Dark is the only way to describe Good Friday. Cold, raw, bleak, dreary. We hear the account of Jesus’ last 20 hours or so on this planet, and it’s overwhelming. He’s betrayed by a friend, and disowned by another. His countrymen push him off as an outsider, demanding his execution. The judge sees that he’s being set up, but doesn’t intervene. He’s stripped naked, flogged, spit upon, and mocked. He’s forced to carry the means of his execution across his shoulders, the rough hewn wood digging in to his skin. When he gets to the place called The Skull, the soldiers string him up, and then gamble away the remnants of his clothing. As he teeters between life and death, he sees his mother standing nearby taking this all in, and he asks a friend to treat her as his own mother, and that she receive him like her own son. He sips from a sponge saturated with wine just to wet his parched throat, and then he bows his head and dies. Upon closer inspection from his executioners—who can see that he is already dead—they add one last insult and pierce his bare side with a spear. This day is utterly and painfully dark.
If your house is anything like ours, you’ve got a place for towels, perhaps a linen closet or a spot in the cupboard under the sink. Of course, we have those towels that we can pull out in a pinch for guests—when we used to have guests, that is—those we’ve deemed nice enough for a guest to dry themselves after washing up. But then we also have those towels that are ratty and torn, strings of fabric hanging off them, perhaps stained in a few places or bleached out in others. We don’t pull those out unless it’s to wipe up a bad spill on the floor or to get mud off the dog’s feet after a long walk. Our towels have been used after a dip in the ocean, or cleaning up after one of the kids had an accident. They’ve come in handy cleaning up spilled milk, or wiping of a forehead after a hard run. They have swaddled babies and have stemmed the flow of blood from a bad cut.
I often listen to movie soundtracks from large sweeping epics of films as a backdrop to my workdays. Movies like “Legends of the Fall,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “Out of Africa,”and “The Mission.” Rarely are there singing voices in the soundtracks I prefer; this allows me to concentrate and focus on writing or contemplating one idea or another. And for the last dozen years or so throughout Lent—and especially as I reflect on and write my Holy Week sermons—I listen to the soundtrack from “Schindler’s List.” I’ve only seen the movie a couple of times, but I know the haunting music that John Williams and Itzhak Perlman co-wrote very well. The way the violin takes center stage throughout many of the pieces, providing movement and giving a depth to the story that both crushes the soul and lifts the heart.
One of my favorite musical pieces is Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei Deus” written during the 1630s for use in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. The text comes from Psalm 51 which we read together today; the title of the work simply comes from the first words of the Psalm in Latin: Have mercy on me, O God. I first heard the “Miserere” during a Lenten retreat for clergy as the facilitator played the 8 minute piece for us. We sat enchanted by the ethereal voices asking God over and over for compassion and loving-kindness, for mercy and forgiveness. I closed my eyes, letting the music wash over me as I thought about my own life, about the times when I had missed the mark. About how much I needed God to blot out my offenses and to create a clean heart within me.
You used to see them with some regularity in sports stadiums around the country, especially in the area between the goal posts, about halfway up the seats. Anytime one team or the other set up to kick a field goal or an extra point, a guy would hold up a poster emblazoned with phrase “John 3:16.” I often wondered how they got the cash for those seats, if it was just one person or if there was a gang of them. If they coordinated together so that there weren’t two signs in close proximity. The message, of course, is the most famous of Bible references, a verse I bet many of you learned by heart back in your Sunday School days.
On a Veteran’s Day a number of years ago now I led a Webelos scout hike in New Hampshire. We were headed up Mt. Waternomee to a B-18 bomber crash site. Five weeks after Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, a pilot lost his bearings due to inclement weather and poor visibility. He and his crew of six other men flew a couple hundred of miles off course from their destination at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, MA. Realizing his mistake too late—there were mountains where they weren’t supposed to be—the pilot crashed near Woodstock, NH. Remarkably due to the pilot’s quick thinking, five of the seven crew members survived. They were aided by the people in the area who trekked out in the dark cold night up that mountain to rescue them. Our hike that November day was also cold and damp, and one of our fifth grade scouts expressed his deep yearning for a Starbuck’s drink as his pace slowed to a crawl.
Last week I began a conversation with you about Lent. I told you that if a practice wasn’t bringing you closer to God, then you shouldn’t do it. Partly I said that because we’ve been living in the wilderness of Covid for nearly a year, and partly it’s due to the underlying question that often gets unasked; “What’s the purpose of Lent anyway?” Or, asking it a different way, how are we supposed to engage faithfully with Lent as a season of preparation? Theologian and author Frederick Buechner writes that after his baptism at the Jordan, Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness “asking himself … what it meant to be Jesus.” And then, Buechner says, our time in Lent should allow us to ask the corollary, that during Lent “Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”
Back in the Fall, a friend of mine from seminary posted a picture of the inside of the church he serves. Rob’s the rector at St. John’s Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, and they were recording a service of some sort that week when he took the photo. He pointed out the hymn board up in the balcony; a hymn board as you might expect has the day’s hymn numbers posted, and some, like this one, also announce the liturgical day. What Rob highlighted was that the hymn board still proclaimed that it was the Third Sunday in Lent even though it now was October. The date of the posted Sunday was March 15, presumably the last Sunday they held in-person services at that parish. I commented that perhaps it should have read the 34th Sunday in Lent as it had been that long since the pandemic had closed things down, and it certainly still felt like Lent. And, if we were to stick to my way of counting, then today would be the 52nd Sunday in Lent rather than the 1st. Because this year has felt like that, right? Like we’re in some sort of Narnian existence from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, except instead of it always being winter and never Christmas, for us it’s always Lent and never Easter.
Every year in our house we begin the conversation about what to give up for Lent about two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday. Often we forego some sort of food item—it was pizza one year, chocolate another. Sometimes it’s a desire to eat more like average people in the world, like the year we tried to eat mostly rice and beans (I say “tried” because that was also the Lent that my dad’s health declined, and we discovered it’s hard to eat so specifically when you travel and become a guest in someone else’s home.) We do this, of course, to adhere to the call we all have to fast during these forty days of Lent—an invitation I’ll invoke in the name of the Church in a few minutes. And often, if I’m honest, these sorts of fasts become a test to see if I can push through on my own will power rather than the intended outcome of drawing me closer to God. Of becoming humble and recognizing that all good gifts come from God.
Today mark’s the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is sometimes called “Transfiguration Sunday” because our appointed gospel lesson always retells Jesus’ transfiguration on the high mountain with Peter, James and John. It’s familiar enough to us that I suspect some of you might be able to hit the highlights if you were put on the spot. But this story doesn’t stand in isolation from the rest of Mark’s gospel. In fact he hints at just that when we begin our reading today: “Six days later,” he writes, “Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain.” You have to ask: what happened six days before? To answer that I want to flip back a page to the previous chapter to help lay out what Jesus and the boys were doing before they donned their day packs for that hike.