Sunday, March 29, 2009


March 29, 2009

When it comes to the story of Jesus’ terrible agony at Gethsemane, I like the careful rendition of Luke, the highly educated physician, who cared for bodies and understood them.  He knew what happens to bodies undergoing profound stress.  He probably would not have known that tiny blood vessels near the surface of the skin contract while blood pressure rises dangerously, that epinephrine causes adrenaline to wash the brain, stop the digestion, speed up the heart, and engorge the large muscles with blood, and that  norepinephrine causes dramatic changes in perception.  But he would have seen and been sensitive to the results.  Jesus, in this state of extreme anxiety the Gospel writers called agitation and agony, was falling-down fearful.
An opposite state afflicted his disciples.  In spite of Jesus asking them to pray for themselves, they were heavy-lidded, and they slept.  I can only think that these three good men did pray for themselves just before falling asleep, as I do on many occasions.  And perhaps like me, they were accustomed to praying until they felt better.  They believed, in the end, that all would be well.  “All will be well,” they crooned to themselves.  “God loves his son, and God loves us.  All will be well.”  Yes, but on a vast timetable that overreaches us yet today.

A mere stone’s throw away, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.”  For me, this doesn’t begin to describe Jesus’ physical and emotional anguish, a son pleading with his father against the pain of the next few hours and days.  But then Jesus gives himself back to God’s care, no matter what.  “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”  I too would like to escape the pain of betrayal and the loneliness of abandonment.  I especially would like to escape the insults to my body of scourging, the degradation of suffering in public, and an unjust, untimely, prolonged and hideously painful death.  I am sure that I would abandon Jesus given these consequences of standing by him.  What makes a person willing to suffer and die for the very frail and imperfect friends who abandon and betray him?  That is, for me?

Luke continues.  “Then,” he says, right after Jesus gives himself to God’s care, “an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.”  It was then, right after the angel from heaven gave him strength, that Jesus began to sweat drops of blood.  This condition has a name – hematidrosis – and is actually sweat mixed with blood.  It happens, and perhaps Luke would have known this, after a huge amount of stress is rather suddenly removed.  All those tiny restricted blood vessels suddenly relax faster than the pressure of blood can be withdrawn, and they burst, releasing blood into the overactive sweat glands which bring it to the surface of the skin.  Perhaps Luke the Physician uses Jesus’ bloody sweat to tell us something we need to know:  Something happened when Jesus admitted his human fear and abandoned himself to God.    An angel?  From heaven?  I try to imagine this presence, this intuition, this strong and comforting grace that took away human weakness and replaced it with heavenly strength. 

I read this online the other day:  “If God never gives us more than we can handle, he must think an awful lot of us.”  Indeed.  I believe God thought enough of Jesus to give him both extreme suffering and extreme strength.  I picture him returning to where his disciples were sleeping (possibly God did not think quite so much of them) and waking them with this question:  Why are you sleeping?  Not, “Wake up, you faithless fools!” or “Curse you and your sons forever.” Why are you sleeping?  

It’s a good question, one to which he surely knew the answer.  The disciples had prayed too, just like I do almost every night:  “God, take care of us.  God, assure us once again that all will be well.  God protect us and shelter us under your wing, and bring us peace.  All will be well.  All will be well.”  And so they were sleeping.  Luke knew that this kind of sleep can overtake those in denial, a kind of soporific sleep  sometimes available to the hopelessly bereft.  He says they were sleeping because of grief.

But Jesus had prayed differently.  He did not deny his fear.  In fact, it overtook him to a point I find hard to imagine.  He fell down on the ground and prayed, “Please take this away.”  Surely he knew what was waiting for him, and he allowed his imagination to take him there.  What person, condemned to die, can allow their imagination to go full-forward to their own excruciating death?  All of humanity, condemned to die, yet sleeps on under the spell of distraction and denial.  All, that is, but Jesus.

I am sure that somewhere deep within me fear lies buried, and that’s where I like to keep it.  But what if I, like Jesus, could recognize my deepest fear, express it, experience it, and then, also, turn fully to God?  Might I not, too, be sent an angel from heaven?  Might I not then step up from a childish dream of comfort into a fully awake, fully suffering, fully capacious humanity, full of strength and purpose, capable of facing the hour of darkness, capable of saying to violence, “No more,” and healing it?  It’s a steep climb, that path, but it’s the path I believe we’re on.  God thinks a lot of us.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Christ as Food

My childhood, though rich in spiritual ideas and discipline, was deliberately lacking in the usual religious symbols, those objects or pictures or rituals that can stand for some inexact or mysterious truth.  No crucifix, no communion ceremony (no bread, no wine), no ashes, no genuflection, no baptism, no Eucharist, no reconciliation, no last rites, no icons, no Lent, no Palm Sunday or Good Friday, no stations of the cross, no vespers, and no liturgy whatsoever.

It is entirely possible to be Christian without these things, and a good many fine, practicing Christians feel no need, say, for broken bread and shared wine every Sunday.  This was not the case for me, however.  There was simply nothing to keep me coming to church.  For 30 years I was quite happy spending Sunday mornings reading the paper or sitting outside in the sun, or painting, painting.

