Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Art of Resurrection

Easter Sunday, 4/24/11
Reflections on John 20:1-18
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/ Good Shepherd, Berkeley

Alleluia! Christ has risen!

Three images of the resurrection have come to me lately to illuminate this holy week.

The image on the banner you might have noticed outside the church today describes the heart of our Gospel reading. If you didn’t, it is also helpfully provided in your bulletin! It is from a 12th century fresco in the Scroveni chapel in Padua Italy, and the artist is Giotto di Bondone.

It depicts the moment after Mary Magdalene has heard the voice of Jesus calling out her name- the moment of recognition. She cries out “Rabbouni!” which means “dear teacher”, and falls to her knees, reaching out to touch him. We know from the gospel that Jesus’ reply to her is "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to my father.”

The angels who stood guard at the tomb are now magically outside of it, appropriately wearing wings and halos, and each brandishing a slender scepter. They are perched high atop what appears to be a huge stone ossuary, and one angel is front and center, with Jesus at the far right and the other angel at the far left. The soldiers guarding the tomb, like the unroused souls in hell, are fast asleep and lie in a heap behind the figure of Mary Magdalene.

Mary, who had already been pulled out of a very dark tomb once by Jesus when he freed her of seven demons, reaches out to touch Jesus as she kneels before him.

A different but equally beautiful depiction of resurrection is on a small plague in our sacristy here. It is 14th century Russian Orthodox icon called “Icon of Victory- The Resurrection.” In this amazing image, The risen Christ, far from resisting their touch, is pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs, grasping them by their wrists and hauling them up into life. They are surrounded by the Old Testament righteous and those souls who Jesus has already liberated from Hell. Below them are the chaotic remains of hell, with Satan bound and gagged and all of hell disintegrated into small sharp fragments. As the old Easter hymn goes,

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Every year at Easter in Guatemala, another work of art is created by the people.
I read a children’s book that described this annual miracle. The surface of the streets are covered in what appears to be flowers, in fantastic ornamental patterns that resemble the exquisite hupiles that the indigenous women all wear. But fact they are not flowers, but patterns made of colored saw dust, laboriously assembled on the surface of the streets, awaiting the great Easter procession.

The children’s book was about a little girl who had taken part in the creation of this ornate carpeting, or alfombra. When the procession carrying the image of Jesus came to the section of the street the little girl had helped to create, she suddenly ran out and blocked the way with her body- she could not bear to see the beautiful work destroyed.

Her father took her by the hand and led her away. “My daughter,” he said. “It is our custom. The alfombras are like offerings to life. They are not fixed in time. The flowers bloom and then die, but they give us seeds for the birth of other flowers. Life follows death and death follows life.”

In this procession, Jesus was trampling down, not the gates of hell, but an equisite offering- a masterpiece of new blossoms, bearing the seeds of resurrection.

The long days of Lent, long before blossoming, long before seeds, and the progression of Holy week, leading up to the desolation of Good Friday have been fullfilled. These days mirror our own lives, our own descents into the tomb. The tomb of loss- loss of a home, a job, a wife, a husband, a child. Losing our health, our wholeness, our spirit, our faith. Looking into that tomb, as Mary did, hopefully, even in her grief, and not even finding the expected body- finding only an empty tomb. Finding only two small piles of desolate rags. And so Mary weeps as do we. Mary despairs as do we.

And then Jesus apprears, but in her greif, as perhaps in ours at first, she does not recognize the risen Christ. Then, in that joyful moment of recognition, she reaches out her hands.

Why does Jesus tell Mary not to hold onto him, when he seems like the only thing worth holding on to? One comentary I read simply said that Mary must learn a new relationship with Jesus- a spiritual rather than a physical one. I think Mary has the same instinct we all do when a loved one has passed away- we want to hold onto them- to have a lock of their hair, to hold onto a possession of theirs, to bury our face in their garment.

