Good Friday — Now and in My Memories

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The Passage of Scripture that I contemplate on this Good Friday, and on most every Good Friday I can remember, is found in the Book of Isaiah.

He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

— Isaiah 53:3-7 NKJV

For me, Good Friday holds so many memories. I remember vividly trekking through the woods to find a thorn tree for our crown of thorns; finding just the right tree for Fred to cut down for building our cross; draping cloth on the cross; decorating our church’s Easter Chrismon tree; finding candles blooming dogwood; and finding fabric — Lenten purple, Good Friday black and Resurrection white.

Good Friday also holds for me many memories of worship — so many years leading worship as a pastor, leading worship during my time as minister of worship, leading services in our hospital chapel, holding sunrise services in our community. Honestly, after so many years, they all run together, and I only remember snippets of the times of worship that were most meaningful to me.

There is one memory that is so clear to me that it stands out above all others. I remember it in detail and I believe that this memory shaped my best thoughts about meaningful worship. I was only a young girl, but my grandmother (Yiayia) gave me authoritative instruction about how I should devoutly observe Holy Week. That usually meant going to church every day of Holy Week, but always, it meant Good Friday worship at our Holy Trinity + Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Birmingham.

I wondered then about why the day when Christians commemorate Christ’s crucifixion was called Good Friday. The son of God was flogged, insulted and ordered to carry the cross on which he would be crucified. According to Mark’s Gospel, he endured the torment of crucifixion for some six hours from the third hour, at approximately 9 am, until his death at the ninth hour, corresponding to about 3 pm.

It’s difficult to see what is “good” about Good Friday. I studied on the name Good Friday and learned some interesting information. The day was called Long Friday by the Anglo-Saxons and is referred to as such in modern Danish. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that some sources see its origins in the term God’s Friday. In German the day is called Karfreitag, or Sorrowful Friday. In our Greek Orthodox faith, the day is known as the Holy and Great Friday in the Greek Orthodox liturgy.

In truth, that terrible Friday is called Good Friday because it eventually leads us to the Resurrection of Jesus, his victory over death and finally the celebration of resurrection, the very pinnacle of Christian celebrations. According to the Baltimore Catechism, Good Friday is good because Christ “showed His great love for man, and purchased for him every blessing.” Yes! But I must paraphrase that quotation to say “Christ showed His great love for us all, and purchased for us every blessing.“

Sometimes, we tend to rush headlong past the darkness of Christ’s passion, wanting a quicker path to the glorious resurrection. Which is where I begin with my childhood memories of Holy Week. Like most Orthodox Christians, my grandmother made sure we observed Good Friday with fasting, prayer, cleanliness, self-examination, confession and good works. We did not do any chores on Good Friday because we were to honor the day of mourning. I remember that our Good Friday meant a strict fast, no food all day. My Yiayia made up a mini fast for me that included small meals and just a little juice, always calling attention to the food she did not give me because I was fasting. What a teacher and spiritual guide Yiayia was to me! The long day of fasting went on.

On Great and Holy Friday our Orthodox Church commemorated the death of Christ on the Cross. We had to go to church first thing in the morning. In this service, our priest, Father Sam, raised up Christ’s Cross very high and then took it around the church three times. We kneeled the entire time and I wondered if everyone’s knees were hurting like mine were. Anyway, Yiayia had given me instructions. “Kneel correctly and don’t look around until the Cross passes our pew. Then look at the Cross and pray to be forgiven of your sins just like the thief on the Cross who confessed.” I didn’t think I had any sins, but I did it anyway. Father Sam finally finished walking around and took the Cross to the front of the church. Then Yiayia nudged me to move and, along with everyone in the whole church, we went to the Cross and kissed it. I wasn’t a great fan of  Vespers so early in the morning, but we had to be there to see the unnailing of Christ from the Cross.

F606DA9C-27C2-459C-AD12-1CF83EA594CDBefore I knew it, we were on our way back to church, even though I had plans for Friday afternoon. I felt something a little like sadness, I think, when Father Sam and several other men took Jesus from the Cross and placed him in a tomb. What I most remember was wondering why Father Sam was sprinkling the tomb with rosewater and then sprinkling all of us. The sweet smell of roses filled the sanctuary. At the end, we went behind Father Sam in a procession with the entire beautiful structure that was supposed to be the tomb of Jesus. It was like a funeral procession and it was sad. The older ladies in black clothes wept again. I think I felt a tear roll down my face, too. I think my tear came because Father Sam’s chants that day were the saddest, most sorrowful music I had ever heard.

The problem with all of it, I thought, is that we still had to fast all day and all the next day. I didn’t like that part very much, but as a dutiful child, I ate and drank the sparse morsels and juice that Yiayia served me without a single complaint. At least outwardly! Inside, I complained constantly and literally felt like I might starve.

And then it happened! In the dark of night, 11:00 pm, we went to the church — the most special liturgy of our church. Last minute instructions from Yiayia? “Sit up straight, kneel when I kneel, say all the prayers, no talking to your friends, no looking around to see who came, no crossing your legs, and don’t fall asleep” (even though we might be there until 1 am). if I broke any of those rules, Yiayia quietly, but forcefully, pinched my leg.

Father Sam took us first to the Passion of the Christ and his final moments on the cross. I remember having a bit of child like impatience with the very lengthy and heavy service. Yet today, I would give anything to sit up straight, legs uncrossed next to my Yiayia. I had no idea what was going on, but I was again stricken by the tears and the crying of the older ladies wearing black. I know now that they came there to mourn the death of Jesus. At that time, I just felt sad and kind of in awe in hearing their expressions of mourning.

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Artist Raúl Berzosa

As the liturgy neared midnight, the sanctuary went dark and we sat in complete darkness for what seemed to me like an hour. Father Sam took light and gave it to those who were holding candles as he sang: “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning life, and glorify Christ, who arose from the dead,” and all the people join him in singing the hymn again and again.

Father Sam then led the entire congregation outside the church. We had begun the procession to the tomb. I was so short in a crowd of taller people that I was unsure what was going on.

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Artist Raúl Berzosa
“Jesus is down from the cross and placed in the arms of his mother Mary”.
XIII Via Crucis Station for Guatemala.
Oil on canvas
http://www.raulberzosa.com

I did know that on the way to the tomb all the adults were solemn. But somehow I remembered that Father Sam would read the Gospel that gave us the Angel’s statement: “He is Risen; He is not here.” (Mark 16:1-8)

Then came the breathless moment — always the breathless moment — as the people waited for our priest to start the hymn of Resurrection. We sang with him this hymn, our most beloved hymn of Resurrection. “Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs!” We sang it over and over again, holding our candles on a cold, dark night, facing the doors of our church

I remember Father Sam, holding the Paschal candle in his left hand, turned to face the wooden church doors and knocked three times on the closed doors with his hand-cross, saying in a loud voice, “Where is the King of glory?” Everyone responded, “He is not here for he has risen from the grave!”

This was the the high point of worship, but . . . We still had to sit quietly in the pews to hear the sermon of St. John Chrysostom. I was tired and very sleepy, but at long last, our Lenten exile had ended. The fasting was over. The penitential prayers were finished. The stone from the tomb was rolled away and we knew without any doubt that Christ had risen! He had risen indeed!

Today, wherever you are — near your loved ones or apart — know that the fear, anxiety and isolation of this virus will end. Let all of us pray for those who are ill; for the families that have lost loved ones; for medical professionals, chaplains, first responders and the hospital employees who clean and sanitize every area; for the scientists who are working to develop testing and vaccines; for the governors of every state; for those having financial difficulty; for churches facing financial struggles and for ministers who are creating worship alternatives; for all those to whom this virus is an enormous threat because of age, weakened immune system and health issues; for parents who must teach their children at home and for children who wonder where Easter is this year.

This has been a Lent to remember because it included the separation of families, schools and faith communities. Of all the Lents that have passed, I imagine we will remember this one. When we do, I hope we will remember all the compassionate deeds, all the new ways of being community and all the ways we have loved one another. After all, the command to love one another came from the Christ who faced betrayal, sorrow, death and ended his story with resurrection. That’s what all of us, people of resurrection do — suffer all of life’s slings and arrows and still end up resurrected — to newness of life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

And thanks be to God for my Good Fridays, then and now. Amen.

I am including a video of the song, “Lamb of God” by Twila Paris for your Good Friday meditation time.

 

Lament

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Monday of Holy Week
April 6, 2020

I have been thinking today that this Holy Monday is the threshold into Holy Week, and that I am standing at that threshold in fear. It is true that this time of pandemic has brought a season of fear to many of us, as well as a time of heaviness, concern, confusion and lament. Just one year ago, on April 5, 2019, I posted the following thought.

Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.

— From the movie “The Princess Diaries” (2001)

I testify to the reality that courage really is deciding “that something is more important than fear.” None of us anticipated what 2020 would bring. It was simpler last Holy Week to write eloquent words about fear and courage. We could contemplate such thoughts far more comfortably than we can in this season of pandemic, the virus assailing the earth and the arrival of the season of Lent just to make sure we are all weighted down sufficiently.

I do not know about you, but I am experiencing these days as heavy. It feels heavy to me being confined to home. It feels heavy to be overly worried about my suppressed immune system since the transplant. It feels heavy to know that so many people all over the world are suffering with the coronavirus and that many have died. I just feel an oppressive heaviness. I feel as though the place we must be right now is a place of lament. 

Who brought the world as we know it to such an abrupt halt? Is one purpose of this pandemic to make us stop and take time to heal our souls? Is another purpose a demand for us to be still and allow our stillness to begin to heal an earth rife with environmental destruction? Is it to tell our churches to stop, to re-think worship that is sometimes predictable, stale, spiritless? Is the pandemic’s purpose to teach us to cherish the community of faith we have taken for granted, as now community is somewhat lost to us?

There are so many things to lament in these days, for all of us. But I have not intruded on your time today just to write about my laments in this season, to tell you all about my heaviness and the heaviness of the world. I write on this Holy Monday in hopes that we will sit quietly for a few moments of contemplating passion and promise — the Passion that leads to Christ’s death and the Promise that always ends up with Christ’s resurrection, and ours.

Not only is the lament, the heaviness, the anguish and fear of death that surrounds us this year a global phenomenon, but the things that Christians normally do in Holy Week to create transcendent meaning are painfully denied us for now: our palms and crosses, our washing of feet, our sharing of the bread and cup. These powerful physical and sacramental expressions of our faith we always do together. We cannot do them together this year.

In some ways, though, we are humanly and globally more united now than we have ever been (by this virus), and yet more separated than ever (by our fear of it). It is as if we have crashed suddenly and directly into the emptiness and shock of Jesus’s tragic death, before we have even started the journey to Jerusalem with him. Let us not rush. Instead may we walk the way of Christ’s story this week, through the times of passion, to the moment Jesus died, and on to the glorious resurrection Rushing through Holy Week is like controlling the story.

Controlling the coronavirus “story” is also problematic because it isn’t just a story. We are in it, and for now none of us can get out of it. But the glory of the Passion story is that it also isn’t just a story. It is, as we Christians have to remind ourselves during this time, the final and ultimate story of “the struggle between life and death” and of life being triumphant in the extraordinary power and mystery of the resurrection.

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Together in Community

God’s Son breaks the bonds of death and shatters the forces of darkness and sin. We must remember that holy mystery in these days. We must remind ourselves that, even when lamenting our separation one from another, Christ’s resurrection binds us together across the boundaries of time and space and even death itself. 

And, wonder of wonders, the fear and anguish of COVID-19 reminds us of this same fact: that we belong together, in need and vulnerability and compassion and mutual belonging. We are one — both in death and in life.

In this Monday of Holy Week, the coronavirus story meets the Passion story. We may be lamenting the worship we will miss this Holy Week. We may yearn for the physical and spiritual comfort of the familiar traditions that the virus has stolen from us. We quake in fear at the pandemic itself. Yet during this time, we are being stretched in new and unthinkable ways, precisely by that fear and by the temporary loss of worship with our faith community. We stretch to consider afresh the core of our baptismal faith: that the resurrected body of Christ sustains us all, even in and through death itself. 

I wonder how I will spend this very different Holy Week, as I am at home feeling alone on Holy Monday. I am lamenting the temporary loss of my worshipping community. You may be lamenting the same loss. As always, this holy day will lead us into the week and through the Passion of Jesus — his heart breaking for the betrayal of Judas, his moment of feeling that God had forsaken him. We face the Passion story reluctantly this year, already troubled and fearful. We may be afraid to add the story of the crucifixion to the loss the pandemic has also brought us.

But I will not leave us in this place, each of us isolated and lamenting. The very core of our faith — during Holy Monday and always — mystically unites us not only to Christ but to each other.

The coronavirus story will not supplant the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection. The virus will not have the last word, because even in its random cruelty, it may yet turn us back to the transcendent source and unity of our faith. In its scourge, it may open us up to the realization that we are the Body of Christ in this world, together, in radiant community that will endure. The circle of the faithful will not be broken, even by a worldwide pandemic. 

O God, abide with us on this holy day
and through the pain of Holy Week.

