Stripped of Humanity

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Jesus is Stripped Of His Clothes

 

Photo by Ania Krawet, via Flickr

The first summer I worked with my dad on the farm, we were also preparing for my sister’s wedding. One morning my mother came out of her room and grabbed me by the arms with a vaguely wild look in her eye. “I dreamed that you were getting married, and you climbed up in the tractor in your wedding dress! And you didn’t know what to do with the train, so you shoved it behind the seat, in all that dust and grease!

Human society has always imposed a complicated set of guidelines about attire. We choose styles to disguise the imperfections of the body, to flatter our figures or our skin tone, to show respect or to convey a mood. You can overdress and insult a host; you can under-dress and insult a host. We judge people by their clothing choices (Example A: the flap about people wearing jeans/shorts/spaghetti straps/etc. to church. Example B: the saggy pants phenomenon). Schools and workplaces have dress codes, because theoretically, what you wear tells something about you.

Nakedness just isn’t done. It conveys an image of vulnerability or licentiousness, depending on the context. Being stripped naked as a public punishment? That’s a big deal. To be vulnerable is one thing. To have it forced upon you is much worse.

When nakedness is used as a weapon, it dehumanizes the victim. The Romans certainly weren’t the only guilty parties. The Nazis come to mind, and I’m pretty sure nakedness has been used by the “good guys” to get prisoners to talk, too. At a more local level, if you think about it, sexual abuse does the same thing: it forcibly exposes what is meant to be intensely personal.

You and I are not the kind of people who would use nakedness as a weapon. But focus on the end rather than the means, and this hits pretty close to home.

Let’s face it: virtually all of us routinely and systematically go around dehumanizing people who are “other.” Gay or lesbian, ethnicity, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, atheist, entitled rich, lazy poor, crunchy-granola, Republican, Democrat, “traditional”, “happy-clappy”–we generalize, we label, we list reasons why an individual member of a group is different, and by extension, less-than. Don’t blow this off. It’s insidious. The best of us do it, and most of us aren’t “the best.” If you want to know the truth I caught myself doing it the other day.

And free speech has trained us to say whatever we want about anything and anyone without regard for the dignity of the people involved. I’ve stopped reading through the comments on news stories because I always come away feeling a little nauseous.

Photo by Howard*k, via Flickr

Facebook, Twitter & all are terrific resources, capable of enriching our lives and connecting us to people long gone. But they also make it easy to blanket the airwaves with rants we would never dare to speak to the person involved. That would be rude! Couch it in generalities, though, attach the words, “just sayin'” or “I don’t mean to offend BUT…” and we figure it’s par for the course.

Deep down, we know the darts are still going to hit their marks. But we’re more concerned about our own right to opine than we are about the dignity of others.

And every time we engage in this behavior, we do just as the Romans did when they tried to strip Jesus of his humanity.

Something to think about.

Grief

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Jesus Meets The Women of Jerusalem, by Nheyob, via Wiki Commons

Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

There are times when I want to reach into the Gospels and shake Jesus. It’s not all his fault, of course. Some of the blame lies with the evangelists–these guys were not telling a complete story, only the highlights. No story makes complete sense when you’re missing the subplots. Over two millennia things have gotten lost. Context. Tone of voice. Facial expressions. You know. Minor things.

Even so, there are an awful lot of times in the Gospels when Jesus seems determined to willfully misunderstand. To be deliberately obtuse–quarrelsome, even. He gets up to read in the synagogue, and people are impressed with his wisdom and understanding, until he gets done insulting them, at which point they want to stone him.

This is another one of those times. Jesus is carrying the cross he’s about to be nailed to, and some women are weeping for him. Does he thank them for the love they show? No, he gets all, “Hey, don’t cry for me–you’re the ones on the you-know-what list.”

The set of Stations we used when I was a kid (and which they use at Alex’s school to this day) interpreted this as Jesus setting aside his own suffering to comfort the women of Jerusalem. All I have to say is, if that’s comfort, I’ll take suffering.

Ah well. Jesus was constantly setting people back on their heels, not just Pharisees but his own disciples. So I’m in good company. And the fact is, every time a Gospel story makes me say “Whaaaa?” I respond by thinking and reflecting on it.

