13 April 2009

Go & Tell

Mark 16: 1-8

Resurrection of the Lord/ 12th April 2009

The startling thing about Mark’s gospel is that absence pervades this text. It’s everywhere. The surest sign that something’s missing is in the way Mark tells his story. This morning, I stopped reading at verse 8. Although verses 9 through 19 are included in all Bibles, a good translation will be honest and note that the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel we have stop at verse 8. They omit verses 9 through 19. Read it closely and it’s easy to see that the language doesn’t belong to Mark. Scholars suspect that these verses were part of a second century catechism to prepare new believers for baptism.

Why did early Christians feel compelled to add to Mark’s gospel? Because there’s something missing here – such as the rest of a sentence! As we were taught in English grammar classes, one should never end a sentence with a preposition. The same was true in Koine (Common) Greek. And what do we have in the earliest Greek manuscripts of Mark right at the end of verse 8? Our translations clean it up and read, “for they were afraid.” In the Greek it reads, Ephobounto gar, “…they were afraid for.” That’s how it ends, abruptly, cut-off, crying out for something more.[1] Was there more to it? Did part of the parchment break off and crumble away, dissolved into dust? Or was that exactly how Mark intended to end his gospel, which was entirely possible (rare, but possible)?[2] It’s clear that early Christians didn’t like his resolution to the story because they came up with their own to fill the gap, fill the void, to fill the absence.

Look at verse 9 and it becomes very clear what some in the early church were troubled by in Mark’s gospel: “Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene…” and so forth. Go back to 16:1. Mary Magdalene and the other women are there – but something’s missing, someone, actually: Jesus. It’s exquisitely ironic that Jesus is absent from Mark’s resurrection account. He’s missing a resurrection appearance. No wonder people have been unsatisfied with this open-ending. Mark is not saying – and I’m not saying – that Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the grave. Mark isn’t interested in providing arguments or “proof” for the resurrection and neither am I – that’s always a dead end. There’s something substantially more important than reason at stake in Mark’s masterful account of an empty tomb, something more profound.

Mark has no interest in providing us with a happy ending and neither do I. But neither is this tragic irresolution. Mark doesn’t try to answer all of our faith questions, wrap them up in a beautiful package with a ribbon and say, “Here. Believe this.” In fact, in entering the tomb, we enter and experience and open ourselves to even more questions. Reality is infinitely more complex, not less so, when you have formerly dead people walking around! Reality is considerably more complicated, not less so, when we walk into resurrection! The women left terrified, amazed, and beside themselves.

With a profound respect for the mystery of resurrection Mark offers it to us and then takes it away at the same time, as if to make sure we never fool ourselves into thinking resurrection is something to be grasped or ever think that Jesus is one to be grasped. And yet, it’s as if Jesus’ absence evokes his presence, causes us to yearn for him. He’s present, but not where we expect him to be. Mark offers us an amazing gift: yes, the resurrection has occurred, but we also know that for many, perhaps for most, Christ’s absence is equally pervasive. I would wager (but Presbyterians don’t play games of chance), this is an experience closer to the truth for many.

It’s closer to my experience. To be candid, every year at Easter, as a preacher of the gospel I proclaim, “He is Risen!” But I struggle. Not in a crisis of belief (I’ve had those before and will have others, I’m sure). I believe it – literally, historically. As physicists have shown us, we live in an open universe, where anything is possible.[3] But I don’t care about proofs or even theological arguments, I know. The Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung (1875-1961), was once asked in a famous 1959 BBC interview, “Dr. Jung, do you believe in God?” His answer, after some silence, was, “I don’t believe, I know.”[4] Knowledge is not the same as belief.

But here’s my struggle, holding in tension, on the one hand, my experience that Christ is indeed alive – there is tremendous hope offered on this day of days – along with the realization, on the other hand, that the women don’t leave the tomb full of hope, but with fear and confusion. Absence. We need to wake the living-dead with our hymns and our praise and our audacious hope this day, but also remember that for far too many the hope and promises we claim today all ring hollow, unreal, irrational, saccharine, too sugary, like those marsh-mellowy- yellow-Easter- Peeps-chicken-things – just too dang sweet. (Probably not good for us either.)