But Jesus was in a liminal state, one that could not be grasped. The tomb and the angels had created some kind of Chrisalis for the resurrection. And now in our Gospel reading, Jesus finds himself, in the words of ancient Celtic spirituality, in a “thin place” between life and death, a place where the veil between this world and the next is very thin. Mary has to see, as do we all, that there is a more eternal presence than the physical one. And although we might not be able to hold that presence, it is able to hold us, and eternally.

We don’t always know what resurrection might look like for us- or what it might take to get us there. We don’t know how that blinding light breaking on us from outside of the tomb might feel. To our shock, our sawdust flowers may be swept away to be replaced by the real thing. The familliar comfort of our coffin may be denied us.

But Jesus comes to us, and reaches for our hands, and whether or not we reach for him, he takes our wrists, and pulls us, blinking and gasping, into the bright, unaccustomed brilliance of abundant life.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Open Your Eyes...

Reflections on John 9:1-41
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad, Richmond, 4/3/11

This is a long and astonishing parable on blindness and belief. As always in the Gospel of John, the true believers are the ones who, unfailingly believe in Jesus as the Messiah. The unbelievers are the people of Jesus’ religion and heritage: the Jews.

We hear of the strictness of the Pharisaic code- a man must not work on the Sabbath - even to mix saliva with mud to enact a miracle. A man born blind is simply proof of the sins of his parents or himself- the only question is- which one sinned? But nothing is more chilling than the terror displayed by the parents of the man born blind. When pressed by “the Jews” they would sooner turn in their own son “Let him speak for himself” than suffer the worst thing imaginable for any Jew- to be expelled from the synagogue.

A text now called the Birkat Ha-minim, or Benediction Against Heretics was discovered in the Cairo Genizah in 1896. Apparently, any first century Jew was forced to recite this before they could enter the temple, making it impossible for the Christian Jews to enter their former house of worship.

…And let the arrogant Government (the Romans)
be speedily uprooted in our days.
Let the Nazarenes (the Christians)
And the Minim (the heretics) be destroyed in a moment
And let them be blotted out of the Bood of Life and
Not be inscribed together with the righteous.
Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the proud.

Blindness in the presence of miracles is an oft-repeated theme in the Old and New Testaments. I spoke of Hagar last week, who was certain that she was lost in the wilderness, and so desperate that she left her young son under a bush so that she would not see him die, then she wandered away.

But God opened her eyes- he took away her desperate blindness, and she saw that she was right in front of a well of water. No longer desperate, but filled.
Mary Magdalene, upon seeing the risen Lord, was blind enough to take him for the gardener! And on the road to Emmaus, two of Jesus’ disciples, those closest to him, came upon Jesus on the road, and took him for just some guy who, apparently had a remarkably good handle on the scriptures!

How do we remain blind to the miraculous? After a long cold winter, I took down heavy curtains in my bedroom to launder them. When I woke up, for the first time in a very long time, I was looking directly outside at the dawn. There were exquisite bands of gold and pink stretching across the sky, and I thought-
“Wow! Does this happen every day?” How do we insulate ourselves, how do we protect our selves, how do we all remain blind to the miraculous?

For more than a year, I have been mourning my best friend Alison, who died after a long illness. She used to travel to California from Georgia every summer for 13 years with her young son, Alexander. My eyes were gloriously opened, this Spring, when her beautiful son, now 21 years old and the spitting image of her (except that he is 6’6”) gave us a call. He said he wanted to continue the tradition- he wanted to spend his Spring break with us, and then come back to camp with us in Big Sur in the summer- just as he and Alison always used to do. The miraculous occurred- Alison was resurrected for me in her beautiful boy, and now I too, have a son, and Alexander has the closet thing possible to a mother. He spent a wonderful week with us in March, and his smile, his humor, his sandy blond hair- so much of him was my dear friend come to visit. My daughters were reunited with their new older brother, and it was, for the first time in my life, like having three kids!

