Last night in what is the most soul-stirring, psyche-rattling liturgy of the Christian year, we commemorated the Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was handed over to suffering and death. Once our meal here at this holy table had ended, the vergers and acolytes stripped the chancel and the sanctuary; the priests washed the altar and removed its fair linen; the choir chanted O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest; the sacred ministers removed the blessed Sacrament; the lights went out, the organ faded, and the congregation left in the kind of silence that reeks of desolation, with the kind of feeling that accompanies despondency. Those who were here certainly had a glimmer of what it was like for those who were there when they crucified our Lord, and nailed him to the tree, and pierced him in the side. As far as commemorations go, we really captured the meaning of Jesus’ agony and got the message of his death. Or did we? Hearing the Passion as it is recorded in the Gospel of Saint John, I’m not so sure we did. From John’s vantage point, the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ on the Cross is not a scene of bloody agony and relentless suffering; despondency and desolation are not bywords in this Gospel account.
In the Johannine version of the Passion of Jesus, did you notice that Jesus doesn’t wail in the way most of us are expecting at a lugubrious time like this. He doesn’t cry out the opening verse of the 22nd psalm: My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me. To hear those gut-chilling words, we have to go to the Synoptic accounts. Here in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ very last words are "It is finished." Quite obviously, his words indicate that he is about to draw his last breath on earth; it’s done; it’s over. He’s dead. But in an even greater sense, Jesus is just about to complete his God-given work in this world, and he says, "It is finished." Jesus has fulfilled God’s plan for the salvation of humankind, and he declares within the hearing of all who care to listen, "It is finished." It’s complete; it’s time to move on to yet another phase of God’s plan for bringing the world back home. If you know anything at all about reading the Gospel of John, you know we have to turn these words upside down, and read them inside out in order to glimpse their trenchant meaning.
The Jesus pictured here and the one St. John knew and loved is the one who lived in this world, but never of this world. Those who listened to his teachings and watched his behaviors discovered strange truths emanating from this man that came in the form of surprising and startling flip-flops. For instance, this Johannine Jesus throws his hearers for one spiritual loop after another: if you want to be upwardly mobile in the kingdom-come, then do what a number of us did last night. Take a towel, bend over, and wash your friends’ feet. If you want to go up up up and away on the proverbial ladder of upwardly mobile success, then the way to get there is to go down down down in great humility, all the way to the humus itself. It is a downwardly mobile trend around here. If you want to really get a life in the realm of God, then lose the one you’ve got. And if you want to get your needs met, then for God’s sake start ministering to the needs of others. So when our Lord cries out It is finished, we are invited to hear these words upside down and to understand that he is saying It’s only just begun. What appears to be a cry of defeat is really and truly a victory shout. Jesus work is done, and in so doing, God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And that’s no cause whatsoever for weeping or grinding your teeth or walking around here looking like the sky has fallen. This is not September 11th. This is good Friday, a very good Friday for many of us, because many of us have discovered the disturbing but exhilarating truth that the Way of the Cross turns out to be, just happens to be the way of life—a way that endures suffering because the Cross of Jesus lets us know beyond all shadow of doubt that suffering is never the last word on any matter. Because of the Cross joy has entered the picture and undermines all despondency and all despair; this way of life walks right through fear because fear is a has-been, it is over thanks to the Cross, love has conquered it; this way of life can put up with overwhelming displays of darkness because the Cross has opened the floodgates to a dazzling brilliance just beyond the horizon; and this way of life doesn’t have to shy away from death because not only is it finished, it now becomes the gateway to abundance.
For a good portion of my life, I thought abundant life meant moving on up. As the Jeffersons used to sing, “Movin’ on up, to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky, Movin’ on up, to the East Side, I finally got a piece of the pie.” Like most everyone else who was acculturated and schooled in the American public system of education, I picked up a very clear and distinct idea that if I did well, if I excelled, and if I were at the top of the class and trailblazed the way to glory for the rest of the pedants, I would be able to find a secure and comfortable place in which to settle down and stay for a long visit—a place where I might be known, loved, appreciated and befriended. The privileges of living at the top, the status of the cut-above, the glories of being number one were just as real as rain once upon a time for some of us ego-driven up and comers, movers and shakers. And what we discovered way up there in the heights was that the wind blows very cold on the top, that those who make all A’s on their report card are often shunned by those who can’t or won’t, that perfectionism is a disease—never a blessing, and that loving and being loved are not at all the currency of communication in a rarified atmosphere of isolation.
