Thursday, April 28, 2011

Now What?

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13.34-35)

The First Order

Last Thursday I finally tracked down the answer to a question that skates through my mind every Holy Week: What does “Maundy” mean? Since it’s exclusively attached to Thursday’s commemorations of The Last Supper—the symbol-laden repast in which Jesus prepares the disciples for His death—I thought it might be an archaic term for “mourning.” Or perhaps it was derived from the same root as “mundane,” underscoring Good Friday’s Eve as Jesus’s last night of “normal,” i.e. mortal, existence. With Holy Communion as the focus of Maundy Thursday rites—celebrating the Eucharist’s open table (rather than the Old Testament’s hidden altar) as Christianity’s central metaphor—surely the word alludes, in some fashion, to the ultimate sacrifice that made redemptive grace possible. Not so.

“Maundy” derives from the Latin “mandatum” (“commandment”), the first word in the invocation traditionally spoken at Holy Thursday Mass: Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos. Or, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13.34) While Maundy Thursday liturgies have evolved to emphasize the Eucharistic precedent—in some cases, also recreating the washing of disciples’ feet that precedes it—it fascinates me our ancestors placed top priority on the new edict, to the point they named the day “Commandment Thursday.” Unlike modern believers, whose exposure to unjust atrocities and psychology’s blame-games steers Holy Week emotions toward guilt and regret, it appears medieval Christians celebrated Maundy Thursday as the start of something new—the new commandment Jesus issues, the new covenant sworn in His blood, and the new life that forever redefines mortality. Thus, Jesus’s final mandate to the disciples at table becomes the first order of business for all disciples who join them at table: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Unity and Continuity

Hindsight equips us to detect the new command’s urgent reasoning. Yet it completely escapes the disciples. They can’t possibly know they’ll be Leaderless in less than 24 hours, a crucial concern for Jesus, as they’re by nature a quarrelsome, unruly bunch. His handpicked successor, Peter, is impetuous, given to rash talk and even rasher reactions—not someone who works best under pressure. James and John shamelessly jockey for position. In Mark 10, after Jesus predicts His death a third time, they respond by requesting, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (v36) Judas, of course, has already checked out mentally and will soon permanently remove himself from the company. Yet his indignation at Jesus’s permitting a woman to anoint Him with costly ointment and the extreme action he takes because of it surely heighten the group’s tensions. Mary Magdalene’s invaluable role as Easter’s first messenger confirms her prominence. Her influence among Jesus’s female disciples is evident when she organizes and leads their predawn procession to the Tomb. She too will have a voice in their future and sizeable support for her opinions. Jesus’s mother and siblings will need to be consulted as well, while the remaining disciples form alliances based on friendships, family loyalties, and blind faith. The outlook for future stability is not good.

With Jesus presumably dead and gone—His promised resurrection never quite sticks in their minds—the disciples’ immediate question will be, “Now what?” How do they implement His teaching without His guidance? Who among them understands it well enough to build on? Who would deign to take charge in His absence? Jesus knows His disciples better than they. His physical presence is their only bond. Without it, they’re destined to splinter into competing factions. Weaknesses and vanities will destroy their unity of purpose to continue His work. He has tasked them to start something new—a revolutionary way of life founded on faith in the impossible, driven by love’s power to defy earthly logic and mortal terror, even the fear of death. Bearing these concerns in mind, He answers the “Now what” question in advance with a new commandment that ensures unity (“Love another”) and continuity (“as I have loved you”). Albeit not without tremendous difficulty and occasional failure, the Apostles’ love for one another becomes their sustaining strength and most powerful witness as true disciples. They create something new and make it last by replicating Christ’s patient, selfless, and unequivocal love for each of them and every believer who joins their ranks.

Commandment Day

Although the Church’s emergence as an unparalleled spiritual, cultural, and political institution has fostered grievous disregard—and blatant disobedience—of Christ’s mandate, it remains a cardinal rule no faithful disciple can ignore. In fact, given how criminally we’ve abused the Maundy charter, determination to honor it at all costs has never been more urgent. We’re by nature a quarrelsome, unruly bunch. Foolhardy refusal to place Christ-like love for one another above human ambition has repaid us with crippling hatred, suspicion, prejudice, and divisiveness. Deficient discipline to love each other as Jesus commands—patiently, selflessly, and unequivocally—has turned our attention from creating something new to perpetuating antiquated ideas and customs. We fight to the death, figuratively and literally, to protect the Church’s “integrity,” never realizing animosities in our walls give lie to the integrity of our witness in the world.

Absence of love is why we feel no compunction about fighting over doctrine and dogma. It’s why we splice Scripture to slice each other to shreds. It’s why Christ’s principles of compassion, justice, and equality get trampled in pursuit of self-idolatry, advantage, and conformity. It’s why one denomination conceals and excuses pedophiles, another funds a proposition to deny same-sex partners their Constitutional right of legal union, and numerous others pollute their pulpits and pews with inflammatory rhetoric about anyone or anything that contradicts their views. Dissect our sources of conflict to your liking. In the end, they all expose deafness to Christ’s new command. If we truly love one another as Jesus loved us, we’ll die for one another before differences destroy us, our witness as Christ’s disciples, and our commitment to Christ’s work.

And so, by definition, the Maundy Thursday we observed one week ago—and will hopefully observe to the end of time—was originally ordained to coalesce around Jesus’s mandate for unified love. It’s the spiritual surrogate of His physical Presence that seals our common bond. It’s the supernatural force that transforms the Eucharist into Holy Communion and exalts the thankless task of washing another’s feet into an act of grateful humility. It signifies the creation of something new, something we make new with each new day. Once we grasp the gravity of Christ’s new command, we’ll no doubt echo the disciples’ question. Now what? Perhaps we start by liberating “Maundy” from Holy Week and celebrating every day God gives us as “Commandment Day.”

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In obedience to Christ’s new command, we greet each dawn as the start of something new made possible by our uncompromised love for one another.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Then Comes Sunday...

Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads. (Matthew 27.38-39)

Bound to Happen

Jesus enters and exits human life—and spends most of His time in between—where He shouldn’t be, with people He shouldn’t be around. At least, that would be the landslide opinion if He were alive today. It’s certainly true in His time. Naturally, His message and miracles provoke criticism. He persistently crosses lines by shaving taboos from Scripture and religious practice. He builds His ministry-launching Sermon on the Mount by taking misinterpreted texts apart and reconstructing them, not as hard-and-fast divine edicts but sacred guidelines. (“You have heard it said… but I say…”) Urgent demand, not time-held convention, drives His decisions to heal and help. A surprising number of miracles set off controversy because He performs them on the Sabbath! Yet when critics can find nothing specific to oppose, Jesus’s overall behavior gives them plenty grist to grind. Instead of conforming to holy-man expectations, He’s always in the wrong company, hanging with “sinners”—a catchall for pagans, lawbreakers, and diseased people banned from Temple worship or banished from community.

So seldom is Jesus where He should be, with people He should be around, when He does enter that realm, ugly scenes break out. When He returns to His synagogue in Nazareth, His sermon enrages His hometown to the point it tries to kill Him. No sooner does the Triumphal Entry wind down than Jesus heads for the Temple, where He ousts merchants and moneychangers, lashing together Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7 to declare, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” The implications, which Temple nabobs instantly get, are huge. Isaiah 56 is God’s promise of inclusion for eunuchs and foreigners; Jeremiah 7 is God’s outcry against Israel’s hypocrisy, greed, and social injustice.

Knowing what first-century Jews find impossible to believe, that Jesus is God Incarnate, we cheer Him on. Yet would we be any less outraged if a pastor were constantly seen in “wrong” places with “wrong” people—not mingling with them as a do-gooder, but befriending them and loving them without condition? Would we tolerate one who challenged our sincerity at every turn? How soon would phones ring and emails land charging her/him with reckless behavior and apostasy? How long before consensus agreed he/she had to go? Although Jesus’s adversaries realize He’s Big Trouble from the first, it takes three-and-a-half years to get rid of Him. Today, we’d probably finish Him off in a few months. We’d shake our heads in bafflement over why so many fell for His charisma and radical ideas, when anyone with half a brain could tell something about Him wasn’t right. Hearing He’d run afoul of the law, lost every legal appeal, and been executed as a common criminal, a rebel crucified with two other rebels, we’d shrug, “It was bound to happen.” Some would go so far as sarcastically describing Jesus’s fate as poetic justice. “He died like He lived—hanging with the wrong crowd.”

As It Began

On that last point, we’d be partially correct. When we review the Life hideously snuffed out on Calvary’s hill, we discern uncanny poetry in Its finish. Jesus’s mortal existence follows a divine rhyme scheme by which it ends precisely as it began—in an overcrowded, unfriendly city during a national event, in humiliating, unwholesome circumstances, surrounded by irregulars. It all comes full circle. The human journey commenced in a kindly offered barn concludes in a kindly offered tomb. Yet we underestimate the polarities of Jesus’s birth and death by reducing them to poetic clichés like “He died as He lived,” or “He was born to die.” Everything we observe in Bethlehem confirms Jesus was born to live as He lived, which explains why He dies as He lived. The intricacy with which God plots the details of Christ’s life proves Jesus comes to the world to embody the full extent of God’s love and acceptance. If the fabled Nazarene were born in the friendly confines of home and laid to rest in His family crypt, we could describe His life as one committed to the poor, sick, and rejected of society. We could rationalize His identification with marginalized people as altruistic charity. But nothing in Jesus’s personal history, from birth to life, remotely indicates His habitual presence in wrong company and repeated sightings in wrong places are conscious ploys to highlight social misery or condemn those who cause it.

Jesus is always in the wrong company because that’s where He belongs. He’s one of them by birthright—a Lowlife of questionable paternity born to homeless parents who immediately become political targets and go underground. His dubious origins permit childhood friends and neighbors to turn on Him; Nazareth cries for His death long before Jerusalem does. He lives hand-to-mouth, relying on strangers’ hospitality without benefit of social status or family support. (At one point, He’s such an embarrassment to His family, they think He’s gone mad and try to reel Him in.) Not once is Jesus shocked when His alleged “betters” confront and ridicule Him. Not once does concern for reputation goad Him to back away from tax collectors, volatile personalities, unrefined men, women with sketchy backgrounds, or shortsighted radicals. No, He seeks them out as constant companions and travels openly with them, calling them disciples. They’re drawn to Jesus, not because they admire His desire to be like them, but because He’s one of them. They’re safe around Him, understood by Him, and free to be real with Him. They drop their nets and quit their pasts, trusting Him by virtue of recognizing on sight He’ll never desert them. His meager circumstances will never allow Him to forsake the margins His critics revile Him for embracing.

From our side of history, we observe Calvary’s torment and indignity with horror. Everything about Jesus’s abuse is unjustly beneath Him. Yet to all but His most loyal followers, the manner of His death seems justly inevitable. He dies as He lived, in the wrong company—a born Outsider Whose audacity to speak truth to power sets His collision course with a cruel cross. And that’s that. By Friday night, hardly a soul notices He’s missing. Saturday comes and goes without disruption. Then comes Sunday. The rumor mill spins with news that turns the world inside out. Jesus may have been born to live among the low and oppressed. He may have died as One of them. But He’s not at all like any of them. He’s not like anyone who ever lived. He’s defeated Death. Jesus is alive.

A New Reality

Easter rests so far beyond human comprehension, we understand it no better today than did Mary Magdalene, Peter, and everyone else who met the Risen Christ or gazed into His empty tomb. Some of humanity’s brightest minds have invested lifetimes attempting to prove its reality; others have done the same hoping to debunk it. None has succeeded on either front. The resurrection confounds logic, science, history, and poetry. Easter is a thing so distinctly unto itself it has neither reason nor rhyme. Easter simply is. Either we believe it, or we don’t. Yet if we dismiss it as too incredible to believe, with the Risen Christ goes all meaning we draw from the birth, life, and death—i.e., the mortality—of Jesus. He becomes the greatest of all prophets, idealists, and progressives, the Best of the best, not Least of the least, which is precisely what Bethlehem destined Him to be. To enshrine Jesus as the Ultimate Do-Gooder, Who willingly identified and defended the poor and oppressed is to seal off His connection to humankind. A Jesus Who volunteered to be like us is a far different thing than a Jesus Who obediently became one of us.

The destitute Birth begetting a dispossessed Life that ends in dishonorable Death reveals us at our lowest and worst, as oppressed and oppressor. It’s a saga with which every human, regardless of status, can relate, because no mortal completely eludes social anxieties and rejection. None of us achieves such exalted status we’re above pushing or being pushed. The cross reminds us our lives are designed so birth, death, and our time between them rhyme in uncanny ways. Easter—not Calvary—changes that. It opens a new reality that defies reason and rhyme. It can’t be explained, but must be believed. Death’s defeat offers something infinitely more powerful than abstract “life.” It invites us to live as Jesus lived, free of fear about who we are, how we’re viewed, or what becomes of us after we die. What becomes of Jesus after He dies—the phenomenal transformation that raises the lowly Mortal into the triumphant Christ—is God’s promise to every one of us. As formidable as life’s pressures and defeats may be, they’re never final. Jesus, always in the wrong company, always in the wrong place, lives as He is born and dies as He lived, an Outsider with no social or religious means of ever getting “In.” Then comes Sunday…

It all makes sense—the rhyme and reason in Jesus’s birth, life, and death—until a new reality emerges on Easter morning.