A Sampler of Spiritual Reflections for Holy Week

Since today is Maundy Thursday, I wanted to start by encouraging you all to read this sermon from MadPriest’s blog. MP is a progressive Anglican clergyman whose deep understanding of the gospel is cleverly concealed beneath a wickedly farcical sense of humor. Reflecting on the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with the costly ointment from the alabaster vessel, he writes:

Jesus is not just the servant. He is also the one that is to be served.

And that, we are not so keen on.

When we think about images such as the vine, too often we see ourselves as the branches sucking the sap out of the trunk, that is Jesus Christ. But the vine image is not about dependence so much as connectedness. That other image of the body with its limbs is a better metaphor. Every part of the body needs every other part of the body. No one part serves all the rest without being served in return. Without this mutual dependency the body dies, the vine produces no fruit and withers.

So, tomorrow night, enjoy the divine foot massage but on Friday, don’t forget to help him carry his cross.

An earlier Lenten sermon by MadPriest, decrying the stigmatization of the mentally ill, is also a treasure:

…So, what does it mean, to take up our cross? Let’s take a look at what it meant for Jesus.

Firstly, the cross of Christ was a physical reality. He was no false martyr bemoaning some exaggerated offence against his character or person. His cross, traditionally those two pieces of crudely assembled wood, would be used to kill him. He had to physically carry his load through the streets of Jerusalem and up to his place of execution and we are shown in the Passion narrative that his cross was a heavy burden. So heavy that he needed help to carry it. Orthodox Christianity has always insisted in the reality of Christ’s torture and execution. It is not just a metaphor for some spiritual truth. In fact, for many of us for whom the incarnation of God in man is of the utmost importance, there would be no salvation without the birth and death of a real, flesh and blood, messiah.

Secondly, as well as the physical reality of the cross there was also an emotional reality. There was the emotion inside of Christ. His despair, his feelings of desolation that were revealed to the world in the Garden of Gethsemane, his anger, his knowledge that he had been betrayed by both one particular friend and the whole world. But there was also the emotion being spat in his face by the crowd who had turned against him. Great hatred, anger, disappointment. This emotional burden that Jesus carried to his execution was, most likely, far heavier than the wood of his physical burden.

Thirdly, the cross was a burden in the sense that it was Christ’s duty to carry it. Once Jesus had accepted his mission there was no honourable option for him other than to carry the cross. His being and his duty were one. If Jesus had turned his back on the cross and walked away he would have been walking away from himself. He would no longer be himself.

Jesus is the example par excellence for the Christian life. Although many who call themselves Christian still cling on to written laws, true followers of Christ follow Saint Paul’s teaching, free themselves from the obsolete human law and base their lives on the teaching, attitude and actions of Jesus Christ. One of Christ’s main teachings is that his followers must take up their own cross. It’s a command. Deny yourself and take up your cross. Jesus never hides stuff in the small print of the contract, he doesn’t work for a bank, he doesn’t hide the bit that says that the interest rates can be increased without warning or explanation whenever they feel like it. No, he is always upfront about the terms and conditions of our Christian employment.

So, if we want to be be followers of Jesus we have to grab a cross of own and because Jesus is our example, our cross will be similar to the cross of Christ. I’m not saying that we should be happy to accept our burden. I’m not saying we should want to carry it. Such attitudes would be perverse. But I am saying that we should be willing to carry it and be proud that it is the cross of Christ.

For many thousands of Christians over the last 2000 years their cross of Christ has almost been a literal one and they have met their deaths proclaiming his gospel. Fortunately, for those of us in what are presently still Christian friendly countries, we do not face such danger to any large extent. But, even so, it is usual for our cross to be of a physical nature. Maybe illness or caring for somebody who is old or ill. Maybe poverty or unemployment. Maybe you will be asked to live and work in a unappealing or dangerous situation, at home or abroad. Sometimes we choose such things for ourselves. Sometimes they just happen.

One thing I have noticed about the burden of Christianity is that it often involves being pushed to the margins of society. This can be accidental, as in the case of someone caring for a relative who becomes cut off from friends and activities. It might be chosen as in the person who goes to work in a shanty town in Africa. Or it may be because of hatred and/or fear, as in the case of the foreigner in a strange land or a person who suffers from a mental illness, for example.

And we should not be surprised that the cross we carry will propel us to the margins of society. Jesus spent much of his ministry among the marginalised. The poor of his own country. The foreigner in his land. The hated Samaritans. The sick. The sinners. Women and children. And then, when he was condemned to death,when he himself was as far outside of society as you could possibly get, he is taken to a hill to be crucified and placed between two thieves. Two outsiders of the lowest rank. And Jesus ministers to them even as he is dying.

Read the whole sermon here.

On a related note, the Internet Monk (Michael Spencer) has re-posted one of his sermon-essays about embracing your brokenness. It seems that I, as a naturally pensive/moody/ironic person, have not been alone in worrying that anything short of constant cheerfulness would make me a poor advertisement for the gospel. It was actually exposure to Buddhist thought that allowed me to accept my light and dark moods as temporary waves on the ocean. To use a Buddhist concept, is there still too much “aversion” in a lot of Christian writing–too much telling us how we should feel, rather than how Jesus helps us endure and learn from what we do feel? Quoth the i-Monk:

I hear of those who are depressed. Where do they turn for help? How do they admit their hurt? It seems so “unChristian” to admit depression, yet it is a reality for millions and millions of human beings. Porn addiction. Food addiction. Rage addiction. Obsessive needs for control. Chronic lying and dishonesty. How many pastors and Christian leaders live with these human frailties and flaws, and never seek help because they can’t admit what we all know is true about all of us? They speak of salvation, love and Jesus, but inside they feel like the damned.

Multiply this by the hundreds of millions of broken Christians. They are merely human, but their church says they must be more than human to be good Christians. They cannot speak of or even acknowledge their troubled lives. Their marriages are wounded. Their children are hurting. They are filled with fear and the sins of the flesh. They are depressed and addicted, yet they can only approach the church with the lie that all is well, and if it becomes apparent that all is not well, they avoid the church.

I do not blame the church for this situation. It is always human nature to avoid the mirror and prefer the self-portrait. I blame all of us who know better. We know this is not the message of the Gospels, the Bible or of Jesus. But we- every one of us- is afraid to live otherwise. What if someone knew we were not a good Christian? Ah…what if…what if….

I close with a something I have said many times before. The Prodigal son, there on his knees, his father’s touch upon him, was not a “good” or “victorious” Christian. He was broken. A failure. He wasn’t even good at being honest. He wanted religion more than grace. His father baptized him in mercy, and resurrected him in grace. His brokenness was wrapped up in the robe and the embrace of God.

Why do we want to be better than that boy? Why do we make the older brother the goal of Christian experience? Why do we want to add our own addition to the parable, where the prodigal straightens out and becomes a successful youth speaker, writing books and doing youth revivals?

Now, I’m not completely on board with the i-Monk’s extended metaphor of the Christian life as a war against one’s self (a part of the sermon I didn’t quote above), because grace feels to me like loosening your identification with your sins, as a prerequisite to honestly naming and working on them. Taken to extremes, Luther’s simul justus et peccator can sound like divine hypocrisy, introducing an element of untruth into our most fundamental relationship: God chooses to see me as other than I am, to merely ignore my wickedness instead of teaching me that my true self is larger than my sinful ego. Perhaps feeling like a faker before God reinforces the shame that makes us fakers to one another. But the sermon is still a valuable read.

Finally, a friend directed me to this reflection on atonement from the inward/outward blog, a project of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. I liked how the author, Ched Myers, offers an alternative to crude understandings of “wrathful Father/innocent Son” that have obscured God’s self-giving in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus:

Reconciliation is not something accomplished by Christ for God, nor inflicted on Christ by God, but forged by God through Christ. This wreaks havoc on the medieval (but still widespread) doctrine that Christ’s death functions to placate an angry or offended deity. Rather, the “crucified God” represents a fundamentally restorative initiative by the Divine victim towards the human offender.