Think of the hundreds of people who lost their lives in the earthquake in Italy, or from the killer tornadoes and fires this week in the Midwest, or the many shootings that have occurred all over the country recently, and even Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. What does “He is Risen!” mean for those who are scared? What does “He is Risen!” mean for those who are worried about their finances? There’s a line in a Leonard Cohen song that goes, “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”[5] The world is full of broken hallelujahs.

I was moved to tears this week in a coffee shop reading The New York Times, learning the stories of those killed in the shootings at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, New York. The association is an immigration service center that teaches English to immigrants preparing to take their citizenship exams, providing all kinds of support services for people new to American society. They were extraordinary people with amazing life-stories, people who weathered many hardships and storms. A volunteer, “Ms. Zobniw was not supposed to be at the association that Friday. The daughter of Ukrainian parents, she got a call asking for translation help.” She got in her car and went and never returned home. “Mother of four children, she worked there for five years, correcting homework for Ukrainian immigrants and translating birth certificates.” Her original plan that day was to spend the day baking pastries for Easter.[6] A broken hallelujah.

Can you see my dilemma? It’s also yours. I gift it to you.

That’s why I welcome Mark’s way of telling the story – absence and presence at the same time, not either/or, but both/and. It’s closer to the truth; truer to reality. Not denying the presence of the resurrected Christ, but not afraid to say that affirming Christ’s presence doesn’t immediately swallow up the absence. The German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), said, “God is near but difficult to grasp, but where danger lies, from there, too, deliverance emerges.”[7]

When I read Mark’s text this year the image that emerged was of the absent, Resurrected Christ containing the absence, holding it, in order to redeem it, and do something creative with it. It’s been said absence makes the heart grow fonder.[8] Something similar might be at work here. Christ’s absence actually evokes his presence and entices us to go seeking after him. Christ’s absence draws us out and compels us into action. That’s what absence can do.

That’s what Peter Matthiessen discovered. In his book, The Snow Leopard, he tells his story of hitting a very rough patch in his life, facing inner desperation, but summoned to risk a “silly” passion to remind himself that he was still alive. He left for the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet in search of an elusive snow leopard, a rare, beautiful animal that almost mystically roams those altitudes. It was wonderful, foolish, and risky. It was a perilous journey, requiring great discipline, suffering, and hardship, hearing reports of sightings here and there, tracking the elusive creature, missing him by hours, he finally returns. When asked by others, “Did you see the snow leopard?” he replies, “No – isn’t that wonderful?” [9] It takes a lot of wisdom, maturity, and profound insight to make such a claim. “By then, he had learned that the task [of life] is not to find the object but to live the journey, with passion, and risk, and commitment, and danger. …What if Matthiessen had seen the snow leopard?”[10] Maybe satisfied in the moment, but missing the search, the journey.

Isn’t it always about the journey? Isn’t that what it’s always like with the Crucified? His absence evokes his presence which we search for and seek after our entire lives. The absence calls us and summons us and sends us forward, to Galilee – that’s not a simple journey around the corner from Jerusalem to Galilee. It’s a long, difficult journey.

And here is the hope: the tense of Mark’s verbs here are all leaning into the future. “But go, tell the disciples and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you (Mark 16:7).”

We don’t know if they ever got to Galilee. Mark doesn’t say. Maybe that’s his point. The journey doesn’t end at the empty tomb or even in Galilee. Those are beginning points. Mark leaves us with unfinished business to do.[11] He leaves it to the reader, the follower, the worshipper; it’s up to you and I to complete the story. We are called to live from our experience, with amazement and hope, go, tell and live your story by looking for our own “Galilee,” searching for your place of meeting, walking toward your place of resurrection. Where is your place of resurrection? What does it look like? Anticipating the journey and the destination, we seek after the ever evasive Christ who goes before us. It’s on the way there, I believe, we find him. As Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” In our search for him, we find him. We can’t be satisfied with their search for him; we each have to take responsibility for getting to Galilee.

And what will we find when we meet him? Is it even worth the effort? Just think, when was the last time Jesus was with the disciples, when were they all together? Just before they all fled and denied him. Now, what are they summoned to? To forgiveness and communion. Hence the emphasis, “and Peter.” Reunion. The same is true for us. Even though we deny and run from him daily, resurrection compels us forward to a new place, to a new place of new beginnings. It’s the chance to start all over again; it’s the possibility of something new breaking into our lives, even when very large secure stones are blocking the way. Broken relationships restored. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Communion.

As the poet T. S. Eliot (1883-1965) knew in his walk with Christ,

“…the faith, and the love and the hope are all in the waiting….

we must be still and still moving

into another intensity, for a further

union, a deeper communion.”[12]

Through God’s grace, that’s what absence can do.

[2] See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 1994).

[3]Open universe” refers to a post-Einsteinium cosmology (as opposed to a Newtonian “closed-world” cosmology). See James E. Loder & W. Jim Neidhardst, The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of the Spirit in Theology and Science (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1992); John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996); Thomas F. Torrance, Space Time, and Resurrection (New York: Continuum, 1998); Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise (Belfast: Christian Journals Limited, 1984).

[4] Interview with John Freeman, British Broadcasting Corporation. Jung’s usual response to the question. See Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: A Commentary (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 20, 65n.

[5] “Hallelujah,” text and music by Leonard Cohen.

[6] “Victims Shared a Dream of Living Better Lives,” The New York Times, April 6, 2009, A19, A21.

[7] Quoted by James Hollis, Foreword by David H. Rosen, The Archetypal Imagination (Texas A & M University Press, 2003), 54.

[8] Attributed to Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), song Isle of Beauty, published posthumously in 1850.

[9] Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (1987), emphasis mine.

[10] Commentary on Matthiessen in James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (Gotham Book, 2009), 246-247.

[11]Myers, 400-401.

[12]T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1962), 127, 129.

11 April 2009

The Crux of the Matter

Good Friday/ 10th April 2009

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church: “For the message about the cross, is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1: 18).” The wisdom contained in this “foolishness” is immeasurable and inscrutable.

Remember, the cross was originally not a religious icon, “but the ultimate deterrent to those who would challenge the sovereignty of Rome.”[1] It was a horrific symbol of destructive power and violence. Execution by crucifixion was chilling and inhumane. Even the great Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero (106-43 B.C.), writing in 63 B .C., argued that it should be outlawed: “If we are to be threatened with death, then we want to die in freedom; let the executioner, the shrouding of the head, and the very name of the cross be banished from the body and life of Roman citizens, from their thoughts, eyes, and ears!”[2] For Jews, it was equally disturbing, a shocking offense. A body should never be treated that way and a naked body should never be exposed in that way for all the public to see.

The fact that Paul would come to see the cross – given it’s political, cultural meanings and religious offense – as conveying a message of grace, a word about the saving power of God, is itself a sign of the transforming power at work here, in the way this symbol of death was transformed into an extraordinary symbol of life.

The actual symbol of the cross doesn’t become associated with Christianity until after Emperor Constantine (c.272-337) makes Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D (Edict of Milan). Prior to then Christians preferred other symbols to the cross. Down in the catacombs outside Rome you the symbols of the fish, the dove, an anchor, the good shepherd, the peacock, the Chi-Rho (the first two Greek letters for Christos, Christ).

The cross for Paul and the early church was an event, a word-event, which conveyed a message, a truth that revealed something about the nature and way of God. The cross tells us something about who God is because God was there on the cross through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. The cross tells us something about the power of God to transform and save, that new life can and does emerge from suffering and death.

Ever since that fateful day disciples have tried to find the words, the images, the means to fathom the meaning of what took place on Calvary. We always come up short, our language inadequate. But still we are compelled to try, with words, or music, or images.

