Proving Jesus Right

By Beth Maynard

Last week Mark and I watched the film Manchester by the Sea. I can’t say I liked it that much, although it was nice seeing our old neighborhood — we both worked at the Episcopal church in whose geographical parish Manchester falls. And I certainly think Casey Affleck deserved his Best Actor Oscar.

But the movie is unremittingly bleak. It tells the story of a man returning to the place where he once made a very bad mistake that ended in tragedy, and the world it inhabits is a world without God. The church shows up, don’t get me wrong; a funeral happens, a priest mutters some words — but there is no sense that anyone has the slightest understanding that any of that could ever have actual effective power to change anything.

In the world of Manchester by the Sea, forgiveness is unattainable, friends and loved ones get held at arm’s length, mistakes are forever, and you are a prisoner of your past. It’s a world that lives as if there had been no incarnation of Jesus to make God available, no Good Friday, no Easter, as if we were completely on our own to cope with the mess that sin has made of us. Sin rules, and redemption is impossible. Death rules, and resurrection is impossible. My guess is that the movie was so popular in part because that’s the world many people de facto live in.

This Lent, this particular lectionary year, focuses unusually directly on trying to show us by experience how the world of Manchester by the Sea is not the real world, but the false world sin has created. This Lent, this particular lectionary year, is designed around the central questions of life as Christians see them. That design has its origin in the process that was traditionally used to instruct new converts in the run-up to their baptisms at the Great Vigil of Easter.

You might know that in the early church, all Baptisms took place once a year at the Easter Vigil, which is still the biggest occasion to be baptized. (If you’re not baptized, by the way, there’s still time to do it at the vigil this year.) Everyone who was getting baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection did so at the liturgical moment that most supremely embodies Christ’s death and resurrection, that drowns us in them as a palpable reality. And in the months preceding that holy night, people who were thinking about becoming Christians went through public preparation along with the whole congregation. The process doubled down in Lent, using in part some of the gospel readings that will be guiding us through Lent this year.

Those readings carry us through some of the central issues Christianity addresses; they hit the high points of why there is new life available, how forgiveness becomes possible, what makes hope real and despair a lie. They surface primal human issues and point to Jesus as God’s answer; and over and over they probe the most important question in the world, a question Manchester by the Sea never for a moment imagines asking: What are we to do with this man called Jesus? Who is this, and what does he mean?

We heard today, for example, the old, old story Jews and Christians both tell to explain why the world is such a mess. We heard how evil approached humanity, all rolled up in the person of Adam and Eve, and suggested that going it alone, breaking connection with God, would be a far better idea than living as God’s beloved. And they said “Yes.” That’s the story we tell to explain where the world of Manchester by the Sea came from, how alienation from God began and threw everything off kilter.

And paired with it — you might remember that in our lectionary, the Old Testament reading and the gospel reading are always linked thematically — we heard the story of how evil approached humanity, all rolled up in the person of Jesus, and suggested that going it alone, breaking connection with God, would be a way better idea than living as God’s beloved. And Jesus said, “No.” That’s the story we tell to explain how the world of Manchester by the Sea got overturned, how reconciliation with God in Christ began and permeated creation with healing and hope.

So the first Sunday in Lent we’ve had this pairing, which asks: Why is there sin and how can I get help? We will hear over the next four Sundays four great chapters from John’s gospel, monumental dialogues surfacing basic human questions, paired with four Old Testament narratives that address the same question as the gospel reading. Wrestling with questions as elemental and important as these is going to propel us straight into Holy Week and Easter.

There are no bad Lents, but this is an especially good one to live through together. And I say together deliberately, because if you’re not engaged with the whole flow of this season, there’s no way to make up the parts you’ve missed of that very consciously designed week-by-week process. You can’t get it later on Netflix, and the benefits are not the same when you just dip into individual parts. The flow of our spiritual system Sunday by Sunday is a little like the strength training circuit at the gym: it doesn’t work to say, “Well, I like the row machine and I like the horizontal leg press.” It’s a whole system. It works as a system.

And in Lent, the system is designed, this year in particular, to funnel us right into the center of the universe. It’s no accident that the event Christians believe the story of the universe centers on is also what our liturgical year centers on. We did that on purpose. We designed the whole system around Jesus’ death and resurrection, because that’s where the power is — in Holy Week, and specifically the three days that we call the Triduum that culminate in the Great Vigil of Easter. Technically, those three days function as one service; it takes that long to bear the weight of what’s happening. It’s the heart of life, the Triduum, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ; and if you want to experience Easter as real, the Triduum is non-negotiable.

If you look at the calendar and discover you have a family event that falls over those three days, call the family and reschedule it now. If you’re on to work that weekend, it’s six weeks away; see if you can get it off. If you’ve got concert tickets, swap them. Of course, anybody who likes can just show up on Easter morning in isolation, and we will welcome you with open arms; but if you do that, let me now, in the name of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, disavow all responsibility for the consequences. The Triduum is the church’s prescription for what is killing you. If you don’t take it as prescribed, we can’t be held liable.

Just as it did with Adam and Eve and then with Jesus, evil will always tell you there’s a better deal. They believed evil and chose life apart from God, not just for themselves but for us as well; Jesus saw through the lie and chose life in God, not just for himself but for us as well. The church is here this Lent and Easter to prove Jesus right.

The Rev. Beth Maynard is a retired priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.


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