ISSUES OF FAITH: Do all roads lead to Gethsemane?

HERE WE ARE, deep in Holy Week and it is Good Friday today for those of us who walk the Christian path, our second most somber day in the church year. At least emotionally, we still have a long way to go til Easter Sunday. All of Lent has been in preparation for this day and this week. We will reach our own resurrection, but first, we are called to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

But it is here now, it is upon us, and we can’t hide from it. I keep writing “almost,” as if I were trying to hinder this day, or let it pass by, but no, we are well past “almost;” we have arrived at Gethsemane: we see the three crosses and we feel their shame, and ours.

For theologians, this cross is a scandal, so much so that we wonder if it really was necessary. I mean, surely, we wouldn’t put Christ on a cross (as Gore Vidal pointed out, the equivalent of an electric chair, or a noose or even a syringe in these more gracious times). As one of the great Lutheran hymns put it, “Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended?” Johann Heerman’s text goes on, to hammer his point home, to not let us escape into piety and escape from our own sense of our own sin:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

That’s the exact truth we need to hear on this most somber day (as I write this, I hear my Lutheran professors back in my undergraduate days saying “Law first, then Gospel, first the condemnation and only then the Good News!”).

The most somber day of the Christian year is Ash Wednesday (“Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.”). It’s a reminder, simply, that we will die. Every one of us, without exception, our lives will end, sooner than later.

But that’s Ash Wednesday — this day is different: it’s Good Friday, a corruption of the Middle English phrase “God’s Friday,” the day when God works on us to save us through the sacrifice of his own son, and his own self. Liturgically (that is, in terms of worship), we are a third of the way through our journey. Yesterday was Maundy Thursday, from the Latin “Mandatum,” the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples at his last supper: “This commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” All of us must love one another, every single person.

And yes, that includes the people we don’t like, even, sometimes: the person who hates you, so you’re tempted to hate them. The person who listened to gossip about you and treats you horribly as a result. The person in church who weeps and wails at just about every service over things long over that have happened to you as well, and, after all, you got over it, didn’t you? The person who will be voting for a person they admire, even love, but you find disgusting, or evil. Every single person. Those different. Those who just are, well, vulgar, “not our kind,” you think just before you squash that thought down like a nasty bug from the basement.

It is a universal call to Christians (and, really, to all religious people everywhere). We must love our neighbor as ourselves, but also we must love our enemies. That covers the full range, but it’s not two exclusive points: “over there,” and “right next door.” Rather, it’s a continuum, two endpoints on a line but every infinite point in between.

And, no, there are no exceptions to this, none whatsoever. We are made, we sometimes fear, only of sin, but that’s not true either.

We were made in God’s image and made to be good, but if Ash Wednesday is there to remind us we will die, Good Friday is here to remind us we sin. And so one response to Good Friday, especially if we haven’t begun the journey on Maundy Thursday with love, is to despair, itself a sin, one too often the result of accepting that we are drenched in sin, like blood.

That’s why we don’t celebrate the Eucharist on Good Friday. To twist a phrase from hymnody again, “He is not risen, He is not here.” Thus, not that pesky “A” word (hint: it is “a shout of joy.”).

That’s why tonight’s somber services are only a third of the story. First we acknowledge that we must love; then we must acknowledge that we have sinned; and then, and only then, we come to the third day of this (for Christians) most holy week, so big that its finale has to be one service over three days.

Because tomorrow is the glory of the Church Year, the holiest night of the year, the Great Vigil of Easter, when we hope for the return of the Crucified Christ, just as on Christmas, we waited for the Advent of the Christ Child, the day the word we cannot now say returns to our worship and our lips.

Tomorrow is the day we shout again with joy! To end with Heerman, then, a word of hope, as suitable for Easter as for Lent, perhaps:

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.

For if we do not walk the whole Easter season, we won’t experience Easter in all its joy. Still, go to what services you can.

The walk Christians began on Ash Wednesday will be complete after the Fifty Great Days of Easter in which the colors are white and gold, and full of mystery — there’s still time!

Be joyful, all who read these words, and pray for me, as I will for you. We’re all in this life together.

________

Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Dr. Keith Dorwick is a deacon resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

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