Before his visit, I had known, I had seen what was true, which was that there was no resurrection, and I had lost my best friend of 43 years, and there could be no comfort for me. But fortunately, my eyes were opened to the miraculous, in the person of my tall, blond, sweet new son.

Jesus, tells us that he came into the world so that those who are blind may see, and those who see may become blind.

I think all of us err on the side of out-thinking God. We KNOW what will or will not happen. We can just SEE it. We don’t take into account that miracles can and do happen. We are too apt to see what we see, believe what we believe. The disciples of course, were champions at this. There they were, actually in Jesus’ presence, and still, so often, they were blind.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Christian/Buddhist poet and theologian has a lovely passage about this in a meditation about the Eucharist:

The disciples had been following Jesus, and had seen Him, had the chance to look at Him, to look into his eyes, to see him smile, to see Him in reality. But it seems they were not capable of being in contact with that marvelous reality. Then he broke bread and poured wine and said, “This is my flesh and blood, take it, eat it, drink it, and you will have eternal life.” We eat a lot, we drink a lot [we SEE a lot] but what do we eat? We eat phantoms, we drink ghosts. We don’t eat real bread, real wine, real life. But Jesus said, “This is my flesh, this is my blood. It’s a very drastic way of awakening us from our forgetfulness, from our ignorance.

A drastic way of awakening us from our blindness.

Jesus Met the Woman at the Well

Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad, Richmond; Good Shepherd 3/27/11

Reflections on John 4:5-42

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

In the Old Testament as well as the new, there is just something about women and wells. For the men, the thing seems to be the parting of waters. But for the women, it’s the wells.

All through the Old Testament, women received blessing, grace, and often husbands, at wells of water. Hagar, the slave of Abraham and Sarah had been cast out into the desert with her young son, and wandered along lost for some time. Her skin of water was empty, and she left her son under a bush and walked away so that she would not have to see him die. She wept loudly in her agony. God answered her by opening her eyes and allowing her to see that she was standing in front of a well of water. God assured her with a further blessing- that God would make a great nation of her son.

When it came time for Abraham to find a wife for his other son, Isaac, he sent a servant to search far and wide. He found Rebecca at a well. She proved that she was the chosen one by her kindness, giving water to the camels, and then agreeing to travel back home to marry Isaac.

Isaac’s son, Jacob, whose well is the one featured in today’s story, first met his favorite (but not his first) wife Rachel at a well. He watered her flock, kissed her and wept aloud. This was apparently enough to win her.

Finally, Ziporah and her sisters came to a well to water their flock. Moses drew water for them and defended them from the other shepherds. Zipporah later became the wife of Moses. And it was Moses who was the first, and the most famous of a series of water-parting male prophets. He raised his staff and parted the Red Sea so that the nation of Israel could be delivered to faith and freedom.

Then Joshua, his protégé, led his warriors through the River Jordan. As they marched behind the Arc of the Covenant, the waters rose up in a heap so that the soldiers could cross on dry land.

Also at the River Jordan, Elijah rode to glory in a flaming chariot, while his protégé, Elisha, watched in astonishment. Then Elisha struck the River Jordon with Elijah’s cloak, and sure enough, the waters parted.

I have heard it said that In the New Testament, Jesus transcends all these parting of the water stories, also at the River Jordan. He parts the waters ABOVE the firmament. At his baptism, the heavens part and the Holy Spirit comes down to pay a call on the New Creation, who was, himself, a well of living water.

The is was a place of pairings. And just as Jesus’ baptism brought the partings of the waters to a new level, Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well brings a new dimension to the pairing stories. This time at Jacob’s ancient well, it was not just a man and a woman who were paired. It was the pairing- the symbolic reconciliation- of two tribes who despised each other with a passion.
A pair of tribes possessed of seemingly irreconcilable differences. Their hatred is well illustrated by a quote from the Book of Sirach, which presents the Samaritans as sub-human:

Two nations my soul detests, and the third is not even a people: Those who live in Seir, and the Philistines, and those foolish ones who live in Shechem [of Samaria]

As a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus could not have chosen a less likely subject with whom to share water than the Samaritan woman. With his offering of living water, Jesus turns the age-old story of tribalism, of hating one’s enemy, one its head. You had only to look at the sky to see what time it was. The time was high noon, and that bright sun shone on a transcendental laying down of arms.

