In 2011 a young man in New York City named Gabriel went to a party. While there, he drank some of the alcoholic punch being served. Unknown to the young man, the punch had been spiked with a drug called Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid, commonly called GHB. Prescribed as Xyrem and also called by a variety of “street names,” it is known as a “date rape” or rave drug. It comes as a liquid or as a white powder that is dissolved in water, juice, or alcohol. In most people it produces euphoria, drowsiness, decreased anxiety, excited behavior, and occasionally hallucinations. For Gabriel, however, who suffered from medication-controlled epilepsy, it caused a seizure. Apparently interacting with his regularly prescribed medication, the GHB he had unknowingly consumed caused a fatal convulsion.
Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while I simply don’t know what to say about a person or an event or a spiritual feeling. On Good Friday, is one of the times when this happens. I don’t know what I want to say about Jesus or his crucifixion or the salvation we enjoy because of his death and resurrection.
When these speechless times happen, I find that turning to poets helps. I find that others have expressed that with which I am having such difficulty. So, today, I want to share three poems with you, actually part of an epic poem, a hymn, and a complete short poem. These aren’t specifically about Good Friday, but they give us some insight into this event, the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what it might mean for us.
Today we are commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week that would culminate in his death on the cross of Calvary. Somewhat contrary to common sense, this has come to be called the “triumphal entry.” I don’t know who first applied this term to Jesus making his way from Bethany and Bethphage, through the Kidron Valley, also known as the valley of Jehosophat or the valley of decision, into the holy city. I’ve often thought that whoever it was must surely have been a master of irony, or perhaps of sarcasm, for the procession was anything but a triumph!
Two scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, have suggested that much more than a fulfillment of the Zecharian prophecy that the messiah, the king would come gently bringing salvation, riding on a donkey’s colt, Jesus’ parade was a mockery of the Roman tradition of military parades, particularly the sort Pontius Pilate might have used to enforce imperial domination.
To appreciate their suggestion, it’s necessary for us to understand the nature of these parades. We have a word in English, triumph, the adjectival form of which we apply to Jesus’ parade, which we use and understand as a synonym to the word victory. But it derives from the name of a particular sort of military parade practiced by the Romans, the triumphus. In Roman tradition, the triumph happened after a victory was won, but only in Rome, only after certain victories and only for certain victors. It has been said that the triumph was “one of the most dazzling examples of the theme of spectacle in Roman culture,” imbued with “theatricality” and designed primarily to persuade its audience of the greatness of the conquering general and of Rome itself.
So we once again find ourselves at the beginning of Lent, this Day of Ashes on which we are marked with a sign of death, grief, and penance, and encouraged to enter into a time of fasting, a time of “giving up.” What are you giving up for Lent? We have all heard that question; we have probably asked it of others.
Noting the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day (something that apparently hasn’t happened for more than 70 years), Episcopal priest and cartoonist Jay Sidebotham recently offered some combined greeting cards for the day. Making light of the “giving up” aspect of Lent, one of Sidebotham’s mock cards reads:
Roses are red;
Violets are blue;
Lent is beginning;
No chocolate for you!
Listen to the word that God has spoken;
Listen to the One who is close at hand;
Listen to the voice that began creation;
Listen even if you don’t understand.
At the winter convocation this weekend our music keynoter, Ana Hernandez, taught us those words as a tract to chant before the reading of the Gospel. As we chanted them, I could not help but remember the first words of our lesson from the prophet Isaiah this morning, the pleading questions:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is easy to read those questions, asked (says the Prophet) by God of God’s people, in what I call “the voice of parental frustration.” All of us who are parents have used that voice; all of us who are children have heard that voice. The people of God have heard that voice for centuries; it is the voice of what G.K. Chesterton called “the furious love of God.” It is the voice of what the often-maligned conservative Christian author Eric Metaxas once called “a love that pursues even when the pursued is hurling insults at the pursuer.” I suspect that a lot of parents have known that feeling, the feeling of being insulted by the one we love unconditionally.
You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.” Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”
Why do we do this? Why do we gather when a loved one dies and hold assemblies like this? Most human beings believe that death is not the end of the person who has passed away. Except for the few human beings who really strongly subscribe to an atheist philosophy, and they truly are a minority of our race, everyone on earth belongs to some faith group which teaches that we continue on, whether it is by reincarnation or in the Elysian Fields or the happy hunting grounds, as a guiding ancestral spirit or at rest in the presence of our Lord. So why do we do this?
“In the beginning was the Word . . . .” The Prologue of John’s Gospel echoes the opening words of the Bibe, “In the beginning God said . . . .” Our God is a god who communicates, who speaks, whose Word creates.
The collect for blessing the Christmas Créche begins, “O God our Creator, to restore our fallen race you spoke the effectual word, and the Eternal Word became flesh . . . .” (Book of Occasional Services 2003, page 37) I’ve always like that turn of phrase, “the effectual word” . . . the word that accomplishes something, the word that has power.
In his magisterial work on the poetry of the Indian sage Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. S.K. Paul wrote of powerful words:
If we think of poetry as the use of especially powerful words, then there may reason to suppose that poetry was more important in the prehistoric, preliterate past than it is today – in song, in ritual, in myth – with the structure and choice of words compensating for the impossibility of any written record. Some have even suggested that in the beginning was poetry – in the evolution of language each new word was a poem, the outward expression of a new inward perception. (The Complete Poems of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali: Texts and Critical Evaluation, Sarup & Sons: New Dheli, 2006, page 318)
I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come
To show the way
I believe, I believe
I believe above a storm the smallest prayer
Can still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word
Every time I hear a new born baby cry,
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe1
Those are the lyrics of a song written the year after I was born and which was very popular in the early 1950s. Frankie Laine, the Four Letterman, Elvis Presley, and many others recorded versions of it. It was even arranged in combination with Gounod’s Ave Marie as a Christmas choral piece.
One of the commentaries I read this week about our gospel lesson was written by a Lutheran serminary professor named Jan Schnell Rippentrop. She noted three things about John the Baptizer’s self-description in the Fourth Gospel:
- He’s very clear about who he isn’t (not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet);
- He cites a verse or two of Scripture that inspires him and defines his life (the passage from Isaiah); and
- He says what he does (he baptizes people in witness of their repentance).
She suggested that this would be a good thing for all of us to do: “Can these same three methods,” she asks, “help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) Rippentrop recommended that we all prayerfully consider and complete three fill-in-the-blank statements (sort of like that old party game “Mad-Libs”):
“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _____________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: _____________________________________________.”