The Short-change of Resurrection Hope

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Okay – I’m inviting some pushback here. I confess to dissatisfaction with the word “hope” engendered by the Easter story. Notions of resurrection, to my understanding, point to a state that is beyond hope – let’s try “certainty!”  Hope points to something yet to be realised; certainty points to a reality that already exists. The witness of the first Easter accounts and their enaction in the early Easter community of the Acts of the Apostles declare certainty.

An amazing assertion for me, who for many years has defended the legacy of so-called Doubting Thomas and all his cohorts who play devil’s advocate and toy with hope versus despair. On my umpteenth reading of Thomas’ story in John’s Gospel, it hits me that his eventual faith declaration is based on a personal testimonial certainty, not a mere hope.

Yes, blessed are those who believe without having seen a physical presence of the Risen Christ. And blessed are those whose faith is nevertheless based in certainty. And blessed be those whose faith, right now, is best defined in notions of hope.

When Good Friday attacks Easter Sunday?

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Easter Sunday prevails. The image of live greenery bursting through the cracks of cold hard stone illustrates, not the hope, but the certainty of conviction for those wedded to the way of Christ. It is a much more powerful image than that of the bombed churches of Sri Lanka, for as tempting as it is to dwell on the horror perpetrated on peaceful Easter Sunday worshippers by whatever hateful, malignant forces, the totality of the Easter Triduum draws us to another place. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not opposed – they are a seamless progression of our whole human story.

Jesus’ death reveals how a blameless life that is given to selfless regard for the other challenges and provokes powerful self-interests to ultimatum, manipulation and even state-sanctioned murder.

Jesus’ resurrection signals the antidote to cosmic violence and inner self-destruction. It gives force to Jesus’ Good Friday plea of forgiveness for those who destroy him, and calls us, even in the midst of grief, to do likewise. For on Easter Sunday, death’s delusion of finality is annihilated, suffering is vindicated and love, even for its enemies, springs forth in vibrant fulness.

Notre Dame & the Easter Triduum

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Universal horror unfolds this morning as news arrives of one of Christendom’s ancient and iconic structure’s destruction by fire. That the 800-year-old Notre Dame cathedral in Paris should fall in the days of Holy Week – the dramatic re-living of trial leading to the climax of crucifixion and resurrection – should not escape the notice of the faithful.  Indeed French President Emmanuel Macron declared, even as the fire raged, “Let’s be proud because we built this cathedral more than 800 years ago. We’ve built it and, throughout the centuries, let it grow and improved it, so I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together.”

This is the first Easter in 45 years that I will not be conducting services, leading people through the darkness of Good Friday through to the radiance of Easter Sunday. Over those four decades, I have become aware of a deepening consciousness that Good Friday is not marked so much by desolation but a sober realisation that transformation, transcendence and new expansive life is always preceded by dying to something that is highly valued.

The power of the Easter Triduum engages us in re-enacting this very human and divine drama – beginning with foot-washing that reminds us that our humanity is fully realised in humble service of the other. As we follow Christ through the dark hours of his arrest and trial at the grasping hands of vested powerful interests, we enter the reality of the “greater love that lays down his life for his friends” and the gentle petition of forgiveness for those who are ignorant of what they are doing. We encounter the sublime power of powerlessness as the lifeless corpse of Christ is hurriedly laid in a borrowed tomb to be properly prepared at a later time. The Triduum climaxes with a burst of radiance when the embalmers arrive to find an empty tomb and a young man declaring “He is Risen!”  This radiance is not completely understood, for it leads Christ’s followers into new and expanded territory, new and deepened experiences and new and soul-stretching challenges. This is why the Triduum is not a completion, but a beginning. The Easter season will stretch yet for another 50 days until it reaches Pentecost, the celebration of the flooding in of the Spirit and the birth of a universal community of people called out to live the Easter drama in community.

So when something of our identity represented in any of our collective icons dies, we look for the new thing that will arise. When we find our identity in the Christ who goes before and engage in his journey of service, crucifixion, resurrection and openness to Spirit, we are fully alive.

Palm Sunday Choices

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Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan would have us choose between the military procession following Pontius Pilate in triumphant might through one gate of Jerusalem, reminding the Passover crowds that it is Caesar who is really in charge around here – or the more modest procession entering another gate, the one led by a country rabbi riding a donkey proclaiming the peace of a realm that is not Caesar’s.

The other choice is whether we reflect on the event as presented by Luke’s gospel or by John’s. The former gives a blow by blow account, almost like a police report. The drama of the Passion is beginning to unfold. John’s account, however, is more reflective, even recalling that “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.”

Alexander Shaia reminds us that the journey from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week and Good Friday is only a part of a much deeper and more impactful journey for followers of the way of Christ, beginning with the revelation in the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop yet embracing the journey to Jerusalem, the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, the Resurrection and climaxing with the Pentecost descent of the Holy Spirit and the release of God’s people into powerfully passionate service.

Palm Sunday gives us the choice of entering the experience of Easter from a perspective of conflict and defeat or the vision of a bigger picture that is already realised, yet awaiting its completion.

Musing on Bethany & the Budget

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I look at next Sunday’s text as the Federal Budget 2019 is being delivered in Canberra. We’ve moved into John’s Gospel, the place where, in her home in Bethany, Mary, with much devotion, extravagantly pours pure nard over Jesus’ feet. The aroma fills the house where she lives with her siblings, Martha and Lazarus.  Judas, one of the disciples present, is not impressed. The perfume could be sold and the proceeds used to buy bread for the poor.

On the surface, we see highlighted the perennial battle for, not scarce, but abundant resources. The nard is worth a year’s wages for the average worker. What do we do with a surplus? Splash it around extravagantly or “spend it responsibly for the common good?”

