Real Tears

WHEN THEY BROUGHT Jesus to the place where his dead friend lay, Jesus wept. It is very easy to sentimentalize the scene and very tempting because to sentimentalize something is to look only at the emotion in it and at the emotion it stirs in us rather than at the reality of it, which we are always tempted not to look at because reality, truth, silence are all what we are not much good at and avoid when we can. To sentimentalize something is to savor rather than to suffer the sadness of it, is to sigh over the prettiness of it rather than to tremble at the beauty of it, which may make fearsome demands of us or pose fearsome threats. Not just as preachers but as Christians in general we are particularly given to sentimentalizing our faith as much of Christian art and Christian preaching bear witness—the sermon as tearjerker, the Gospel an urn of long-stemmed roses and baby's breath to brighten up the front of the church, Jesus as Gregory Peck. 

But here standing beside the dead body of his dead friend he is not Gregory Peck. He has no form or comeliness about him that we should desire him, and as one from whom men hide their faces we turn from him. To see a man weep is not a comely sight, especially this man whom we want to be stronger and braver than a man, and the impulse is to turn from him as we turn from anybody who weeps because the sight of real tears, painful and disfiguring, forces us to look to their source where we do not choose to look because where his tears come from, our tears also come from. 

- Originally published in Telling the Truth

Eyes of Faith

"WE ARE FOOLS FOR Christ's sake," Paul says, faith says—the faith that ultimately the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, the lunacy of Jesus saner than the grim sanity of the world. Through the eyes of faith too, the Last Supper, though on one level a tragic farewell and failure . . . is also, at its deepest level, the foreshadowing of great hope and the bodying forth of deep mystery. Frail, fallible, foolish as he knows the disciples to be, Jesus feeds them with himself. The bread is his flesh, the wine his blood, and they are all of them including Judas to eat and drink him down. They are to take his life into themselves and come alive with it, to be his hands and feet in a world where he no longer has hands and feet, to feed his lambs. "Do this in remembrance of me," Paul quotes him as saying. In eating the bread and drinking the wine, they are to remember him, Jesus tells them, and to remember him not merely in the sense of letting their minds drift back to him in the dim past but in the sense of recalling him to the immediate present. They are to remember him the way when we remember someone we love who has died, he is alive again within us to the point where we can all but hear him speak and our hearts kindle to the reality of his presence. 

- Originally published in The Faces of Jesus 

Under a Delusion

IF THE WORLD IS sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own—and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion. 

- Originally published in The Faces of Jesus

Easter Thoughts

WE WILL SPEND Easter eve afloat at our prayers, I tell them. We'll have mass on the rocks at daybreak. They sleep like rocks themselves. I sit in the bows and watch the moon glint white in the flat pool. 

At first sunlight we tuck up our cloaks and wade ashore through the shallow surf. The shepherd's loaf serves as Thy white body, his wine for Thy dark blood. A choir of wings flutters over us. I feel a fluttering behind my eyes as well. Perhaps it's the wine. We've been fasting three full days. 

"O jubilate! O jubilo!" cry the five of us to the wind. Our beards blow free. 

Clown Crosan picks stones off the beach. He juggles them grave-faced. 

"They blocked him in his grave with stones like these. They might as well have used eggs," says he. 

He follows their curved path through the air with his eyes. 

"Whoopsa! Now you don't see him, now you do!" he cries. "Fresh as dawn rose he. There's no such ugly thing at all as death for them as have their sunrise life from him." 

He lets the stones fall to his feet in a heap. 

"Huzzah for clown Christ!" cries he. He tosses his hat in the air. "Huzzah for our precious lovely zany!" 

We all throw our hats in the air save hatless Colman. 

"O kittiwake Christ!" cries Colman. "Peck Heaven open wide, dear heart, to all that yearn for Thee!"  

- Originally published in Brendan

All Is Well

ANXIETY AND FEAR are what we know best in this fantastic century of ours. Wars and rumors of wars. From civilization itself to what seemed the most unalterable values of the past, everything is threatened or already in ruins. We have heard so much tragic news that when the news is good we cannot hear it. 

But the proclamation of Easter Day is that all is well. And as a Christian, I say this not with the easy optimism of one who has never known a time when all was not well but as one who has faced the Cross in all its obscenity as well as in all its glory, who has known one way or another what it is like to live separated from God. In the end, his will, not ours, is done. Love is the victor. Death is not the end. The end is life. His life and our lives through him, in him. Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. Christ our Lord has risen. 