About five years ago the Christian symbols themselves began to call me in ways that caught my attention.  They appeared in my dreams.  I was painting in a choir loft, looking down on a Mass.  I was searching for a seat in a church full of icons.  I was joining the activity of the Holy Family.  These and other dreams came on the heels of events that had shaken me, to be sure.  But they also felt like something new working its way to the surface.  I thought of it in artistic terms – a new beauty asking for my response.

I went to New Orleans, then a city of hot religion, jam-packed with the same religious symbols available in Voodoo shops as in the cathedral book store.  I was revolted by Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.  I sought out a Jungian analysis with a priest who provided space for the laying out of these symbols.  We talked.  I began this journal, strangely I thought, with a symbol I barely understood – the Annunciation.  I still don’t understand, and the symbols are still having their way with me.

Then my mother died.  She was the strongest religious influence in my life.  Deeply spiritual, she was a natural and talented religious iconoclast.  In the end she threw out even her own conventions and abandoned herself to her God without any religious mediation at all.  It was a natural progression for her, but it was stunning to see.  I was going in the other direction, and her death, in a way, set me free.  Within a year I was gone.

I was here, in Miami.  I spent that first summer praying.  I wrote the prayers down.  By September I had found my church, rich in symbols and smells, full of liturgy and exotic ritual.  I was delighted to dress in what I could only call costume with my friends, to abandon our usual banter and join in performance of sacred ritual, and to be urged to take it seriously.  I have.

This brings me to my point, which is the Last Supper.  For me, this is the primary Christian symbol, which we ritualize every Sunday in our Mass and participation in Communion.  We eat Christ’s body and drink Christ’s blood, and we do this in all seriousness, with the greatest possible respect.

Most liturgical Christians participate in this ritual as a matter of course.  I do not.  For me it is counter-intuitive and miraculous.  Every Sunday it catches me off-guard, as it must have caught Jesus’ companions 2000 years ago.  Here we are, my friends and I, who two days ago were working together, gossiping, laughing, working out day-to-day concerns, now eating the broken body and spilled blood of Christ together.  What does it mean?  I t can only mean that we are all broken and shared, and that we are meant to know it.

Mangoes and palms drop ripened fruit.  Seeds break open and sprout.  Mosquitoes give their lives to lizards every day in my back yard.  But to my knowledge their sacrifice is completely unselfconscious.  What this symbol of Christianity says to me is, “Become fully conscious of the sacrifice you accept and the sacrifice you must make in return.  Take in and digest this life that is given for your sake, and become that sacrifice yourself.”

This awareness and conscious activity is what it means to be fully human – that is, to give expression to the Christ from a place deep within.  This awareness is painful.  Betrayal is a fact.  And yet we are asked to stay conscious, to give deliberately all that we have, all that we are, for each other.  It will happen anyway, as surely as ripe mangoes fall.  We are asked to make this sacrifice a conscious and constant testament, and to withstand its consequences, and to know we are made of Love.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Morning Meal

When any of us say the words, "my death," out loud, we are immediately shushed by our relatives and friends.  My husband wanted to talk about his death for years and we wouldn't let him.  My sons actually rolled their eyes as he tried to prepare us.  None of us had any idea he was actually dying.  Not until the last few hours could I let that knowledge up from the dark where it had lived, manacled and starved, for some time.

I suspect it may have been the same for Jesus.  His disciples wouldn't hear of his death.  Maybe they even rolled their eyes.  No wonder he wept.  Had they been able to receive it, he could have not only explained to them the central point of his ministry but given them the comfort they so needed:  Death is swallowed up in Life.

Now, in this season of Lent, I think it is important to listen without denial or anger or impatience as Jesus once again tries to tell us about death -- his and ours -- and give us comfort.  What can I hear of that Easter story?  Sadness and tears, surely.  But there is also this:  God is ready at the very point of death, in the depths of our despair, in spite of our dire predictions, to astonish us with the radiance of a rising sun.  A new life.  A new world.

Death is a passage, that we know, and also a passing, in which a door seems to close behind us.  Beyond that it is not given to us to know.  Except this:  We believe in a God of surprise.  A God of empty tombs.  A God whose last meal shared with us was not a sad supper, but a morning meal prepared for us, waiting for us on the shore of a great sea.

What do I make of the various accounts of resurrections throughout literature, including the Bible?  Do I think Lazarus' body, already decomposing, was made whole and immortal so that Jesus' band of followers might believe?  Or was it only temporarily revived to make a point?  I guess if I can conceive of quarks popping in and out of existence, I can conceive of whole organisms doing the same, although I don't expect to see such an event in my lifetime.  And yet, Jesus' resurrection remains for me the central point of his life and work.  Taken literally or figuratively, it tells me that death is not the victor.  That what God has to give, he continues to give.  That there is no reason to die of grief.

Jesus' resurrection leaves me with more questions than it answers.  It is not a trick I can learn.  Instead, it teaches me that I do not have all the answers, that I do not know the end of the story I am in, and that perhaps it does not have an end.  I expect that I, too, will not be in the tomb where I have been laid, but that I will be somewhere else: at breakfast by the Galillean Sea, or swaying with the breeze in the treetops, or sitting at the feet of my Teacher, continuing to grow in knowledge and grace as creation unfurls and arches out forever.  I hope there will be someone to say, as Jesus said about Lazarus, "Loose her and let her go."

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