Friday, April 7, 2023

The Solemn Resolve of Good Friday


Good Friday

Ernest Gordon, a U.S. chaplain during World War II, tells the story about an event that transpired while he was incarcerated in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp.  The P.O.W.'s were pressed into work constructing a railroad and at the end of each day all the tools were meticulously counted.  One particular day, the Japanese guard declared a shovel was missing.  The commander of the detail insisted one of the P.O.W.s had stolen it, presumably to sell it to one of the local villagers who were constantly passing through the work site.  He insisted the person responsible identify himself by stepping forward.  When no solder moved, the commander became livid and again demanded to know who had stolen the shovel.  Finally he shouted in an uncontrollable rage all would die unless the thief came forward.  He then raised his rifle to take aim and there was no doubt he meant what he said.

Just before the commander was about to pull the trigger on his weapon, a Scottish soldier stepped forward, stood at attention, and said, “I did it.”  Immediately the commander unleashed all of his fury on the man, bringing his rifle butt crashing down upon the prisoner’s head.  He kicked him repeatedly and beat him with his fists.  The soldier sank to the ground and did not move.  Everyone knew he was dead but the guard continued to beat his lifeless body until personal exhaustion forced him to stop.

The other men in the work detail grimly lifted their comrade’s body and carried it back to camp.  There, the chaplain conducted a simple, but dignified burial service.  Later, the tools were counted again at the guard house and it was discovered no shovel was missing after all.

The Scottish soldier who did not deserve to die himself still willingly took upon himself the pain of a horrible death so that his brethren might be saved.  Gordon saw in the death of the soldier illumination into the death of our Lord, who also took upon himself the painful punishment for sins which he did not commit so that others might live.

We give thanks this day that our Lord and friend was willing to pay the penalty for offenses we committed.  There can be no question his death on the Cross so many years ago atones for our sins.  Surely this day leads us to a kind of introspection to examine and ponder the huge debt he paid on our behalf.  The events we heard detailed just moments ago in the readings from scripture can lead us no other direction.

The liturgy of the Good Friday service also calls us to ponder an equally important aspect of this day.  In a few moments we will read the Solemn Collects, some of the most powerful biddings and prayers our church has to offer.

Pay attention to the Solemn Collects.  They are not a confession.  They are not a hymn of praise.  They are prayers for the holy Catholic Church, for all nations and peoples of the world, for all who suffer in body or mind, and for all who have not received the Gospel of Christ.  In short, our work of prayer through these solemn collects continues the work of Christ in this world; a work cut short by his death on the Cross.

The liturgy leads us not to lament our sins, but to renew our commitment to Christ’s mission of compassion.  As the collects come to a close, I will make this bidding,

“Let us commit ourselves to our God and pray for the grace of a holy life, that with all who have departed this world and died in the peace of Christ, and those whose faith is known to God alone, we may be accounted worthy to enter into the fullness of the joy of our Lord, and receive the crown of life in the day of resurrection.”

When Chaplain Gordon tells the story of the Scottish soldier, he says, yes, of course the P.O.W.s were angered by the injustice of his death.  But more than this, they were determined and inspired to struggle and fight for their survival and eventual freedom.  They realized the terrible price one man paid for their lives and committed themselves anew to making sure it was not given in vain.  In the end, his death became their resolve. 

It is not enough this day to look at the Cross and feel personal remorse.  Our Church does not even offer this as a spiritual direction by providing a confession in today's liturgy.  Rather we are told our resolve must be strengthened by the events we remember today.  We are to rededicate ourselves to the mission and work of Jesus Christ.


Monday, April 3, 2023

A Lack of Violence


The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

Matthew 26:14 - 27:66

When Matthew tells the story of Jesus’s Passion he includes a vast array of minor characters: Peter, Judas, the High Priest, Pilate, his wife, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, the two thieves, and others.  There are a lot of side stories woven into the fabric of the main narrative. 

One thing noticeably absent in Matthew’s telling of this grisly event is any description of its violence.  The most graphic language is used to describe what happens to the High Priest’s slave – his ear is cut off.  When Matthew writes about Jesus, he is economical in what he says about the physical punishment Jesus endured:

They struck him; and some slapped him

So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over.

After twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head.

They took the reed and struck him.

And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves.

That is it.  There is no other comment or description about suffering.  And notice the second and last are cast in the past tense: “after flogging”, “when they had crucified.”  The focus of the other three is on humiliation more than physical wounding.  This is not Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of Christ, which was widely criticized for being excessively graphic to the point of being unwatchable for some.


We might want to ask why.  Why does Matthew not dwell on the gruesome details of what Jesus endured?

When I attended various youth group functions as a teenager I recall hearing any number of speakers talk in vivid detail about what Jesus underwent.  What it was like to be whipped.  What it was like to be nailed to a cross.  What it was like to be crucified.  The message was clear… use the gore to grab your audience’s attention and then tell us Jesus suffered greatly for your sins so you need to repent and give your life to him.  And it worked… for some.

So why does Matthew not take this approach?  To answer this question we need to remember Matthew is writing his Gospel to a Jewish audience.  He knows they know what happens at a crucifixion.  The Romans did it all the time and they made it a very public spectacle.  Its violent nature was used as a means of intimidation.  If you step out of line this is what will happen to you.  Mothers, if you don’t raise your sons to be compliant then you will have a front row seat at Golgotha.  Matthew refuses to be co-opted by the powers that be and to be a patsy in their campaign of terrorization.

Instead, he invites us to focus on the bit players; to see how some tried and failed, to see how others were not able to meet the moment, to see how some actively worked to bring down Jesus, to see how some walked with him and waited at his side throughout, and to see ourselves in all of them.  And Matthew invites us to look at Jesus throughout the Passion and to consider how he stands tall and stays true though it all; even to the point of sharing his final meal with the person who will betray him.  Matthew invites us to focus on the Savior, not on the suffering. 

It is a message we in 21st Century America need to hear.  Kseniya Dmitrieva, a psychology student at the University of Rhode Island, contends today’s mass media presents violence crime in a way which blurs the line between news and entertainment.  News sources have the power to determine what stays “hot” and what will be overlooked altogether.  Serial killings, while horrific, account for less than 1% of all crime, and yet, based upon how they are covered, it appears they are much more rampant.  Dmitrieva calls this “the Frequency Paradox”, which he defines as “the irrational idea that random violent crimes are far more prevalent and commonplace than they actually are, due to the frequency and the dramatized way in which mass media outlets present them to the viewers.” 

Based on media programing, it appears our appetite for violence and crime is insatiable.  Just look at how many shows and movies focus on true crime and real life murder mysteries.  So one moment we are caught in a vortex of grief centered around the latest mass killing and the next we are mindlessly consuming an hour-long show about a person accused of murdering a spouse.

Perhaps we can glean some wisdom from today’s Passion reading and realize there is something fundamentally unhealthy about our obsession with violence.  Yes, it is real.  Yes, it happens.  And when it hits close to home it matters a great deal.  In the fifteen years I have served as your rector only one person in the parish has been the victim of a violent crime, so thankfully it is rare.  There is a great deal to be learned from focusing of Jesus; on who he was and how he lived and how he is present in our lives today.  There is a great deal to be gained by paying attention to those around us; considering the challenges they present and the blessings they impart.