Friday, April 14, 2017

A Good Friday Liturgy

For most of Christianity, Good Friday is the holiest of days, more holy than Easter or Christmas – something I’ve never quite understood.  Even the name baffles me.  “Good”.  And then the symbol of the Cross --  I don’t think as Mormons, we have any real theology or symbolism in the Cross – in fact, I believe we shun it.

Perhaps there is a good reason to shun the Cross.  There is an aspect of this that it’s use in Roman times was as an instrument of torture and capital punishment.  Christ was not the only one crucified, but many were.  Over time, there seems to be no limit to who cruel people can treat others in the name of justice, and I wonder why anyone would use it as an affirming symbol.  Would we use a noose, guillotine, or electric chair as a symbol for something good?  I hardly think so.

I have long held this opinion, perhaps unkindly so.  When I was on my mission, having contracted Typhoid fever, I was rushed to a Catholic hospital, and feeling like I was about to die, asked that the symbol of a Cross be removed from the room.  As a rather self-righteous, unempathetic Mormon missionary, I failed to realize how offensive my request was.

Since those days of my youthful folly, I have come to realize the deep significance in the Cross as a symbol to so many Christians.  It is not just as a symbol of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ to atone for our sins, but for how the Cross represents the center of all that is – the nexus between heaven and earth, between life and death, between body and spirit.  In a deeply paradoxical way, the symbol of death becomes the center of life.

And Jesus knew this.  Deeply.  The beginning of the Passion narrative in John, starts: “Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world” (John 13:1).  While I suspect that he knew the forces of evil were marshalling against him – any revolutionary heretic would know this – there was something more in his prophecy.

He knew that he needed to die, but the reason he gave in John wasn’t to satisfy justice, to pay a ransom for guilt, or to be our substitute for the penalties we deserve.  He said, “But now I go my way to him that sent me; and … because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart.  Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” (John 16:5-7)

Thus, the reason Jesus died, according to his own words in John, was that we might have the Comforter abide with us.  Why was this the only way?  It seems incomprehensible to me.

Perhaps, if I stop trying to think this through, and put myself into the narrative through creatively contemplating what happened next, perhaps the answer is yet to come.

On Friday morning, the Sanhedrin convened a “Church Disciplinary Court” on Jesus of Nazareth.  This is not so hard to imagine for us today – it seems to happen often, when someone doesn’t quite fit into the norm of LDS rules.  Jesus’ encounter with the Sanhedrin sounds ominously familiar.  He stands alone, with the Council surrounding him as his accusers.  They try all sorts of charges against him, and finding nothing, they elicit a direct confession from him.  Indeed they ask, “Are you, then, the Son of God?”  Jesus answered, “I AM what [you say] I AM”.  Consider what he said.  The most sacred name, JHVH, means something like “I AM”, as revealed to Moses on the mount.  God said, “I AM that/what I AM” to Moses, and then said, “Go tell them that I AM (JHWH) sent you.”  To the Church leaders of the time, this was the highest form of blasphemy.

Was Jesus the Son of God?  Was he JHWH, the very God they worshiped from Abraham?  Jesus had said in John 9, “Before Abraham was, I AM”, again invoking the Sacred Name.  To the Jews and Christians alike, God is not a human being, so for a human to suggest that he is in any way “God”, is a profound blasphemy: it is taking the name of God in vain.  It is worshiping the creature rather than the creator.  God cannot be human, he is forever “the Other”, the “Numinous” – that which, being uncreated, is outside from us – wholly different.

Yet this man, this mortal being Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed, “I AM”.   That was enough for them.  He was excommunicated on the spot, and would have been stoned to death if the Disciplinary Council weren’t subject to Roman rule.   So they sent Jesus off to Pilate.

Yet they had a problem: blasphemy is not a capital offense to Romans.  They make Emperors their god all the time, so the idea that a man could be god would be no big deal.  So, instead, they trumped up charges that Jesus made himself a King.  How Jesus and Pilate respond to this charge dominates the rest of the Passion narrative.  The Way in which Jesus Christ is King becomes the answer as to why Jesus had to die in order for us to live in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus and Pilate engage in a brief but deep philosophical discussion:

Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, “Art thou the King of the Jews?”
 Jesus answered him, “Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”
Pilate therefore said unto him, “Art thou a king then?”
Jesus answered, “[as] Thou sayest, I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”
Pilate saith unto him, “What is truth?”  And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all,”

Pilate’s reasoning was to determine if Jesus was a King in the sense of the world, and that such a King would constitute insurrection.  But instead, Jesus spoke of another kind of Kingdom, one inside each of us, as he had taught earlier, “the Kingdom of Heaven is within”.  It is a Kingdom where “I AM, the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, and as such, “Truth” is the essence.

Pilate understood completely. Asking, “What is Truth” without seeking an answer, he concludes, “I find no fault in him at all.”  and asks the Jews if he should release their King.  Their answer?  “We have no king but Caesar.

As I contemplate this scene, and all else that follows, the “crown” of thorns, the sign above his head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, I begin to realize that Jesus Kingdom is not of this world, and may never be so in my lifetime.

Yet we continually put up men to be our leaders and kings, priests and presidents.  We seek to have a powerful hero fight our battles for us.  We are King-men and women, seeking to have a powerful leader who can fix that which we cannot fix ourselves.

Are we any different than the people at the time of Samuel who demanded that they have a king?  Were the people of the time of Christ any different?  They expected on Palm Sunday that Jesus would be their King, and, disappointing them, turned against Him.

The reality is that we cannot truly be One in love one to another if we continue to look toward Power and Authority figures rather than taking responsibility for loving one another ourselves.  As long as there is a King and hierarchy, we cannot be One with each other.  The Atonement is not possible as long as there is a Man in charge who is the exclusive focus of our love and admiration.

Yet in this moment of the Cross, such philosophical notions about kingship and truth are abstractions to be dealt with another day.  We are at the moment of Jesus crucifixion, the death of our God and King, and our hearts mourn.  We walk the path of sorrows, trying to find meaning, and such meaning eludes us in the present.

The Cross sits high above us, seemingly connecting heaven and earth.  Darkness surrounds us, as we deepen in sorrow: why does this have to be?  Our souls, like the veil of the temple, are rent in grief.  No easy or quick answers can calm our mourning.

Ye Jesus speaks, and tells John to care for Mary as his mother.  He is no longer there to bind our sorrows, to heal our sick, to bring comfort to the grieving.  Instead, we must comfort one another, we must find the connecting principle that helps us become one.  In our afflictions, in the sorrow of our hearts, we come before Cross and realize how deeply we need each other.

Then Jesus says, "It is finished"; the Greek word "Τετέλεσται"/tetelestai, from the exact same verb teleios that meant, perfect, complete, and unconditional LOVE.  In dying, Jesus has made the connection of Love, and in that connection between heaven and earth, between god and human, between male and female, between all that is, we find Christ in the Midst of us.

The Atonement is made complete in Love.

We are One.

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