and hold hands with one another in the night. “Alleluia” is the sound of faithful people daring to whistle in the dark because, once upon a time, a handful of faithful women rushed back from the tomb with the news, “He is not there! He is risen!” And a handful of sorrowing disciples believed them. And they all passed on the living Word.
©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter Triduum: Disciples

Jesus' disciples make a poor showing in the stories of Jesus' passion and death. After the Last Supper, which must have baffled them as well as fed them in a way they could not have named, they accompany Jesus to Gethsemane. There, while he prays in the agony of decision, his three chosen companions, Peter, James and John, fall asleep, not once but three times--just as Peter, later in the wee hours, will deny him three times (Matthew 26:36-43, 69-75). Are we to read their sleep as denial? After Jesus' arrest, they all "left him and fled" (Matthew 26:56), though Peter hung around for awhile on the fringes of things. Are we to read their flight as cowardice?

Perhaps their sleep was denial, but perhaps it was not denial of their association with Jesus. Overcome with confusion, pain, indecision, have you never chosen to blot it all out in sleep? If not physical sleep, the kind of sleep of the spirit kindly provided by alcohol or escapist entertainment or a thousand other anodynes ready to hand in our pain-denying culture? At the supper, they had heard him say in various ways that his death was at hand. They had followed him from the familiarity of home into the strange waters of a new world promised; they had revered him as their rabbi, perhaps even as the Messiah, perhaps even as something more than that; they had, presumably, loved him. They had never really, it seems, expected him to fail, never mind to be put to death. It was all too much, surely. Can you fault them for sleeping? I can't, having all too often slept myself in one way or another when the world has become more than I could face.

Perhaps their flight was cowardice. John clearly thinks so. In John 20:19, he says they were hiding behind locked doors "for fear of the Jews". They had good reason to be afraid if they thought the authorities were out hunting for the followers of the so-called messiah they had put to death on Good Friday. The gospels give us no reason to believe that the authorities cared one way or another, beyond making sure a guard was posted to keep those followers from stealing the body and claiming resurrection. The synoptic gospels give us no reason to believe that the disciples were hiding, either. Perhaps on Thursday night, they were afraid they too would be arrested. But perhaps they were also afraid of what they would see if they stayed. If the three, at least, fell asleep in the garden because they couldn't cope with the imminence of his suffering death, perhaps they all fled because they couldn't cope with the prospect of watching the trial, the torture, the execution carried out. Charles Dickens has painted an immortal picture of Madame deFarge and her company of ghoulish women knitting at the foot of the guillotine in order not to miss the glorious sight of aristocratic heads rolling, but the heads did not belong to their beloved friends. Have you always been willing to stick around to watch a loved one endure anguish, shame, torment, even death? Even if you've chosen to stay, haven't you sometimes gone for a walk to escape for awhile the sight of a suffering you could not prevent? If the thought of that suffering sends us to the nearest drugstore for something to make us sleep, doesn't the reality sometimes have the same effect? It isn't fear but love that sometimes demands that escape.

We do the disciples, and ourselves, a disservice if we turn them into cardboard figures, capable of only a single reaction in every case. They were the same complex human beings we are. In the previous posting, I posited Judas as a mirror in which we can see the faces of our own betrayals. If we allow the disciples their full humanity, they become a mirror in which we can see our own ambivalence. Sometimes, maybe, the cross strengthens and comforts us. But sometimes, maybe, it overwhelms us with dread or sends us running in fear. The disciples came back. We will too. Jesus forgave them their moments of weakness and entrusted them with the gospel. We needn't be ashamed of our own moments of weakness. They don't negate our discipleship; they simply make it real.
©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga