I wish very much that I had gone to that festival screening of Ikiru (today’s lesson: go see people you admire when they speak publicly, especially about something you really care about). I wish that I’d ever seen Roger Ebert in the flesh, many years as we shared this city. But at the same time I know it doesn’t much matter in the scheme of things. The words and the movies matter, to the critic and his reader anyway, much more than the momentary flash of bodily presence. “My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris,” he wrote in that 2011 essay.
At Deep Springs and, I imagine, many other small, isolated communities, a certain convergence of personal styles takes place. We arrived distinct from each other but grew, externally at least, more and more alike: Long hair or a buzz with the #3 razor; generations of farm-suitable clothes intermingling and being exchanged; an inevitable preference for glasses over contacts. The passage of time only compounds the effect. People we knew by smell (not that difficult in that place) or by footfall at the time become blurrier, singly or together. Looking at this picture I at first mistook another guy for me. My mother mistook a different guy for me.
And as dreadful as this scene is, the more dreadful thought is that Jesus allows us to turn away and put it out of mind. Golgotha is only one little hill in one city, after all. Tomorrow Pontius Pilate will have a full agenda to get through at his headquarters. Tomorrow there will be work to do. There will be children to care for. There will be prayers to say. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life, and nothing would be simpler than to look away from the dead gaze. Nothing would be easier than to say, “I don’t buy it.” If we bought it, our whole lives would fall apart. Our whole world would be broken down piece by piece and put back together in a totally new way. It is wiser, more realistic, to walk down the hill, get some rest, and make our own arrangements.
Here’s a cheerful question for Good Friday: Should Christians flee a deadly plague?
We may not have had occasion to ask ourselves this. We do have to think about how to manage our own viral infections and those of others. We watch helplessly as a stomach flu or cold rips through a whole household. More and more we are faced with outbreaks of things like Ebola or Zika, and we have to ask how to rightly respond to them.
But deadly plagues were a constant feature of life before modern sanitation and antibiotics. And so it happened that Martin Luther was asked, in 1527, whether a Christian was allowed to flee a city that had an outbreak of a deadly disease in a German city.
A way out is suddenly there for the grasping. Beyond this question lies the return of lost disciples. Beyond this question lies a warm bed for a man who hasn’t slept and a hearty meal for a man who hasn’t eaten. Beyond this question is another chance, another day, the opportunity to piece together some of what has been lost, if only you can satisfy this sophisticated and vicious man’s curiosity, if only you can give him what he asks for, if only you can become more valuable to him as a living guru than as a dead rebel. If only you can be a successful philosopher instead of a failed prophet.
And the answer Jesus gives in his moment of direst need is—nothing.
Today Jesus walks fully and finally into the human desire for death and destruction. There is, after all, nothing so unusual about this story on the face of it. There is nothing unusual about the oppression of an empire. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in a mob screaming for blood. Jesus was not the first person to be betrayed, denied, and abandoned. He was not the first person to be flogged and mocked and broken. He was not the first person, nor would he be the last, to hang from a tree as a sign that no one was safe from the powers that rule the world. The sin that crushed Jesus was not new, and it has not yet grown old. Human beings still love death and destruction. We crave it. We’re doing it all over the world right now–for gods or nations, for security or pride. Jesus was just one of the countless victims we humans have created.
Throughout all of Lent, we have heard about Jesus’s great and good deeds among his friends. We have heard of the hope that lingers even in bad times because a community of love still exists. We have treasured the good news God brings us through family, through the fellowship of believers, through the gifts of food and forgiveness that we must all give and receive throughout our lives. We have kept our faith because we are not alone, because life goes on and God’s blessings with it.
But not today. Not on Long Friday, Sorrowful Friday. Today there is no moral to the story. There is no gentle blessing. There is no meal shared among friends throughout the ages. There is no community that endures. Today I wish to let us sit, for a moment, with the grief and fear of the disciples. Today, for a moment, let us allow it to be finished.
God is strange. You can glimpse him once, in a flash. You can sense his presence for a season of your life, and then spend years chasing after him. You can feel him, almost see him plain as day. But then, while everything looks the same, you can’t see God any more. The living room is exactly the way it was, but dad is gone. I’ve met burned-out veterans of this chase for God. They wanted to see what they believed in, or had been told to believe in. And they tried. They tried hard. They tried to guess the password that would open the door, they tried to push the right buttons in the right order, they tried to find the missing clue that would solve the puzzle. But the door never swung back open, the lock never unbuckled, the puzzle never snapped back into focus. A lot of them give up. I don’t blame them.
He shows up with his borrowed parade and his borrowed ride and offers himself to praise or scorn, curiosity or indifference. His manner of coming is perfectly consistent with his message. He moves through the world exactly as he says: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that flowers into a great bush, giving shelter to the birds; unless you become like one of these little ones, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. His borrowed glory reveals the true glory that is coming.
At the beginning of Lent, I invited the participants in our new member/baptism preparation groups to ask any question they had about church or faith, and I would try to answer them as best I could over the course of our meetings. I didn’t get to all of them in the six weeks we spend together, but a commitment is a commitment and I emailed the answers to everyone. It made for the kind of long, burdensome email I almost never write anymore. But they were big, important questions that, I realized, I often spend very little time answering.