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?
I got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?
Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.
My feeling upon hanging up the phone — and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at my church — was, Who, me?
I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.
The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”
Eight years ago, a 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this — and please don’t get me wrong, I was excited. There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President — “Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church — we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?”
But all that came out was, “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.
The breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of, too. From Vice President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections (and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!)to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday.
And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.
Last week, al-Shabab militants, aligned with al-Qaida, stormed the campus of Garissa University College in Kenya, asking students about their religion. They spared the lives of Muslims and killed the Christians. By the time the mayhem was over, almost 150 students lay dead.
A spokesmen for the terrorists boasted: “There are many dead bodies of Christians inside the building. We are also holding many Christians alive.”
This is not the first time that this has happened in Kenya. In 2013, at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, 67 people were killed in cold blood. Muslims were allowed to go free.
The dead were all Christians.
In Libya in February, Islamic State militants beheaded 21 men on the beach. Their blood freely flowed into the Mediterranean Sea.
The victims were all Coptic Christians.
The Middle East contains proud remnants of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Their churches have been in flames. ISIS has demanded that the Christians convert to Islam, pay extra taxes or be killed. In Syria in February, ISIS militants abducted scores of Assyrian Christians.
Just because they are Christian.
In the midst of my family’s Easter celebration yesterday, I decided to check Facebook. Most of my friends posted comments like “Happy Easter!” and shared pictures of their celebrations.
But this meme also appeared on my feed:
The meme is attributed to Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science and is meant to debunk Christianity and Easter as just another example of an ancient myth. The reasoning goes like this – Christianity has so much in common with other ancient myths, so how can we take Christianity seriously?
The meme shows the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar and makes a few claims against Christianity. The first is that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter.” The second is that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and sex and so her symbols were an egg and bunny. The meme concludes that Easter is merely a copy of the Ishtar myth and its roots are “all about celebrating fertility and sex.”
Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast did an excellent job debunking the meme.
I’ve celebrated Easter before. My whole life I’ve dressed up, colored eggs, gone to church.
But this year was different. This year, I realized resurrection.
I’m not sure how the realization came.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I gardened. My mother once said, “Gardening is prayer.” I never believed her until I physically saw the transformation of dead earth into mustard greens and zucchini plants. I never realized how good the pulse of the sun felt on my back after months of gray. I never saw seeds push through the darkness of soil and become new life — until this year, when I realized resurrection.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve ever felt depression. This winter was the first time there were no windows in the tomb. The first time I held myself crying in the shower wondering if the emptiness would stop. This year was the first time I saw Lent as a season to sit in deep sadness. The first time I realized that Mary Magdalene sat at the tomb simply because she was just so sad.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve fully embraced a Christian community. The first time I’ve intimately walked through the liturgical season with the same people. The first time I shared the miracle of Christmas and the deep sadness of Lent in the eyes of other vulnerable humans. The first time I’ve attended an entire week of Holy Week services. The first time I sat in the dark on Good Friday after service ended and cried.
This year, I realized resurrection and I’m not exactly sure why.
President Obama turned both personal and preachy April 7 during his annual Easter Prayer Breakfast, which he has hosted at the White House six times since he was elected.
The long list of Christian leaders attending included Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson, Roman Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Rev. Al Sharpton, retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, civil rights veteran the Rev. C.T. Vivian, and African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti McKenzie. The Rev. Amy Butler of New York’s Riverside Church gave the opening prayer.
Here are four memorable statements from the event:
1. Though he said, “I am no preacher,” he almost preached:
“Even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice, on Easter we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday,” he said.
“The story keeps on going. On Sunday comes the glorious resurrection of our savior.”
It was five years ago now. I had recently finished a few week stay in the ICU, more than two months in the hospital, and more than one conversation between my parents and doctors about whether I would pull through. Still, I had made it, and after several months of regular home nurse visits, fentanyl patches, dilaudid pills, and 12 hours a day on an IV for liquid and nutrition, I was stable but still far from recovered.