The Samaritan woman is almost an opposite entity to the person of Nicodemus, whom we heard about last week. Nicodemus was not only a Jew, but a respected religious leader, and, of course, a man. The Samaritan woman has so little status that she is not even given a name in our story. She is female, from a despised tribe, has a highly questionable marital history, and is now living unmarried with yet another man. I have read that the normal time of day for women to gather at the well and draw water was early morning- but this woman comes at noon when no one else is there, possibly to avoid their distain. But Jesus does not distain her- does not judge her for any of these things. And more amazingly, he proceeds to have the longest theological discussion with her of any in the New Testament. His conversation with her far surpasses his exchange with Nicodemus, which Jesus cuts short in apparent impatience. But with the Samaritan woman, Jesus blasts through their cultural differences to usher her into the Kingdom of God, which, as he says is not only coming soon, but is now here.

The story’s opening shocker is Jesus asking a foreign woman to lend him her unclean utensil to give him a drink of water. After she sputters her protest, he offers her, as he says, “living water.” She apparently takes this to mean running or flowing water, which would have been precious enough in the parched land of Samaria. Jewish renderings of the apocalypse are filled with lush gardens thick with rivers and streams. The Book of Zechariah describes the Day of the Lord like this: “On that day, living waters will flow out of Jerusalem.”

But Jesus will convince the Samaritan woman that he has replaced the Jerusalem Temple, and the Samaritan Temple. The living water now flows from him.

Even after Jesus offers her living water, the woman perceives Jesus only as a prophet. Since the only prophet recognized by the Samaritans was Moses, the giver of the Law, she asks Jesus a legal question- on the location of the Temple, which Samaritans believe to be on Mount Gerazin, not in Jerusalem.

This question puts the dispute between the Samaritans and the Temple Jews in center place, but Jesus does not take the bait. His response opens the door to salvation for both the Samaritans and the Jews- in fact, for everyone. He says that the location of the temple does not matter anymore. In the Kingdom of God, place is irrelevant. The hour is coming, and is now here, when people will worship the Father, not in any temple, but in Spirit and in Truth. When the woman says that she believes that the Messiah is coming, Jesus simply says,
“I am he.” This seems to be enough for her to believe. She walks away, transformed, and leaves her jar- after all, she certainly does not need it for the Water of Life. And Jesus transforms the Old Testament stories in terms of gender as well. It is he who waits passively at the well, and the Samaritan woman who becomes a leader of her people. Like all those water-parting prophets, she is clearing a path to bring her people to faith and freedom.

What was it like for this woman to have been accepted, taken seriously, to have been so respected by Jesus- to have been offered the water of life? What was it like for her? What is it like for those of us who can’t believe that Jesus would offer US the water of life? It is astonishing. It is confounding. How comforting it is for those of us who have, during our lives been wedded to at least five things that were supposed to make us happy and did not. Or for those of us who may have long worshipped at the wrong temple, and I don’t mean the one on Mount Gerazim.

But Jesus does come to us. And just as he scandalously requests a drink of water from the Samaritan woman, he asks something of us as well. Something that we, at least at first, may have no idea how to give him. We may believe, as the Samaritan woman did, that the obstacles are great, that societal conventions forbid us to answer his request. But Jesus breaks down all those barriers. He parts the waters and sweeps away mountains and leads us to the well. And when Jesus gives us this living water, then we have a pairing from which we need never part. We are like the Prodigal Son in the arms of his father, like the lost sheep in the arms of the shepherd, like the child who unquestionably owns the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen