There are days in life when the darkness seems almost too much to bear. Tonight is one of those in our faith. As we take our place at the cross, we remember that even though the darkness can overwhelm, it is only in our brokenness that the Spirit can enter into us.
Good Friday — 2012
I try to get out and hike as often as I can, which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like. I came to hiking later in life—I think it was a result of going into the ministry. It was always something I thought about doing, mind you, but I never made the time to do it. When I got to Colorado I began to realize that I needed to hike, to ramble and walk to clear my head. When I didn’t, when I went for stretches of time without stretching my legs and my brain in the crisp air, things suffered—from my relationships with Melissa and my kids to my overall disposition.
I suspect part of this love came from the idea of pilgrimage, the ancient practice of taking a physical journey to a place of spiritual significance in order to find a deeper connection with God. Like walking the Way of St. James across France and Spain some 500 miles to Santiago de Compestella. Or traveling to Canterbury in England, if you remember The Canterbury Tales from college. The pilgrimage became a metaphor for life. It’s certainly become one for my life.
Parker Palmer writes, “In the tradition of pilgrimage, … hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost—challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now. In every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts. But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark. Darkness is not the whole of the story—every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy—but it is the part of the story most often left untold. When we finally escape the darkness and stumble into the light, it is tempting to tell others that our hope never flagged, to deny those long nights we spent cowering in fear.”
We gather on this night to remember the darkest moment of our faith. We watch as Christ struggles just to breathe on the cross. We take our place near Mary and the beloved disciple, and try with difficulty to imagine what it would be like to be a parent watching a child die an excruciating death. Church attendance is much lower on Good Friday in comparison to Easter, perhaps because we don’t want to watch the suffering or to push aside the long nights when fear overwhelms us. Yet we all suffer. There are times in each of our lives when we see hardship and pain, and I would agree with Parker Palmer that they are integral to our lives, to our stories. They are fundamental in forming who we are in our world. And who we will be in the story of our lives.
Jesus said that unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it sprouts and grows and reproduces itself many times over. Then he tells us that if we want to hold onto our lives, we’ll lose them. But if we lose our life for his sake, if we delve deep into his love and life at the cost of our own, then we’ll have life forever.
In his book Drops Like Stars, Rob Bell contemplates the connection between suffering and creativity. He writes these words: “The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr points out that the Native Americans have a tradition of leaving a blemish in one corner of the rug they are weaving because that’s where they believe the Spirit enters. I can relate to the rugs. I want desperately for things to go ‘how they’re supposed to.’ Which is another way of saying ‘how I want them to,’ which is another way of saying ‘according to my plan.’”
“And that, as we all know, isn’t how it works. But it’s in that disappointment, in that confusion, in that pain—the pain that comes from things not going how I wanted them to—that I find the same thing happening again and again. I come to the end of myself, to the end of my power, the end of my strength, the end of my understanding, only to find in that place of powerlessness a strength and peace that weren’t there before. I keep discovering that it’s in the blemish that the Spirit enters.
“The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God. Which begins not with big plans and carefully laid out timetables. But in pain and anguish and death.
“It’s there, in the agony of those moments, that we get the first glimpses of just what it looks like for God to take all of our trauma and hurt and disappointment, all those fragments lying there on the ground, and turn them into something else, something new, something we never would have been able to create on our own.
“It’s in that place where we’re reminded that true life comes when we’re willing to admit that we’ve reached the end of ourselves, we’ve given up, we’ve let go, we’re willing to die to all of our desires to figure it out and be in control.
“We lose our live, only to find it. It turns out that Navajo rug and a Roman cross have a lot in common.”
We remember that Jesus suffered for us so long ago. And he suffers with us even now as we deal with our own hurts and struggles and pain. We like to pretend that the hardship doesn’t exist, that we have been lucky enough to have missed the suffering that is ever present in our world. And with the pretending we hide behind carefully constructed masks hoping never to let our guard down so those around us won’t know of our hurt. But when we do this, the Spirit cannot come in.
I don’t think we remember enough that the marks Jesus received on that cross stayed with him. The marks in his hands, his feet and his side didn’t magically disappear when he was raised. That’s how the disciples knew it was him the first time they saw him after Easter: he showed them the nail holes in his hands.
The sign of the suffering he endured stayed with him. And stays to this day. If our Lord still bears his marks of pain, why can’t we? Why do we think that somehow we have to be perfect and not impacted by all that comes our way? When will we realize that in the journey of life—in both our earthly and spiritual pilgrimages—we will experience darkness? And even more that the suffering we encounter will shape us?
We have in Jesus a Lord who is not unaware of the pain in this world. Tonight we stand by his cross and gaze upon it, knowing he too will be with us when we are overwhelmed by the crosses of our life. When we fall down on our journeys and feel that all is out of our control, Jesus will be there. Walking beside us. Helping us up again. Aware of our deep pain. It is only in the darkness, in the fragments, in the blemishes of life that the Spirit can enter in to us. Will we allow the Spirit in? I think it’s the only possibility we have to experience resurrection. Amen.