The Saturday before Easter was sunny and unseasonably but appropriately warm. My mother and I took a walk outside, over a mile, the furthest I had gone in nearly five months.
“Wouldn’t it be poetic,” I asked, “If suddenly this whole illness, everything that went wrong in the hospital, all made sense tomorrow on Easter?”
“Hunny,” my mom responded kindly, “I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on the pastor. Don’t you?”
The next day was seasonably and appropriately repetitious. I heard nothing new. The same Easter story that had been read for centuries on centuries was read again. I received no specialized message from the divine about my own pain and struggle. That morning, I realized that might be the point.
Jesus came to make resurrection mundane.
We call it Holy Week. But it was a terrible week.
His trial reeked of injustice. His own disciple sold him out for a few pieces of silver, betrayed him with a kiss … and hung himself.
As he was arrested, one of his closest friends disregarded all his teaching on love, pulled out a knife, and cut a guy’s ear off. (Jesus called him out … and healed the other guy). A lot of the stuff that happened that first holy week was pretty unholy.
Once arrested, he was passed back and forth between politicians and bureaucrats. There was Caiaphas the priest, the Sanhedrin council, Pontius Pilate, the crowd — everyone seemed to want him dead, but no one wanted blood on their hands. Even Pilate washed his clean.
They had all kinds of accusations. Insurrection. Inciting a riot. Conspiracy. Terrorism (plotting to destroy the temple). Blasphemy.
But all he did was love. And heal. And give people hope.
Despite any substantial evidence, witnesses, or signs of any crime committed, he was pronounced guilty and sentenced to die.
As he awaited his fate, he was bullied, interrogated, harassed, tortured, beaten to a pulp. The authorities humiliated him and stripped him naked. They mocked the claims of his divinity, ramming a crown of thorns onto his head and wrapping him in a royal purple robe as they laughed.
And so it went. This man who many believe was the holy one that the prophets spoke of, the long-awaited Messiah, God incarnate, love with skin on— was executed, brutally. He died with his body convulsing as his lungs collapsed, with vultures swarming overhead, hoping to clean up after the execution. There is nothing more evil than what happened that “Good” Friday.
This is Holy Week, the most sacred time of year for Christians. It is the time they mark the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, and a week that culminates in Easter Sunday, the day Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead. So what do colored eggs have to do with anything? Let us Egg-‘Splain …
Q: Is Holy Week really a whole week? I only know about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
A: Holy Week is the entire week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Not a whole lot happens on Monday and Tuesday, but some Christians mark the crucifixion on Wednesday, and some celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper, Jesus’ final Passover meal with his disciples. It is sometimes celebrated with a foot-washing ceremony, a tradition beloved by Pope Francis, and a “Pascha” or “Paschal” meal, derived from the Jewish Passover Jesus would have known. Then comes Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Fun fact: Not all American Christians greet each other with “Happy Easter.” To many evangelicals, the day is “Resurrection Sunday,” in part because they believe the word “Easter” has pagan roots.
Q: What is so “good” about Good Friday, the day Jesus was horribly tortured to death?
If you listen, each bucket has its own special sound. First are the empty buckets and their muted ting of dripping sap falling straight to the galvanized steel bottom. Next is the dop that reverberates from the slightly sweet drop running off the spile to a thin layer of liquid below. But it is the soft, and all too rare and timeless plop that I wait for. That quiet plop (or sometimes plip) signals that over half of that the three-gallon bucket is full and the tap is giving in abundance.
There is a slight quickening of the heart when the bucket is heavy enough to need two hands to pull off the hook. Then an involuntary smile to hear the pitch of the shwoosh ascend as the smaller bucket presents it’s offering to the larger. But sometimes, before I touch the bucket at all, I stop and wait to hear what it has to say. Ting? Dop? Plip? Plop?
I look at the tree and then its neighbors. I strain to hear the rhythm of the buckets around me and wonder, what makes one tap run so well when others are nearly dry?