Rev. Dr. Paul Moore
March 11, 2018
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Several weeks ago, at the beginning of this series of sermons, I talked about birthdays and how special they are. What I didn’t tell you is that it takes three days to have a birthday. There is the build-up to the day, the birthday planning, party preparations, secret gift acquisition, and the sheer increase in anticipation to a feverish pitch. Then there is the day itself. The person whose birthday it is, is the center of attention all day. The party goes off with far too much sugar and silliness, and everyone is emotionally tired afterwards, most of all the person who hosted the party. Finally, there is the after-story. For some there are remnant cleaning up to do, for others it is the purging of the system of too much sugar or other substances, and for the birthday person it is the joy of the memory and the gifts received.
But this sermon series is not about birthdays, it is about Holy Week. On Lent 1 we talked about sacred time and space (and birthdays.) On the following Wednesday we looked at our experience of sacred time and sacred space. On Lent 2 we talked about the tension of Palm Sunday, Sunday of the Passion. On the following Wednesday we unpacked that dynamic tension as we live it. On Lent 3 we talked about Jesus’ experience of the three days called the Triduum. On the following Wednesday we talked about three days as the three moments of a transforming experience, approach, change and new emergent life. Today we will talk about the particulars of the three days of the Triduum—each “day” and how it plays out in our tradition, how the events of the days become symbols for our spiritual life and growth, and on Wednesday we will unpack these symbols further.
Tom reminded us last week that the Jewish day starts with sundown the day before. Thursday after sundown to Friday sundown gives us three great symbols: The Great Meal, The Last Supper, eating together with the Lord. Eating is a symbol of life. Sharing food is sharing life. Sharing food at the beginning of liturgical Friday anticipates Sunday, but we have a lot of road to walk first. We have come to call it “eucharist,” that is, thanksgiving, only in hindsight. At the moment, especially in the Gospel of John, it is the great leave-taking.
There are two overarching images in this meal. John’s gospel does not really record the meal itself. It records the washing of feet. Jesus said, “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” This meal is a symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ coming in the next couple of days. These are the great acts of God for our redemption. The Cross is a great act of loving service on our behalf.
Then there is the meal itself. Bread and Wine become a roadmap. The bread Jesus broke was the middle of three moments when unleavened bread is eaten. When the one “through whom all things were made,” says, “This is my body, broken for you,” all of creation is bound up with that body and that breaking. All of creation is caught up in the redemption Jesus works on the Cross.
Jesus takes the third cup, the cup of blessing, out of four in a Hebrew Seder meal of the time. Also called the Cup of Redemption, it recalls the redemption of the Jews from Egypt, 2000 years before, reaching back into sacred time. In defining it as the cup of the New Covenant, as Jesus does, he reaches into the future. All of time is caught up in what is about to happen on the Cross. What the disciples will witness in the next 72 hours is played out figuratively in this meal.
Jesus immediately goes out to pray and takes his disciples with him. Gethsemane represents the discipline of choosing a holy death for a glorious resurrection. What is coming is of such cosmic significance that his own preparation in prayer is essential. He tells his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not fall into temptation.” What temptation would be present there? The temptation to see the coming events merely as a human moment, the tragic murder of a prophet, or the just deserts of a rabble-rouser, or another failed attempt at throwing off the yoke of Roman rule—a mere blip in the annals of human history. To make it shallow is to deny its power.
And so, we are invited to watch and pray. We will have a sign-up sheet here that starts at 8 on Thursday evening and goes to noon on Friday. We give up our time and our attention, even for some, our sleep. The discipline of watching with Jesus is the discipline of dying to self and rising to God. With Christ we enter into self-giving sacrifice, that we might know the power of resurrection.
The Watch leads to the Crucifixion, death, darkness, the great descent. We can speak of three deaths on the Cross.
- There is the death of justice. Jesus trial was a mistrial at best, a abrogation of any sense of justice, for sure, and an ironic self-contradiction in hindsight.
- There is the death of life. The one through whom all things were made is dying. How can Life itself die? Here is the mystery. It sounds self-contradictory, but it is a koan, a statement that seems impossible, meant to push us beyond. We do not really understand until we affirm it, and live through it.
- There is the death of death itself. Here is the answer to the koan. Life itself dies, but cannot remain that way and be what it is. Resurrection will prove that in dying Jesus dealt death itself the final, lethal blow.
We can speak of the power of the Cross that embraces all of who we are. Love is the self-giving service of another. Jesus himself defined it as laying down one’s life for a friend. He lists no conditions—he just calls us friends. He shows us the greatest of love.
The Cross heals our pain. For so many, the pain they feel drives them to violence, addiction and suicide. The Cross shows us that pain can teach us wisdom and compassion instead of violence. When one learns to descend one also learns to ascend.
Friday sundown to Saturday sundown is the time of the Unseen Transformation. An anthropologist friend of mine asked a shaman of the Calderón Quichua people asked what should be done on the night of December 31st, 2000. The answer was, “the same as when the sun gets dark in the middle of the day or the moon goes dark on a full-moon night, (referring to an eclipse,) one should hunker down, not take any risks, and hope it blows over.” The shaman expressed eloquently the first reality of Holy Saturday. It is a quiet day, when unseen powers are at play over which we have very little influence save how they affect us. It feels like death has had the final say, and the implications of that are so horrendous that it is hard to do anything at all.
But there is a funny intuition about the day as well. Insane as it may seem, maybe the jury is still out. Just maybe the final word has not been spoken, and so, hoping against hope is the only thing to do. Maybe, just maybe this whole thing is like
- Bread in the oven
- Cocoon in the winter
- The seed planted in the ground
- Ore in the furnace
Does God have the power to turn a tomb into a womb for new life?
Saturday sundown to Sunday sundown shouts: Yes! That is the amazing answer, the unexpected and yet suspected truth. Death is NOT the final word. Descent is not the only direction to go. Ascent, resurrection, and the triumph of love is the final goal and end of the universe. We have Son-rise. In trying to destroy Life Death has destroyed itself, not by force nor by power, but by surrender, Love has proven itself to be the greater—in fact, the only reality.
Early Christians frantically scanned their environment for images by which to speak of this momentous truth. Through the ages Christians have done the same, and so, we have:
- baby rabbits and chicks
- fancy clothes
- fancy clothes
- fresh baked bread (leavened, mind you!)
- empty (or flowered) crosses
- And ritual that commemorates it all.
You see now, how the Triduum walks us through the great story at the core of our faith, that traces out for us those events in sacred history that give us our reason for living and our power for action. The story of descent that becomes ascent, death that becomes life, loss that becomes gain, all by the power of love, is the foundation on which the Christian life is built. It inspires our vision of the world as it should be rather than it is.
Three days, three moments, and one great victory! And that is next week’s sermon.