- Originally published in The Magnificent Defeat  

His Living Presence

THE EARLIEST REFERENCE to the Resurrection is Saint Paul's, and he makes no mention of an empty tomb at all. But the fact of the matter is that in a way it hardly matters how the body of Jesus came to be missing because in the last analysis what convinced the people that he had risen from the dead was not the absence of his corpse but his living presence. And so it has been ever since. 

- Originally published in The Faces of Jesus  

The Resurrection

WE CAN SAY THAT the story of the Resurrection means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven and that their wisdom and truth will live on forever. Or we can say that the Resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he himself lives on among us, the way that Socrates does, for instance, in the good that he left behind him, in the lives of all who follow his great example. Or we can say that the language in which the Gospels describe the Resurrection of Jesus is the language of poetry and that, as such, it is not to be taken literally but as pointing to a truth more profound than the literal. Very often, I think, this is the way that the Bible is written, and I would point to some of the stories about the birth of Jesus, for instance, as examples; but in the case of the Resurrection, this simply does not apply because there really is no story about the Resurrection in the New Testament. Except in the most fragmentary way, it is not described at all. There is no poetry about it. Instead, it is simply proclaimed as a fact. Christ is risen! In fact, the very existence of the New Testament itself proclaims it. Unless something very real indeed took place on that strange, confused morning, there would be no New Testament, no Church, no Christianity.  

Yet we try to reduce it to poetry anyway: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points.  

Unlike the chief priests and the Pharisees, who tried with soldiers and a great stone to make themselves as secure as they could against the terrible possibility of Christ's really rising again from the dead, we are considerably more subtle. We tend in our age to say, "Of course, it was bound to happen. Nothing could stop it." But when we are pressed to say what it was that actually did happen, what we are apt to come out with is something pretty meager: this "miracle" of truth that never dies, the "miracle" of a life so beautiful that two thousand years have left the memory of it undimmed, the "miracle" of doubt turning into faith, fear into hope. If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or at least I hope that I would have the courage to. 

- Originally published in The Alphabet of Grace 

No Metaphor

FOR PAUL THE Resurrection was no metaphor; it was the power of God. And when he spoke of Jesus as raised from the dead, he meant Jesus alive and at large in the world not as some shimmering ideal of human goodness or the achieving power of hopeful thought but as the very power of life itself. If the life that was in Jesus died on the cross; if the love that was in him came to an end when his heart stopped beating; if the truth that he spoke was no more if no less timeless than the great truths of any time; if all that he had in him to give to the world was a little glimmer of light to make bearable the inexorable approach of endless night—then all was despair. 

- Originally published in The Faces of Jesus 

The Risen Christ

AS YOU DID IT to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. Just as Jesus appeared at his birth as a helpless child that the world was free to care for or destroy, so now he appears in his resurrection as the pauper, the prisoner, the stranger—appears in every form of human need that the world is free to serve or to ignore. The risen Christ is Christ risen in his glory and enthroned in all this glorious canvas, stained glass, mosaic as Redeemer and Judge. But he is also Christ risen in the shabby hearts of those who, although they have never touched the mark of the nails, have been themselves so touched by him that they believe anyway. However faded and threadbare, what they have seen of him is at least enough to get their bearings by.

- Originally published in The Faces of Jesus  

Remnant

THROUGHOUT ALL THESE centuries there were always the prophets thundering out at king and people to remember their ancient mission to be the kingdom of priests that God had called them to be, but each time the prophetic cry went largely unheeded, and each time Israel went down to another defeat with only a remnant of the pious left to be, as Isaiah put it, a green branch growing out of a hewn stump. Remnant led to remnant until finally, in terms of New Testament faith, the remnant became just Jesus and his twelve disciples. When the last of the disciples abandoned him, the remnant became just Jesus himself.

The kingdom of priests was reduced at last to this One, who was both priest and sacrifice, and so it is Israel itself that hangs there on the cross, the suffering one who was "bruised for our iniquities and upon whom was the chastisement that made us whole." Jesus is all Jews and in a sense also the only Jew as he hovers there in the purple sky. It is out of his passion that the Church will be born as the new Israel, a kingdom of priests at last. It is through his intercession that at the end of history the holy city, New Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.

- Originally published in The Faces of Jesus