When I was a sophomore at Rutgers College, I took a theology class (without really understanding theology!). I had to pick a theologian, select a title, read the text, and then present a report back to the class. That was my first introduction to the great Swiss, Reformed theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968) – I didn’t realize at that moment just how great he really was and how much the reading of that text would change my life. In his book The Word of God and the of Man (Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie, 1928), he made several oblique references to a painting that attracted my interest, a depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. I went looking for a copy of the painting and found one. In the foreground, to Jesus’ left is the figure of John the Baptist with an out-stretched, crooked finger pointing the way to him. The words, “He must increase and I must decrease,” in Latin, are inscribed behind him. John wasn’t at the crucifixion, of course. Barth saw John’s stance there as a model for the preacher and it came to shape my understanding of preaching, of always pointing the way to him. I made a copy of the painting, folded it, and tucked it away in my copy of the book. I later learned that Barth had a copy of this painting over his desk in Basel, at the desk where he wrote the Church Dogmatics, one of the most profound, theological works in the history of the church. It was written, literally, under the influence of that painting, of Christ on the cross.

Twenty-four years later, last June, as part of my sabbatical, I went on a pilgrimage to see this painting with my own eyes. The painting by the German Renaissance painter, Mathias Grünewald (c.1470-1528), was completed sometime before 1516 . Today, it’s known as the Isenheim Altarpiece or Retable, and is on display at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, in eastern France. The altarpiece is a large triptych (three wooden panels) that opens up to multiple panels with scenes from Jesus’ life that then opens up further to a marble altar honoring the life of early desert mystic, St. Anthony of Egypt (born middle of the third century, died 356/7). It’s when the altarpiece is closed that you see the crucifixion scene. The altarpiece was commissioned by the brothers of the St. Anthony monastery and hospice located about twenty-five kilometers from Colmar. The hospice was a refuge for very sick men who suffered from the incurable disease called ergotism, caused by a fungus that can grow on grains of rye. It was also known as St. Anthony’s Fire. The pain – more like painful fire throughout your body – was excruciating. The men in this monastery were also treated for syphilis. The altarpiece was situated in the refectory of the monastery so that when they gathered to eat, they could take solace from the painting.[3]

Why solace? Because Grünewald did something that was extremely rare (actually unheard of in theological circles and the art world). When you approach the painting you notice something exceptional, unlike any other rendering of the crucifixion I’ve ever seen. Jesus’ body is covered with black spots, sores, and blisters. He has ergotism too (and perhaps syphilis). It’s shocking for us to hear and consider this, but imagine what it was like in the early 16th century? His suffering is their suffering, their suffering is his. Christ understands their pain, not from a historical distance; he’s in their pain and suffering. We know very little about Grünewald, but it’s clear that he’s projecting upon that image his own pain and suffering. He clearly sees Christ as one who identifies so completely with human suffering and can never be aloof from it. Christ doesn’t remove the suffering or offer healing, but is known in human suffering and pain. The painting conveys that life and hope can be found through contemplation of how our pain is known by him and in our pain we are not alone. By connecting their suffering with his suffering a kind of transformation can take place; a kind of healing power is present. It is possible to find the Risen Christ there.

All of this doesn’t sound rational, I’m sure, because it’s not. It’s the kind of truth that can only be found in paradox – which is what Paul came to know about the cross, it’s a wisdom found in foolishness, the power of God known in weakness, a stumbling block, and offense.

This painting is offensive and grotesque, arresting and shocking. I spent one afternoon and one morning before it. You can get up very close to it. Grünewald’s realism takes your breath away. But the realism is healing. “Nothing known to the human race is unknown to the Christ figure painted on the altarpiece cross.”[4] One art critic and essayist has said, Grünewald’s “pestiferous Christ would have offended the taste of the [royal]courts;” it still offends the respectable and conventional, but he goes on to make this critical point, “[this Christ] could only be understood by the sick, the unhappy and the monks, by the suffering members of Christ.”[5]

Friends, it’s the sick,

the unhappy,

the suffering members of Christ,

the lost,

the broken,

the abused,

the lonely,

the forsaken and forgotten,

the hopeless and loveless,

the dying,

who see in Christ and his cross his power and his presence.

Otherwise the cross remains the most violent of symbols and every expression of suffering and pain, meaninglessness and unbearable. It doesn’t make any sense without knowing that our pain and is also his pain; his pain is also our pain. He understands. And through that this sweet communion, this sharing of pain, by the power and grace of God, something new will emerge. Perhaps it’s why we can, with integrity, call this Friday good.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 383.

[2] Cited in Myers, 383.

[3] See Eugene Monick, Evil, Sexuality, and Disease in Grunewald’s Body of Christ. Foreword by David L. Miller (Dallas, TX: Spring Publications 1993). This is psychological analysis of the painting from a Jungian perspective.

[4] Comment by Monick, 20. Monick suggests that the “curious power of the Isenheim seems to be growing, the more so, I believe, as conventional Christianity fades in its ability to touch the depths of unconsciousness in an increasingly numbed and exhausted Western society.” 6.

[5] J. -K. Huysmans (1848-1907), cited in Monick, 64.

10 April 2009


Mark 14: 12-25

Maundy Thursday Meditation/ 9th April 2009

“And as they were eating,”…in the midst of the meal, in the midst of the Passover celebration, Jesus took bread and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them. He took a cup of wine, gave thanks for it, gave it to them, and they all drank of it. There’s nothing extraordinary about this gesture. It’s what the head of any household would have done, sharing food and drink, extending the blessings of his household with his guests. It’s hospitality. It’s what table fellowship is about. Each person who breaks off a piece of bread and drinks from this cup shares in the blessings of the host. The members of the table share in the common blessing of the bread and the cup.

But the question before the disciples that fateful night – and the question that is ever before disciples, especially on this night, or whenever disciples gather around this table, is whether or not we are willing to share in the blessings our Lord gives us?

Do we really want a share of his bread, if his bread represents his body, a body that will undergo great suffering?

Do we really want to drink from his cup, share in this cup when we know what it means?

Mark tells us they all drank of it. Did they really know what they were drinking? How could they? Can they then really be blamed for drinking and then fleeing? Even Jesus would later ask this night for the cup to be removed from him. “Can the disciples be with Jesus while he prays in the heart of darkness for the strength to face the journey into the heart of power?”[1] Everyone who drank the cup of discipleship that night fled, abandoned him, and denied him, unwilling to share in his suffering. All of us who break this bread and share this cup tonight do the same. Disciples of the crucified always flee.

But the Crucified doesn’t flee – neither from his God-appointed task nor from his friends. He does not abandon them, nor does he abandon us. He does not deny them, nor does he deny us.

Before he goes to the garden to pray he transforms the Passover meal from a commemoration of liberation in the past to the promise of communion in a future, of liberation on the other side of the cross. Only here does Mark have Jesus use the word “covenant.” Covenant is the bridge across time, across the cross and every cross. Come what may, Christ’s covenant – his commitment, his faithfulness – to his wayward disciples is untiring and unwavering.

In Mark’s Gospel, this is not a memorial meal, we’re not asked to do anything in remembrance of him.[2] “Truly – Amen – I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” The focus is toward the future, on the other side of the cross, on the other side of come what may, on the other side of the tomb. For he will be there to meet them. The Crucified is ever faithful and will never give up on us, even though we will be and are faithless, even when we give up on him and give up on one another and give up on ourselves. He will still be there.

To sit at his table with him, to break his bread and share his cup, means we want to be his disciples, that we want to risk sharing in his life – whatever that might mean to us individually and together. It means to share in the blessings of our host –the Crucified. To receive the Crucified into ourselves is to acknowledge, to affirm, to trust in Christ’s undying faithfulness and vulnerable love to all his wayward disciples.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 366.

[2] Myers, 364.