By Bruce Robison
Good morning, and with prayers and blessings as we turn in Passiontide now to Holy Week, and as what has been called “the Greatest Story Ever Told” holds our attention at center stage. Each detail, each incident and phrase so very familiar to us, as we have heard the story again and again and again through the years. Each narrative nuance is like an old friend — this year, perhaps, something Mark notices that Matthew didn’t mention as we read his account last year, a word or a turn of phrase Luke or John recalls with perhaps a different tone or shade of expression.
Every year in the 1979 Lectionary we get the John Passion on Good Friday in the service that we observe in the second hour, beginning at 1 o’clock. In terms of literary power, I always think John the most poetic and meditative. Mark, on the other hand, the most journalistic in style, as we have just heard. With Mark on Sunday and John on Friday this year it’s sort of like reading Hemingway for a while, then suddenly shifting to Faulkner. In any event the unfolding story is familiar, yet also every time we hear it, from each of the gospels, somehow able to catch us, surprise us, prompt us into a new thought, a new way of praying — with some angle of meaning and understanding we had never noticed before.
I’ve been thinking how the section of Psalm 31 that we have in our lectionary appointed to be read this morning might sound something like a foreshadowing of the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden: For I have heard the whispering of the crowd; fear is all around; they put their heads together against me; they plot to take my life. But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord. I have said, “You are my God. My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Make your face to shine upon your servant, and in your loving-kindness save me.”
Jesus in the Garden. Just to pause there and listen. “Rescue me; in your loving kindness save me,” as our Psalmist sings. But then of course, the critical next sentence.“Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Let me pass this cup along without drinking from it. Yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Just to let that prayer sink in. The Son in perfect accord with the Father, one voice, one thought, one Holy Spirit.
I remember reading the C.S. Lewis stories of Narnia with our kids. One of those children’s stories that move down deeper and deeper. The first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, most of all; and here in Holy Week, to recall that heart-rending solemn procession of mighty Aslan, the magnificent lion, the true King of Narnia, wonderful, awe-inspiring, gracious, mysterious — as step by step he approaches the altar stone on which he will allow himself to be sacrificed to pay the penalty for the dark crime and betrayal of the little boy Edmund. Staring fearlessly — fearlessly into the abyss of death. The one necessary atoning act. The evil Winter Queen, and with her all the natural and supernatural powers of darkness gathering force, filling the land and sea and skies all around, jeering and cheering in wicked celebration of that one last perfect deadly assault.
In the film versions of the Narnia story, it is a dark solemn moment, but somehow just reading the C.S. Lewis text always seemed more chilling. When you’re reading it out loud, you slow down almost to a crawl, as if to savor the awful moment. Or maybe as if to hope that somehow some Lone Ranger hero will gallop into the scene and save the day. But Lewis’s text is just right, open and elusive. Leaving the darkness and all its terror to our imagination. And you might think, first time through – hey, this is a story for children. He’ll pull back, somehow, find some last-minute way to keep that blade from landing. But think again . . .. No superhero is flying in. What needs to happen, needs to happen.
We were talking the other day about the Mel Gibson Passion of the Christ movie. It’s not my favorite film version of the Passion story, but he gets this Garden scene about as right as any of the Hollywood movies do, at least in the emotional atmospherics. The foreboding sense of gathering darkness. The high-water mark of evil. The final enemy — surging forward like a toxic wave into this world to give it everything he’s got. Trying to finish once and for all the deadly project he began so long ago. The serpent meets us again in the Garden. And Jesus, from this moment on, will be on his own. His friends shut their eyes to sleep. Who could stay awake for this? If you’re familiar with the Caravaggio painting, The Taking of Christ — that’s how I picture it. All dark, these haunting figures half hidden in the shadow. We all of us turn away from him; we run away; unable to help ourselves. And we overhear from a safer distance the prayer of the Man left now alone in this world. The Prayer of the man without a prayer.
For him to take our sin into himself, he must first empty himself completely, make that space in his heart, his mind, his spirit, bow his head in submission, hold nothing back. To give himself up to the force of the wave, the edge of the blade; to commend himself and all that is to come, his life, and with all our lives bound up in him, one last time to the hand of the Father, and then to let go.
“Like a lamb to the slaughter,” as the Prophet foretold. An empty vessel, perfected, making space not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. Space to be filled. To bear all our griefs. To carry all our sorrow. If it weren’t for him, if it weren’t for Jesus, and the space he made there in himself, there wouldn’t have been, there wouldn’t be enough room in all the universe for all of that. Begotten, not made. Of one substance with the Father. Through whom all things were made.
What that little boy Edmund felt, in the Narnia story, as he looked down on the scene of terror and to realize that it was because of him, because of him, that this all was happening. And that it was for him, that this all was happening. Just a little boy. The one who is strongest of all the strong, and noble, beautiful and brave, lying down quietly under the knife, to take the place of the one who is weakest, who was turned in entirely to himself. Who gave himself over and sold it all, without thinking. Without thinking. And now —to pay that ransom in full. The worthy for the unworthy. Quite a story to read to your children. The images stay with you. The deep lessons. And then with necessity to hear the story before us this morning. The one story in all the world that we must read to them, in one way or another, so that they and we can walk in truth rather than dwell in a fairy tale picture book world of illusion and denial.
What kind of perfect love is this, perfect faith, trust, hope, assurance? Jesus. Thursday into Friday. All in that hour, knowing what was to come. The torture. The agony of the Cross. The final insult to body, mind, spirit. Pouring everything out in the heart of his Father, his tears streaking red on his face.
Jesus himself as midnight passes and with the soldiers of the Guard already at the gate of the Garden, singing to us through the centuries in the voice of Isaiah. Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense. And he will be my savior.
Once, for all. Once, for us.
In the week ahead, Holy Week, we would struggle to stay awake with him, to pray with him, in this Garden, even at a distance. Not easy, for sure. Perhaps to remember and sing the words of the Good Friday hymn. For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation.
For me, kind Jesus: “Kind” almost seems too soft a word, not enough to describe what to make of him in this last week and in these last hours. Though it’s hard to find a better word. With all that is going on in us, with all that is going on in the world around us —when we refuse to close our eyes and fall back to sleep. When we look at him now head-on. Shame and sorrow almost beyond imagining, and wonder, and then nothing but gratitude. For his perfect kindness.
The Rev. Bruce Robison is priest in charge of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Brighton Heights, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.