In America the past becomes history very quickly, at least for some of us. By the time I was growing up, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an official symbol of the nation, which he still is today. I learned about him in school in a town that had deliberately excluded African-American homeowners into my lifetime. What was left out of the picture I was given was the profound hostility many people, north and south and everywhere else, felt toward him at the time of his death. What I had to learn later, on my own, is that he spent the last years of his life warning about the danger posed to American cities, and to the American soul, by generations of oppression and deprivation; that he spent those years trying hard to prevent chaos and violence; that he was not heeded by politicians or public opinion; and that the chaos and violence came, most explosively after his own murder. No one who was living in Chicago in 1968 can forget that.
As the big day of confirmation got closer, my anxiety increased. Everything I was preparing to say I believed became harder and harder to swallow.
But you would not know any of that from the people who had been willing to accompany me on this journey. I had been away from church for a long time, but I was welcomed back with open arms. I was skeptical, but people were eager for me to believe. Where I was sarcastic, my friends and pastors were patient, tender, and completely without religious snobbery. They willingly invited me to see and touch and ask and test everything they believed. People I came to admire, trust, and love passed on the gift of faith to me wrapped in their own good work and faithful witness. And someone they admired, trusted, and loved passed it on to them. And someone else passed it on to them. And someone else to them, and on and on, a great chain of gift-giving that goes all the way back to that locked room. This weekend we even add a new link to that chain, as the children of the parish are invited to take this great gift of faith in their hands, to enjoy it, and to some day take up their own role in passing it on.
A colleague of mine, writing about the process whereby adults are received into the Catholic Church, reports that most people go through it for their spouse or spouse-to-be. But she has met others who have started inquiring about the church out of their battle with an addiction, or because they read a novel by Graham Greene at an impressionable age. People discover yearnings that they never learned a vocabulary to express; or they might need a new beginning, or a way to identify with something outside of themselves. Whatever you may think of those motives, they are perennial. Whatever you may think of the church, it has a ritual in which they can be given a place.
And yet now, having known the consolations of a loving marriage, pursued the full course of my formal education, tasted the vocations that define my life, and treasured the unspeakable joy of fathering a child, the prospect of a parting sometimes fills me with far greater bitterness than it did back when my life was still a blank canvass. I’ve had to explain to skeptics that when Paul says, rhetorically, “where grave is thy victory; where O death is thy sting?” he is referring to the final resurrection, not to our own mind here and now. Here and now the grave wins its victory and death inflicts a palpable sting, to those who leave too soon and to those who are left. Yet youth is perhaps innocent even of this.
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.