Most often Pentecost comes to us as a momentous Christian occasion of spiritual power, ethnic unity, gender equality, multi-generational comradery, and immigrant hospitality. But when the moment has passed, it gives way to the more ignoble features of life and community, like spiritual apathy, sexism, racial prejudice, ageism, xenophobia, etc.
You might think these men were sentenced to death and slated for execution simply because of the gravity of their crimes. You’d be wrong.
There is something beyond the terrible crimes that determined their fates even more so: poverty. The death penalty preys on poor and vulnerable populations.
Paschal pardon here exemplifies a miscarriage of justice for one of the prisoners. The custom condemns Jesus, whose guilt is dubious. Ultimately, Jesus divinely conquers the unjust system at hand when he walks freely among his disciples in the flesh, three days after he is crucified as a criminal. But the possibility of a triumphant erasure of crime in the U.S. is limited. Constitutionally, the president can offer clemency — or “leniency” — for any federal offense, aside from cases involved with impeachment, by two methods: commute, which lessens the sentence but retains civil restrictions like the loss of the right to vote, or pardon, which eliminates the sentence entirely.
What if Easter is our starting over point, our "New Year" packed with resolutions to begin again in the ways of grace? What if Easter for us is like those days for Barabbas, those days after he watched this innocent man die on a cross and find him after he'd resurrected? What began again in Barabbas, what new life and fresh perspective?
Pope Francis used his traditional Easter Sunday message to call the bombing of a refugee convoy near Aleppo, Syria, a “despicable attack”, and urged world leaders to “prevent the spread of conflicts” despite mounting tensions in Syria and North Korea.
In his Easter blessing, known as “Urbi et Orbi” (“to the city and the world”), the pope urged the faithful to remember “all those forced to leave their homelands as a result of armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, famine, and oppressive regimes.”
In the desecrated churches of Qaraqosh, Christians are busy removing graffiti daubed by the Sunni Muslim militants during two and a half years of control — only for new slogans to have appeared, scrawled by Shi'ite members of the Iraqi forces fighting street to street with the jihadists in Mosul.
In so many of the gospel stories that are familiar to us, women were behind the scenes — always there, always present, always faithful — but nearly always in the background and hardly ever mentioned by the men in the stories, and certainly not the ones writing the stories. Their testimony as women was not even admissible in court under Jewish law; the word of a woman had no public credibility in that patriarchal culture. But God chose to reveal the miracle of Jesus' resurrection first to women. They were then told to report the astonishing news of the empty tomb to the men.
In the midst of so much death, how can we Christians celebrate Easter?
These questions can be paired with questions regarding our own sense of worship on that day. How much have we Christians replaced justice with worship, not taking one into serious relation with the other? Are we accustomed to worship in the total absence of justice?
REMEMBER THAT you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The prayer said around the world on Ash Wednesday wielded a rather pointed moral to the tail end of the hottest February on record where I live. Penitents in my neighborhood church shuffled in a sun-kissed line to receive ashes on tanned foreheads, summer sandals slapping the floor. Outside, overeager daffodils bloomed their Easter welcome. A strange one, this backward Lent: balmy with a side of dread.
This existential reversal felt nothing if not timely—all through the winter, a collective litany of weary newsfeeds asked whether we really needed quite so much of it. The first months of this year have witnessed a steady erosion of trust in whatever institutions we had left: the federal government, the electoral process, our checks and balances, our freedoms, our faith, each other. Some trace our hard skid sideways to the election, or the Super Bowl, or the Oscars. (I peg it to the Cubs’ win in November. I grew up in Chicagoland—I know reversing a curse has consequences.)
But there’s something particularly dizzying about the separation of church and earth. The globe is getting hotter every year now, but the effects of this ecological trauma, like any grief, are far from linear. If warming simply meant the usual weather, shifted a month early or late, we could figure out how to recalibrate—but our snowfall is breaking records and our ice caps are melting. A winter afternoon can begin as warm as an early summer day and suddenly drop 25 degrees to freezing rain.
THERE IS SOMETHING SPACIOUS about the gospel viewed through the keyhole of repentance. Something to the spare, Spartan spaces that mark a season of penitence. One chapel I know turns its altar so the people can see Jesus’ dying words: “I thirst.” Another adorns its sanctuary with a bare tree, not a leaf on it. The signs are those of severity. We make a hash of this world. We leave it bare. There is no health in us.
Lent says the tree will not always be bare. We will not always be health-less. And Jesus will not always thirst. Augustine of Hippo says Jesus thirsts for those gathered around him—he longs to drink them in, make them part of his body. That is, Jesus’ own murderers, the oblivious passers-by, his fellow convicts (his own disciples are long gone).
Lent is long. If you’re like me or my church, our Lenten devotions have grown a bit tepid by now. These final weeks are good times for renewal. The first weeks of Easter, in the ancient church, were a time when the newly baptized would gather daily to marvel at the wonders of their new faith. So too can we.
It’s been a year of strange happenings, politically and culturally. Our inclination is to lash out. There is plenty of blame to be distributed. Lent asks us to lash in. We are the first at fault, whoever we are. And then to praise. Try though we might, we cannot stop the Lord of life. And neither can anyone else.