The Christian spiritual life being what it is, indeed traveling with Jesus this strange Way of the Cross, I discover with utter amazement and great surprise and appalled indignity that I too must be stripped of my illusions at some point, divested of my ego-glory, relegated to C-class, and put in my proper and time-honored place as a regular ole, garden variety human being with all the warts, flaws and chinks pertaining thereto. Prior to the Hound of Heaven nipping at my heals, I always thought that it would be my skills and talents and expertises and good looks and effervescent personality would win friends and influence people and give me a rightful place on the earth. That I would have to qualify for poster boy of the Dale Carnegie Institute to make it in this world. I always thought that it would be my strengths that would draw others to me, and impress them with a desire to get to know me, and make them want to keep my company until the cows come home. But the spiritual life being what it is—especially this Christian one with the Cross of Jesus at its center—I had to be turned upside and inside out to come ever so gradually and painfully to understanding that it is not my strengths and assets that provide an entry way into the human race, it’s my weaknesses—my liabilities, my inabilities, my sufferings, my loose ends and frayed edges, my extremities of spirit, my lostness, my powerlessness to take the bull by the horns and make him behave. The Way of the Cross just happens to be the Way of life.
Now such a way of living and perceiving is an incredibly humbling, yet absolutely amazing process. Once I begin to admit and really own up to the real cost of living, once I divest myself of my own aspirations for divinity and dare to share the underlying humanity that I have worked so hard to keep hidden, then others along the way say amazingly paradoxical things like, “I can’t believe you said that! Why that’ has been my experience all along, and I thought I was the only one. Why don’t we go eat bagels and drink coffee together down here at Starbucks and talk about all this.” Not too long before God brings a rather wide and amazing assortment of other plain-vanillaed human sufferers to keep this one company, and vice-versa. People who find strength in their mutual admission of weakness. People who laugh uproariously when they discover they aren’t alone. People who discover that love is readily available down here on the bottom of the heap right at the foot of the Cross. No wonder our Lord took the form of a slave, and lived and died as one of us. There is an abundance down here.
One of the consolations I happened upon last fall when I felt as if my interior had collapsed along with the twin towers was William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. James certainly observed this spirituality of crucifixion, and I suspect he knew it as well. He speaks of those who get it as those who suffer from what he called “torn-to-pieces-hood,” his graphic translation of the German word Zerrissenheit. Most of us know that experience as human animals—the sense of being divided, fractured, pulled in a dozen different directions, torn to pieces, and longing ever so deeply for wholeness, a serenity, a reintegration of these body parts and soul parts. On many occasions I heard people in my family say that they were “going to be pieces” as they disintegrated emotionally and spiritually. And today I have a new appreciation for what they were saying. That with all that assailed them in their respective lives, they didn’t have the innate wherewithal to stand tall with chiseled face and unfurrowed brow. That they didn’t have the reserves or the resources to take the bull by the horns and make him fly right. That they were powerless to effect an on-the-spot integration. And with those remarkable credentials or lack of credentials, they qualified for humanity, and not only for humanity, but for salvation by him who became human and died on a cross that all might live.
I’m sure I am a heretic, but I tend to celebrate Good Friday a bit more than I do the Sunday of the Resurrection. I suppose because I understand and know and practice the spirituality of Zerrissenheit—torn-to-pieces-hood. I practice it and live it and model it and offer it to others because my Lord—and for that matter the Lord of all Creation—blazed this trail, and made it the way of life. Stripped of his divinity, mocked and spat upon, divested of his dreams, and deflated of his glory—he shows the way and tells the story and exhibits such wondrous love in the process that I say in my heart, “I can’t believe you lived this and said that! Why that’s been my experience all along. Why don’t we go eat bagels and drink coffee together down here at Starbucks and talk about all this until the cows come home, until love effects integration, until God is all in all.” And Jesus is just the kind of person who says, “What a great idea. Let’s go.” Christ had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.