This is not the question John’s Gospel is addressing, and the story plunges us, if we let it, into a deeper perspective. What is the state of our union with Christ and his purpose? John’s Gospel is eucharistic in nature – we participate in Christ’s radiant victory over all that would defeat life even on this fifth Sunday in Lent. From this perspective, we move on to serve the world, but Judas is left in a state of miscomprehension because he never quite “gets it.”

When we question this night’s budget outcomes, may it be from the eucharistic space!

Please, come home, son! (But which one is he begging?)

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Fork in pathway - Kings ParkHe had already run down the road to greet the returning wasteful prodigal. He had already thrown the best robe around his shoulders and was now feting him with a roast calf on the spit and having all his old friends around. His youngest was home, bewildered, hosed and feted, hardly believing the turn of expectations.

But one was still lost, his firstborn who had stood by him through thick and thin, who shared his wealth, but who is noticeably absent from the lavish celebrations. Resentful, he loiters in the darkness refusing to come in.

His dad goes out to meet him and sits down on the stump next to where his eldest glowers. “Please, come home, son, and join the party!”

Read about it for next Sunday. With which son do I identify?

There is still time…here’s a fig!

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It has been a distressing weekend. The sheer man-made horror of the Christchurch massacre and the posturing of politicians on our side of the ditch has occupied much of our attention. Like those present to eerily similar events in next Sunday’s gospel text, we turn to our faith (and some of us, our non-faith) stances to ask the same questions, “How do we make sense of this? How shall we respond?”

Jesus’ response doesn’t let us off the hook. We are all caught up. We all bear the consequences of a broken society, much of it of our own making.

Jesus gives us a fig tree. Is it bearing fruit? If not, cut it down. But a gardener says “Wait! There is still time …” A little tending, some fertiliser, some pruning – it will come good!

Over the weekend, we observed a little tending, fertilising and pruning of our fig tree. Compassionate and decisive nurture by a visibly affected Prime Minister, a swelling of community support for grieving mosque congregations around the world, a prophetic egg splatter that cried “No more!” There is still time…

When Despot & Teacher Clash

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It’s no secret that Herod Antipas and Jesus of Nazareth don’t get on with each other. One has a transient realm to champion and protect; the other points to a realm that transcends time and space and that is centred in the most intimate depths of the human heart. One works from the outside in to entrap and enslave; the other works from the inside out to release and liberate. One sets out to destroy the other; the other holds up a fearless mirror that reveals insight, yearning and a different kind of winning.

On this 40 day Lenten journey from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday which is itself encapsulated by the greater one hundred days from Ascension to Pentecost, the mirror reveals both the yearning and the victory. The journey of Atonement is absorbed into the journey of Election which catches up the whole universe (and any multiverses of which we are yet to become aware!)

See it for yourself in this coming Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Luke!

What glitters in those ashes?

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I heard of a priest who will mix glitter with the ashes he will place on children’s foreheads tomorrow.

As we present ourselves for daubing on Ash Wednesday, the traditional launch of the 40 day period of fasting and self-reflection leading to Holy Week and Easter, we may well ask, “What glitters in those ashes?” We are accustomed to Lent as a period of self-denial, some taking it to the extremes of self-flagellation, either metaphorically or literally.

But maybe there’s gold in them thar ashes that confront us with our mortality as we hear the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (as if that’s the whole story!)

Author Alexander Shaia reminds us that the ancient rite marked a more inclusive journey, beyond the 40 days from Lent to Holy Week and Good Friday, but 100 days from Transfiguration (last Sunday) to Pentecost. Yes, we are mortal, but we also bear the stamp of that which is eternal. Our story embraces not just the hardship of the journey to Calvary, but the anticipation that begins with an incomprehensible hint of glory and travels through chaos, opposition, death, resurrection and flooding of the Holy Spirit that marks us all as sons and daughters of the Highest. That’s what glitters in those ashes!

We see it in next Sunday’s account of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness.

The temptations are the short term fixes of the world of ashes. Jesus responds from the viewpoint of the realm of the Holy One, to which service the teller of Luke’s gospel summonses us all.

There’s gold in those ashes!

Hang on to your crowns!

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Next Sunday we will be on the Mountain of Transfiguration with three of Jesus’ lieutenants, Peter, James and John, watching agog as a larger than life dazzling Jesus converses with the long-dead patriarchs, Moses and Elijah. This event traditionally marks the shift from the season of Epiphany to the season of Lent. Traditionally, the Christian faithful trade in their epiphany crowns as sons and daughters of the Highest for the sackcloth and ashes of introspective penitence leading to Easter. What a downer!

Ancient Christianity, I’ve just been reminded, did it differently, just by shifting the kaleidoscope. Same story, same drama, different perspective. You can hang onto those crowns – they are permanent!

Apparently, Transfiguration Sunday begins the Rite of Election, a period that embraces the journey through Lent, Easter and Pentecost. Enquirers intending to commit their allegiance to Christ participated in this drama of learning and preparation culminating in a mass Pentecost Baptism. It eclipses the Western journey that often leaves us stuck in Good Friday as the climax (and Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection, as an afterthought).

We had a saying where I last served – “We are an Easter People!” – meaning we lived in a state of Spirit-inspired resurrection vitality. We meant to take in the full story. As Lent approaches and many readers of this blog begin the 40 day period of introspection, remember not to cast your crowns aside. Yes, we must embrace our humanity and explore and learn humility through our weaknesses. We will follow the sombre procession led by the man with the cross and lament the high cost of love at the foot of that same cross. We will rejoice at the empty tomb and the alive Man who now walks in our midst. We will receive the Pentecost pouring of the Spirit and the reminder that we are now and always have been created in the image of the Highest. We wear crowns. We are Easter people!