Grant that our deep lamentations cease,
even as we walk with Jesus and hear again the story of his death. 

Grant that our deep lamentations cease
as we lift our faith and pray for an end to the pandemic
that harms our entire world.

Help,us, God, to endure what lies before us with hope, courage, patience and faith.

Because our faith tells us, God, that as the Holy Week story continues, our laments will be replaced by praises to God as we witness again the glory of the risen Lord.

Amen.

 

 

 

In a Shaken Time . . . The Unshakable

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I have written often about times when I have been shaken to my core, the hard times and the seasons of angst. Not because hard times have been a constant in my life, but because in the middle of them, I have found a Divine Constant that sustained me at times and saved me at other times.

As we approach the Sunday of the Palm and Passion, we remember the journey Jesus traveled.

. . . the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” (John 1:12-13 NRSV)

Yet, before the day is done, the Gospel of John tells us how troubled Jesus was as he spoke about his death.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 1:27-28 NRSV)

As we recall Christ’s passion, we cannot help but recognize our own — and the passion of our families, friends, neighbors scattered throughout the world. Each of us, no matter where we are, are covered with the fear of a pandemic we can not begin to understand, the virus that knows no boundaries. It goes where it will, infecting those exposed to its microorganisms and leaving fear and anxiety in its wake. We are shaken to the core.

Those who are infected, or have watched as their infected loved ones battle the virus, cry out for mercy, for grace and for comfort. They are in search of the Divine Constant, a “very present help,” who keeps vigil with us offering a comfort that surpasses our ability to comprehend it. There is no better description of divine comfort than the words of the Psalmist in the 46th Psalm that tells us to take heart, hang on, fear not.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

At the very beginning of the Cold War in 1952, Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke to students and faculty at the Pacific School of Religion. After acknowledging the very real fear and uncertainty in the world at that time, he spoke these words: “The highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable.”

Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time! Oh, that we might find it alone — isolated in our homes, in our prayer closets, in the breeze and beauty of springtime! Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time in community — in all the ways we are striving to create holy community despite our isolation.

Yes, we are shaken right now, but again the Psalmist has the last word of divine comfort and hope.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
(Psalm 34:18 NIV)

As I look around, hearing from those closest to me and also hearing the stories of people around the world, I witness signs that we are indeed discovering the unshakable in this shaken time — the unshakable in ourselves, the unshakable faith we hold in our hearts, the unshakable spirit within us and the Unshakable Constant God who pours grace upon us when we most need it.

May each of you stay safe and healthy. May you wave your palms and witness Christ’s passion still believing in the resurrection that will dawn upon our lives again. May you find the unshakable within you and hold the Unshakable God near you.

For a time of prayer and meditation, you may be inspired by listening to this beautiful arrangement of the hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

 

 

Resurrection!

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“Art: Resurrection Morning” by James Martin

As people often say, things come and go. Today the resurrection came, so clearly in our worship service and especially in our Sunday School class. When we are gathered in community, the sharing of our lives becomes resurrection for us all. So for us resurrection came, but it did not go.

It remains in the resurrection stories we share and in the ways we bear witness to the grace-full acts of God. The stories around the circle were about places of darkness and death and about the resurrection that always follows. For some, physical health reaches a dark place and we pray for the resurrection to come in their lives. For others, emotions around fear are on the surface and we pray for the resurrection to overcome the fear. Still others grieve for friendships that feel like the end, and we pray for the resurrection they need. Others mourn the loss of friends to death and, as we pray for the healing of those left behind, we also rejoice in the promise of resurrection for those that leave their earthly life.

Death comes in myriad ways. But resurrection comes, every time, to shatter death’s darkness in ways that seem like mighty wonders and wondrous acts of God. Ready or not, resurrection comes to us and makes its home in us. We are resurrection people because we made the choice to proclaim to the world that Christ is risen! 

The Scripture gives us so many stories of resurrection. Sacred texts allow us to look into the lives of many people who have looked at death and have come through it to resurrection. And in our own lives, we can bear witness to the glorious reality that we know the One who is “the resurrection and the life,” that because we believe in the Christ, we will never die. (John 11:25-26)

As you enjoy Easter and lean into the resurrection that never leaves you, think on these Scripture texts:

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” 

She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

— John 20:11-18 (NRSV)

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 

— 1 Peter 1:3-7 (NRSV)

 

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

— Acts 4:33 (NRSV)

 

*James Martin’s art is available at http://www.veritasse.me.uk/artists/james-martin/