The Crosses We Choose

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Jesus is taken from the cross

and laid in the tomb

Photo by Contemplative Imagine, via Flickr

All through Lent, the thirteenth station has stymied me. As I brainstormed topics, it stuck out from the others, not because the application was so obvious as to be trite, but because I came up blank.

I questioned why this bit of stage directions is even included. It doesn’t really seem to have a purpose, now that Jesus is dead, does it?

Except, perhaps, as a reminder that most of our crosses aren’t meant to be carried forever. There are crosses, after all, and then there are crosses. Illness, the heartbreak of family members who make poor choices–these are things we can’t control.

But a lot of my crosses, at least, I bring on myself. An inability or unwillingness to see any potential for life to be structured differently than it is, even when life falls into an avalanche of “should,” “must,” and “guilt.” An almost neurotic tendency to drag up the mistakes of the past–especially the really unimportant ones, the ones that never hurt anything except my pride. To dredge up, chew on, swallow and regurgitate the offenses and slights of the past, and then do it all again, as if my soul is a bovine stomach and re-digesting them might give me superpowers or at least super insight.

I hung myself on these crosses long ago, crosses God never asked me to bear and upon which I keep crucifying myself for some reason only God knows. Let’s face it: in many cases–not all, but many–even the really big unresolved wounds in our lives remain so because we choose not to resolve them. We choose to keep hanging there, suffering, instead of coming down from the cross and stepping into a terrifying unknown that might lead to the soul-rest we so desperately crave even as we run away from it.

Which brings me to the last station. You notice Jesus didn’t breathe his last, wait one minute and then leap off the cross singing. He was wrapped up, buried, and left in a tomb, with no expectation of a future. For me, Holy Saturday occupies a place all its own in this yearly observance. The heart-wringing drama of Holy Thursday and Good Friday is past, and the trembling potential of the Easter vigil has yet to erupt.

There’s an emptiness to this day, as if the soul needs space to absorb all that came before, all the penance and fasting and self-examination that, if it was done well, has scrubbed the soul raw. The season of Lent leaves us emotionally drained, and poised between Good Friday and Easter Sunday stands this day of rest.

Photo by Paul Moody, via Flickr

It’s a beautiful thing, rest. Body rest, soul rest, work rest. A gift too easily undervalued. I don’t need to explain it. You all know what drives you and what areas of your life suffer from being driven. For myself, this post marks the beginning of a weekend of rest. I will leave the computer dark this weekend, however much it beckons, and I will give my soul the chance to live with the emptiness until it burst into bloom once more.

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To Make Sacred

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Jesus Dies

This Lent I’ve been reading The Last Week, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The authors set out to put the events of Mark’s Gospel into historical context–the geography, the politics, the religious and cultural norms, and most importantly, how those areas intersect. Obviously those factors would influence not only what Jesus said and did, but what the evangelists chose to highlight when writing the Gospels.

Today I’m going to skip the personal experience and simply share something I learned from The Last Week.

The word “sacrifice” has come to be associated so strongly with the crucifixion that it has acquired an almost automatic implication of suffering and/or the idea of one person suffering so that someone else doesn’t have to.

Borg and Crossan point out that this isn’t how people at the time of Christ viewed the concept of “sacrifice.” To sacrifice is to make sacred. Not to make suffer, or to substitute one being’s suffering as atonement for another.

Think of it this way: then, as now, the major ways to build relationship were gifts and shared meals. So a sacrifice, in Jesus’ time, was to make sacred either a gift or a meal in order to honor God.

Photo by wayne marshall, via Flickr

There’s no doubt that Jesus’ death did involve both suffering and a substitution for the sins of others. But we focus so much on those elements, as if the only proper way to honor Christ’s sacrifice–during Lent and Holy Week especially–is to make ourselves feel as guilty and wretched about our failings as we possibly can. As one of my regular readers commented, Lenten reflections tend to focus on blood and gore and how awful we all are.

There’s a place for that, and yet it loses effectiveness with too much repetition. There’s something really profound to me about teasing out the strands and getting to the essence of the feast days we’re preparing to mark. At its core, the cross was Jesus’ gift to humanity.

There’s so much more to think about on this topic–the conjunction of sacred meal, Eucharist and Passover, for instance–but I don’t have it all worked out yet. I just wanted to share this idea as a way to, perhaps, approach the death of Jesus from a slightly different angle. Because sometimes that’s what we need in order to move forward in a faith journey: a new perspective on things we take for granted.

 

On Forgiveness, When No Forgiveness Is Possible

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Jesus is Nailed To the Cross

Jesus being nailed to the cross, by Michael Willmann, via Wiki Commons

I began this series with a story about a really bad roommate situation. The last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about that situation, and realizing what a grudge I still hold. It’s a little ridiculous, truth be told. That all went down fifteen years ago. What am I accomplishing by clinging to bad feelings? At the same time, it’s not as if I haven’t tried. I have tried to forgive. I once heard it said that the action of forgiveness is accomplished through the speaking of the words–that you forgive by saying “I forgive.” So I quieted my mind and imposed that act of will. I said, “I forgive (name).”

I did that a bunch of times, actually. Clearly there’s more to it than that.

I spent my second spiritual direction meeting chewing on this issue. She asked me to draw out an experience in which forgiveness was very difficult, but I accomplished it. How? What I realized was that for me, forgiveness and resolution are tied together. Resolution implies reconciliation. Reconciliation implies interaction. What made it possible for me to forgive in other situations is resolution, which ends with a relationship that moves forward. So the fact that I’ve never seen these roommates again stands as an obstacle to reconciliation and forgiveness.

What is the solution, then? Am I supposed to scour social media and find these women so I can say, “Hey, remember me? I want to have it out with you about what happened that semester in Iowa.” Uh, no. That’s just picking a fight.

I took a few moments in the middle of that meeting to be still and ask the Spirit for a direction. And the whisper I heard said, “Be reconciled to the emptiness.” In other words, stop fighting the lack of resolution, and make peace with it. Maybe then a way forward will reveal itself.

It’s a bit of a stretch to use the eleventh station–Jesus being nailed to the cross–as a focus on forgiveness. That was something that came after he was already hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And yet that’s what seems most pertinent to me right now. It’s hard to imagine any situation harder to forgive than an entire system and all its minions conspiring to kill you, systematically, slowly and tortuously. There is no potential for resolution here. What is being done to Jesus is a violation so thorough that there is no way back. How could he even spare the emotional energy to consider forgiveness, let alone “make it so” (to insert a bit of Trekkiness into a serious subject)?

I don’t have an answer to this conundrum. As I write, it occurs to me that many people face situations that are, or at least seem, to preclude forgiveness. How do you forgive one who murders a loved one? How do you forgive an abuser? Truly, aren’t some things beyond human capacity?

Spiritual direction took place first thing Friday morning. That evening, as Christian and I lay in bed chatting, he shared with me a story he’d heard. A man chose three people to send good vibes or well wishes to every day. One of them was someone he cared about. One of them he had completely neutral feelings toward–you know, somebody that rides the bus with you every day but you’ve never talked to. The third was someone he did not get along with at all.

As I listened to this story, I realized I was hearing my way forward. I didn’t have to live with that emptiness for very long. It is my heart that needs softening, mine that needs change. So I chose three people to pray for–someone I love dearly, someone I don’t know well enough to have feelings toward, and one of those roommates. Perhaps–I can hope, at least–that prayer eventually will be my resolution, as it was for Jesus.

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.