Friday, April 06, 2012

On another meaning of Easter

Okay, so I'm finna get sincerely religious all up in this piece--and we're talking full-on religious, like Episcopapist religious, and not just "spiritual"--so if that's not your thing, just wait a few minutes and then hit "refresh." TGTBATFNERT is coming up next.

Today is Good Friday (as opposed to a merely good Friday, which is most of them). It is, for the drastically uninformed, a big day for Christians, as it is the day Jesus was crucified and died, which was the necessary step before rising on Sunday, because if He hadn't died first the rising part wouldn't have been nearly as impressive.

As Christians, we're expected to live up to the example Jesus sets for us. Usually, that's more to the "God" side of His dual nature of God/man. Spread the Word, always be obedient to God. Do good. Be respectful. Be kind, generous, and compassionate. Be faithful. All important things, and all things we can do in our own lives, but at a certain level also kind of unrelatable for people who aren't themselves at once God and human. We're given this task of being like Jesus, but we're also given a literally unattainable goal--because while Jesus was like us, He also was entirely unlike us in an almighty and everliving kind of way. We're told over and over that we're meant to try to be like Jesus and that there's no chance we will ever succeed.

One of my favorite Lenten passages (defined here as "most striking and most likely to make me cry in church") is the recounting of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before He was handed over. He brings his friends with him--all of whom end up falling asleep, incidentally--and prays and prays and prays for something that doesn't get a lot of emphasis in the Easter story: He prays to God to not make him do this.
Luke 22:41-44 He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
The focus is usually on Jesus's devotion and his willingness to do God's will--and it's there. There's never any question of Him trying to disobey God or slide out of His duty. But to me, it's his fear that makes it one of the most humanizing passage in the entirety of Jesus's recorded life. Jesus knows what He has to do, He knows it's the only way, and He's prepared to do it--but He's still begging God to not make Him. "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done." His sweat like blood. Dad, I know what's going to happen, and I'm so scared. If you say I have to do this, I'll do it, but please, please, please don't make me.

I've never faced crucifixion before, to cleanse the sins of the world or for any other reason. I've never known the realistic fear of torture and death. But I've been scared. I've had to do things that scared me and that I didn't want to do but had to. And that human part of Jesus, so scared, praying to His Father to take this cup from me? That, I can identify with. And that's why sometimes I cry in church during that passage.

It was today during the reading of the Passion (again, for the uninformed: the story of everything between Jesus getting arrested and Jesus getting sealed into the tomb) that I realized something: Jesus had some attitude.
John 18:4-8 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?"

"Jesus of Nazareth," they replied.

"I am he," Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground.

Again he asked them, "Who is it you want?"

"Jesus of Nazareth," they said.

Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go."
He knew who they were looking for when they came into the garden. He knew everything. But He wasn't going do their work for them or make it easy for anyone at any step of the way. And so although He's Jesus, and He's the good guy, and He could have just handed himself over, He made them ask for him. And then He told them to leave His disciples alone.

Then later, as He was being questioned by Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest:
Josh 18 19-24 Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.

"I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said."

When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded.

"If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
I only taught where there were lots of people to hear. You don't have to ask me what I taught; everybody heard it. Ask them. And then after He got smacked, "If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" Implied: Truth hurts, don't it.

And then talking to Pilate:
John 18:33-39 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"

"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?"

"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?"

Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place."

"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.

Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."

"What is truth?" retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him."
Here, there's a little back-and-forth between Jesus and Pilate. I like to think Pilate has a degree of respect for Jesus, speaking to Him kind of informally--"Am I a Jew?" From Jesus, Did you come up with this "king of the Jews" thing on your own? And Pilate says, Yeah, because I'm totally Jewish. Then, Your people are the ones who handed you over. What did you do? Jesus replies, Hey, if I were really the king of the Jews, don't you think someone would have my back right now?

And then, at the end, a little bit of resignation from Pilate, I think, knowing that nothing he said was going to keep the people from crucifying Jesus. What is truth, anyway?

Throughout the Passion today, I kept thinking that Jesus was kind of a boss (a side we don't see a lot of in his life story), but that that was probably not the intended takeaway from this particular reading on this particular day.

The priest's homily provided a little bit of context that made me realize I wasn't so very far off. He pointed out that throughout the Passion, Jesus never failed to face down evil--but He also never returned it. He never hit anyone (and rebuked Peter for doing so). He never yelled. He never told anyone they were going to hell. But He also never let anyone avoid the facts of what they were doing. He never gave them room to pretend that it was okay. He never let them forget who He was and what He had done--or more important, who He wasn't and what He hadn't done, namely anything that should rightly get Him put to death.

The priest's point was that in our efforts to emulate Jesus, we should never shy away from facing down evil, but nor should we return it--even if we think our reasons are valid. It doesn't mean we have to always be sweet and holy and turn-the-other-cheekish, because obviously here Jesus is showing spine and even getting a little sarcastic once in a while. We shouldn't embrace badness to face it down--but we should always face it down. Again, it's one of those humanizing events, something I can relate to, and something I really can do.

It's almost certain that I will never be called upon to give myself up for torture and agonizing death for the salvation of mankind. (And if for any reason I do have to, the chances of me waking up two days later are pretty much nil.) That's a sacrifice I will never, ever have to make. But I can face down someone who's doing the wrong thing and not letting it slide, but instead calling them out on it and maybe getting a little bit sassy about it (while refraining from going too far). I can do that. I have done that. I can face something that terrifies me, that has me crying and begging for this cup to pass me by, but do it anyway because it has to be done.

The focus of Easter is on Jesus's sacrifice for our salvation and his resurrection, and the focus of Lent is our own attempts at sacrifice and preparation for that glorious day. But for me, one of the greatest lessons comes right at the very end. That lesson is that we really can be like Jesus, albeit in our own minor ways. I can be like Jesus, in my own way that is admittedly incomparable to His. He has given me examples that I can live by--if I can become a slightly better person than I am right now. And I can do that. I should do that. Jesus died for our sins; the least I can do is straighten up a little.

1 comment:

javacia said...

Wow! This post is incredible. It's better than most Easter sermons I've heard. Thanks so much for writing this.