For many Christians who observe the liturgical season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, an Advent devotional is a beloved companion.
Such devotionals typically include a short Scripture reading and reflection on the birth of Jesus.
But most are “crap,” according to the Rev. Jason Chesnut of Baltimore.
As many Christians sat down Sunday morning to celebrate Easter, a suicide bombing targeting Christians halfway across the world in Lahore, Pakistan killed 72 people and injured at least 320. Right as American Christians were shouting, “He is risen, Alleluia!” an entire city cried out in horror and mourning. As American children hunted Easter eggs, a bomb exploded into Pakistani children visiting a neighborhood park.
Pope Francis made an emotional appeal for global peace during his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) Easter blessing, urging people to remember victims of the “blind and brutal violence” in recent terrorist attacks, such as last week’s Brussels bombings that killed 31 people.
Throughout, he emphasized a key theme of his pontificate: mercy.
In the space between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, between the acclaiming of Jesus as a king and his execution as a threat to the political order, I was no more ready to read the news this morning. The stifling, exhausting repetition of violence and terrorism is both all too common but still shocking. And yet, I hope that Christians in particular can draw upon the narrative arc that moves us from Jesus’ triumphal entry to his seeming defeat on Calvary.
"Instead of preaching, perhaps what is more appropriate is, in fact, confession of how hard it is to actually love our enemies,” says Pastor Jarrod McKenna.
Though this video reflection for Common Grace’s Love Thy Neighbour campaign was filmed a few weeks ago, its pre-scheduled release today goes right to the heart of enemy love and offers a Christian response to terrorism in the days after shocking attacks in Brussels, Istanbul, and elsewhere.
“This teaching is the most often quoted teaching of the early church, because it is the teaching that sums up the cross the easiest,” he says.
I am a big believer in shaking things up and approaching ideas through an unexpected perspective. Like the billboard I saw in Minnesota: It read, at the top, “Minnesota Cremation Society.” In the middle was a photo of a casket, and underneath, it read, “Think outside the box.”
THE SUNDAY AFTER EASTER we all take a breath. We’ve worked hard to offer our best for Easter. Ministers often have had to preach more than our accustomed once a week. Choirs have gone all out. The sanctuary has been cleaned and decorated and trampled upon and cleaned again. Worship services may even have been lively and full. Now, as the Easter season settles in, all goes back to normal. We gather these Sundays not for spectacle, but for the risen Christ, refracted off the faces of one another.
The lectionary readings send us into unfamiliar territory. During these days, there’s not an Old Testament reading in sight—the book of Acts functions as the history of God’s faithfulness. Revelation tears a hole where Paul usually is. The gospel texts speak to the unbearable newness of a risen Lord reorienting the world around himself.
In the ancient church, those baptized at the Easter vigil would first be stripped naked before going under the water. They then donned a new robe as a sign of “putting on” Christ—and wore it throughout the Easter season. They went to church daily, learning what it meant to be “in Christ.” Had they ever seen a baptism before attending their own? Had they ever shared in Eucharist until they tasted one? I wonder whether the Easter season can be a new normal. Not one where we settle for the ordinary, but one where we take part in the risen Christ’s wrapping of all reality around the empty tomb.
Everything must change.
Injustices around the world and here at home are coming to light despite a long, willful blindness. Half a world away, the long-muted voices of the victims of American military policy were allowed to break through the wall of propaganda and infotainment used to keep them hushed. A recent New York Times report reveals one of the worst-kept (actually un-kept, but vastly underreported) secrets of our government: that we often do not know who we are killing with drones.
And at home, in Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody has caused long-simmering tensions – born of institutionalized segregation, nearly inescapable poverty, and a scourge of police brutality – to erupt in an uprising of passionate resistance, with destruction punctuating otherwise peaceful marches. Media coverage has given far more attention to the “riots” than to the systemic violence that has kept so many African Americans, not only in Baltimore but throughout the country, living in poverty and insecurity.
Ultimately, Jesus shows us that our wounds do more than mark us — they connect us. Jesus knows that through the touching of his wounds, Thomas will be forever connected to him, doubts and all. Jesus knows that we must let our scars speak. In this beautiful, intimate encounter with Thomas, Jesus teaches us to let our wounds show and be touched so we too can know peace. Peace cannot come to us until we have the courage to proudly bare our scars and connect with one another through our wounds. Until then, we, like Thomas, will be left standing in our doubts and anxieties.
I will not pretend to fully understand the complex circumstances surrounding the death of Freddie Gray and the riots in Baltimore. But I have to wonder what would happen if we followed Jesus’ instructions to Thomas. What if instead of ignoring bystanders’ cries for Freddie Gray to receive medical treatment, the police had reached out their hands and held an inhaler for Freddie Gray? What if all the people of Baltimore had put their hands on Freddie Gray’s injured spine? What if the police force in Baltimore had reached out for the wounds of grief deeply gnawing within the rioting crowds? What if the crowds had placed their hands into the wounds of the injured police officers?