In this case, I think the takeaway is about the purpose of grief. When we confront untimely death, either of a loved one or a complete stranger (think Malaysian jet liner and mudslides), we tend to focus on how tragic it is for them.

And yet the sorrow we feel is really not for them, but for ourselves. I think everyone knows that on an intellectual level, but sometimes we don’t follow that knowledge to a point of deeper self-awareness.

Loss can open our eyes to ways in which we’ve gotten our priorities out of whack, or to character flaws we’ve chosen to gloss over. When I find myself confronted with untimely death, I think, What things did that person leave unfinished? What relationships went unrepaired? What regrets might they have had? What regrets do their loved ones have?

And then I begin to ask myself the same questions–and that is when things change.

Weep not for me. Weep for yourselves and for your children. It’s provocative, and I’m sure there’s more to the story than what we’re given in the Gospel. Even so, maybe this is Jesus’s way of saying, “Don’t wallow in your grief and then go back to business as usual. You’re heartsick over the suffering you see, but how is it going to change you? How will it redirect the trajectory of your life?”

Some questions can’t be asked too often.

Veronica

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Veronica Wipes The Face of Jesus

Photo by contemplative imaging, via Flickr

One thing about growing up on a farm with three siblings is this: there’s always some sort of vehicle available, but that doesn’t mean it’s in great shape. Cars get really beat up and gunked up when they spend that much time on gravel, and we changed our own oil (why yes, I do know how to change oil…though I haven’t done it in so long I’m not sure I could find all the right outlets at this point), so they never got looked over by mechanics until something actually went wrong.

And then sometimes the warning signs were there, but I was too inexperienced to know how serious it was, and my parents were too overwhelmed by minor things like, I don’t know, harvest, to be able to take time to test drive it.

Thus it was that at 6:40 on a Saturday morning, when I was supposed to be at school checking in for a band trip, my car instead was wheezing, smoking and eventually coming to a sorry stop at the edge of a completely deserted two-lane highway, three miles from home and a mile and a half from school. I was frantic. Being a classic Hermione Granger, I’m still not sure if I was more panicky because I was stranded or because I was going to miss the band trip, which was part of my grade.

In any case, I took a deep breath and took a logical first step. I needed to get the car off the side of the highway. I put it in neutral and started pushing it with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the open car door.

And then, salvation came in the form of some random nice stranger who did not attempt to molest or kidnap me, but helped me push the car around the corner onto the first turnoff, and drove me to school just as the bus doors were closing.

As the bus pulled out, I made a vow: I will never, ever drive by somebody on the side of the highway who needs help, ever again.

Naturally, that vow has been broken a fair few times. But even so, it was a formative experience for me. I never forgot what it felt like to be helpless and terrified and alone, and have someone show kindness. When I chose a Confirmation name later that year, I chose Veronica, because Veronica had wiped the face of Jesus. She had served Christ in need. That was what I wanted my Christian life to look like.

Photo by Damian Gadal, via Flickr

It still is. So this stop along the Via Dolorosa is more meaningful to me than most. The thing I find most profound is that even though Veronica did what she did out of the goodness of her heart—out of love, without thinking about reward—she came away with something truly priceless: a physical reminder of Christ. Yet another reminder that doing things that are uncomfortable and difficult do, in the end, bring us joy.

Backup

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Simon Helps Jesus Carry The Cross

At the end of November 2011 I learned two terms I’d never heard before: “irritable uterus” and “wimpy white boy.” Irritable uterus leads to 37-week C section. 37-week C section leads to “wimpy white boy” spending ten days in the special care nursery two hours away from home.

Ten days in the special care nursery two hours away from home leads to…well, a family situation nobody was prepared for. Christian was trying to work–because he couldn’t take time off while I was gone and be there to help when we got home as well–and keep the kids’ anticipation of Advent activities. And clean. And cook. And grocery shop. And oh yes, prepare the choir for Christmas.

Thank God, he didn’t have to do it by himself. As it turned out, the ranks mobilized. My parents. My sister. Friends took turns watching kids, too, so Christian could work and grocery shop and meet choir obligations. People brought food. Cleaned the house. Took care of school transport. At my end, once I was officially checked out of the hospital, people brought food to save me from beggaring myself in the hospital cafeteria.

It was a humbling experience. We had always been sticklers about thank you notes, but it was soon clear that there was no way we were going to be able to keep track of who we owed thank you notes to, much less get them written. And I realized that if the tables had been turned, I wouldn’t have been at all worried about receiving a thank you note.

As long as we’re alive, there will be unpleasant or difficult situations forced upon us. Like Simon, impressed into service to carry a cross up to Golgotha. It’s good for us to be reminded that even Jesus didn’t get to Calvary all by himself. He needed help to carry the cross.

Then again, did he, really? Isn’t this more like it was in the desert, at the beginning of his ministry, when the devil tried to get him to use his divinity to his own advantage? Jesus could have thrown himself down and required the angels to save him. Likewise on the way of the cross, he could have played the God card to get him to the top of the hill. But that would sort of defeat the purpose. Because his human frailty, which made hade him need help, serves to remind us that we don’t have to carry our burdens alone, either. In fact, we can’t carry them alone.

The idea of rugged individualism sounds great, but the reality is that we need each other. Especially when those tough times come calling, and we’re faced with situations nobody should have to handle. Think of 9/11, of Sandy Hook or Katrina. Stories of heroism come out of the worst tragedies and the ugliest realities of human existence.

We need each other. That’s what Jesus teaches us in this station. We need each other, and when we are willing not only to give with grace, but to accept what others give, that is when humanity shines brightest.

Meeting Mommy

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Jesus Meets His Mother

Does anyone actually say “This hurts me more than it hurts you”?

I have to admit I have my doubts. I certainly never heard it except in a Bill Cosby routine. I can’t help thinking that’s one of those “elder” tales that everyone learns without ever being told, like walking three miles uphill both ways in the snow.

20111201-115727.jpgAnd yet there are times when I know there’s a truth beneath the tall tale–at least in the case of the pain a parent feels on behalf of his or her child. How many times I’ve wished I had that horrible virus instead of my kid, because I can take medication and I know how to cope with it. How many times I walked into the PICU/NICU braced against that heartsick twist as I looked at the masses of wires and IV lines and sometimes vent and NG tubes. My baby couldn’t feel it; she was heavily sedated. But it hurt me.

There are other kinds of heartsick on the way. Every once in a while I snag a glimpse of them, when Alex wilts under a slight real or perceived, when awkwardness or embarrassment sends his tender soul diving for cover. In temperament he is exactly like me, and I still get the heebie jeebies when I think about adolescence. It warn’t pretty, folks. Not at all.

Yeah, exactly.

Yeah, exactly. Apropos of nothing, I think that may be the tractor my mom used for my first driving lessons.

But there can’t be anything quite like watching your child die.

Jesus Meets His Mother

I can only imagine that as Mary watched her son approach the cross, she wasn’t thinking of angelic visions or gifts from kings, prophecies fulfilled or miracles achieved. She must have been remembering that game he played, where she threw her arms open and he, giggling, ran full-speed into them. That glimpse of tenderness he showed when he was only six or seven, the one that filled her with awe at what a beautiful soul had been entrusted to her care. Maybe even the exasperation she felt when she discovered yet another clay pitcher lying in pieces on the floor.

It must have been hard to be faithful that day.

Our children stretch us in ways we could never have anticipated, or likely borne if we knew about it in advance. They give us battle scars we wear with pride. They bring us closer to Heaven than we’d ever get on our own, not because they’re so angelic (though they are sometimes), but because they grow our hearts, our tolerance, our capacity for unconditional love–perhaps when they suffer, more than any other time.

Fallen

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross:

Jesus Falls

Sunday morning, 8:35 a.m. The family hurrying to and fro, getting coats on to get to church for choir warmup. Nicholas didn’t like the side of his reversible coat that was facing out. He wanted me to change it. I was trying to show him how to do it himself, and he went fish-limp, lip stuck out like a sulky three year old instead of the all-but-five year old he is.

I lost my temper.

Sunday afternoon, deep in the middle of trying to upload a home video–a job that’s been hanging over our heads for months (two Christmases on this video, if that tells you anything). Our camcorder uploads in real time. And woe to you if you touch anything on the computer while it uploads. Ten minutes before it finished, some little finger managed to get over there and disrupt the upload, causing us to have to start over.

I lost my temper.

Sunday evening, after dinner, tearing through video edits and feeling conflicted about not having cleared the table. “I’ve got it,” Christian said, and I breathed a sigh of relief–until, at 9:30 p.m., I discovered he stacked them in the sink instead of loading the dishwasher.

I lost my temper.

(News flash: bedtime is not a good time to lose your temper. Especially if you have a history of trouble sleeping.)

There’s been a lot of stress the past six weeks. The details aren’t important, but my self-appointed task during this time has been to keep the household running and the kids sane–and above all, to make Christian’s life easier by shouldering things I would ordinarily pass off to him. I always knew I had a husband who did a lot, but I didn’t realize just how wearing it was going to be to try to do those things myself on a sustained basis.

Until yesterday.

Falling under the weight of a cross is, unfortunately, something we’re all much better acquainted with than we’d like. Jesus fell down three times on the way to Calvary. So many parts of the Passion got skipped when they put these stations together; why did they put three falls in?

Maybe it’s precisely because the experience is so familiar, so inescapable, for all of us. It’s not falling, per se, that is so hard–although a fall definitely bruises my sense of self as follower of Christ. The trick is to get back up, which requires greater emotional and spiritual energy.

What’s really hard, though, is when I have to do it over and over and over again. Times like these, when stress makes itself known through lack of sleep and a sense of swimming upward through sand, the falls come faster and closer together. And the more times I have to pick myself up, the harder it becomes–especially when so many other people are depending on me.

That last time, it had to be a sheer act of will that brought a bruised and battered Christ to his feet. And although the act of being crucified and rising from the dead to break the power of death certainly outweighs an example of persistence, that example is what I most need to get me through.

Carrying The Cross

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross
The Second Station:
Jesus carries the cross

I spend a fair amount of time puzzling over the lack of faith in the modern world. Although there are a lot reasons, the one I keep coming back to is this: life in the western world is pretty easy. We can have whatever we want to eat, whenever we want it. Entertainment and distraction is available at the touch of a button 24-7. There is plenty of shelter, plenty of space, and the law of the land protects us from the kind of terror that results from unbridled power.

So much is taken for granted, we no longer recognize the bounty and the institutional safety that has been given us by those who came before us–or by the sheer dumb luck of living here and now. It’s easy to lose touch with how fragile and precious life really is. Without obvious, visceral reminders to the contrary, there’s a place deep inside that says “I don’t need anybody else, least of all some higher power telling me what to do. I’ve got this.” Or, as Julianna would say, “I do ee (it)!”

So faith founders because faith is based on a recognition that we are small and weak and in need of something we can’t even quite put a finger on.

It is life’s crosses–mental or physical suffering, illness, untimely deaths; the moments when we recognize our smallness, our pettiness, the habitual sins we can’t shake and the faults in our souls–that send us running back to God.

Christian and I give witness talks on natural family planning. As part of that, we tell about how irregular cycles caused extended periods of abstinence early in our marriage, and how we spent all kinds of time growling at God over it. We talk about infertility, the outraged howls we sent Heaven-ward, and the long, painful struggle to say–and mean–the words “Thy will be done.” And then we come to Julianna. Every time, Christian chokes up as he pulls it all together: the fact that all the crosses we have born in our reproductive life led to this moment, this ultimate “thy will be done.”

I do not think we could have accepted Julianna’s presence in our lives as easily as we did if it hadn’t been for those other crosses.

My crosses make me a better person.

Realizing this has changed a lot of things for me. I’m no more enamored of suffering or of confronting my own demons than anyone else. At the same time, I recognize that in the absence of a cross to bear, I become complacent, self-satisfied, obnoxious and generally insufferable. So I am grateful for the everyday crosses, and yes, even for those protracted periods of soul stretching. In the rawness of my soul I go looking for God, and God is always there: shrouded, perhaps, lacking the clarity of a billboard with my name on it, but present nonetheless. And always leading me through the darkness, one hesitant step at a time.