Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday, Good God

Last night I went to the Maundy Thursday service. It was similar to the usual services at our Episcopal church. We sang hymns, heard the Scriptures read, and listened to a sermon. We also celebrated the Eucharist, fitting on a day when we remember the institution of that sacrament. Even though we hear those words said every Sunday, it was good to think of them in terms of the rebirth of the Passover as the Eucharist and what it means in the context of history. But the most amazing thing happened at the end of the service.

While a man with a booming voice filled the sanctuary with the words of Psalm 78, the ministers stripped the altar bare. The psalm is the story of God making a covenant with Israel and Israel breaking that covenant and betraying God over and over again. It's basically the gist of huge sections of the Old Testament in poetic form. The emotions attributed to God are so terrifying: he's "full of wrath" and his "anger is kindled" so many times throughout it. This seems typical of gods in general, probably not much different than the other gods whom the Israelites chose to worship. But as we heard that, we saw the banners come down from the altar, the table where they lay the bread and wine, the pulpit, and I realized what God did.

He took that anger, that justified rage at the fool that his people made of him, and he turned on it himself. He gave up the only person who'd ever lived in human flesh and had the right kind of relationship with him without sinning. He gave up his previously uninterrupted communion with another part of himself (yikes, the Trinity is SO hard to describe). He offered redemption yet again to a people who would pray when he smote them but ignore him when he blessed them. Their actions, like those of all other human beings, brought about that day. His own son was stripped of his clothing and his dignity; ultimately, he was stripped of his humanity by being executed as a criminal.

So everything came down because Good Friday is too terrible for ornamentation, too important for distraction. It's too visceral for anything but the Crucifix, covered in opaque black cloth, standing in the middle of the platform. While they took everthing away, I just watched it all, paying attention but not grasping. On the drive home, I almost sobbed when it clicked in my head.

God's no masochist - he didn't turn his anger on himself with fruitless cutting or self-mutilation which does nothing but assuage the pain for a little while and leave some scars as mementos. He and his Son endured the pain because it was an action that would bring about change. Even still, I have to marvel that God would do that for me for the paltry evidence of change I often give him. I pray the confessional prayer each Sunday, and each Sunday I know there's a mountain of things which this prayer encompasses and which God willingly forgives.

I know if you've grown up in the church, you've heard this all a hundred times, and I'm sure it was said better, too. But this is the emotional connection to reality that I've craved for months. Before this I got it - it all made sense. But I understood it like an argument. I can make sense of an argument for why Palestrina is the best Renaissance choral master or why he isn't, but if I don't care about Renaissance choral music, it's going to go off the radar screen faster than you can say "Toby Keith" or "Metallica."

Maybe this entire post strikes you as cliché, or unrelated to your life right now, or even repulsive. I just hope at some point you get that concept of grace not because someone explained it well, but because you can feel something of God's pain, and you can look beyond the detailed descriptions of Christ's torture and death to the heart of this day: the great lengths to which God went to make new humanity and his entire creation.


Mair said...

This is beautifully written. Growing up in a church tradition that never really celebrated Holy Week, and that didn't do much in regards to tradition and history, I've found myself having the same reactions to the astounding symbolism of the Anglican worship services. We went to Tenebrae on Wednesday, which is a service of chanted prayer through the Psalms that speak of Christ. Maunday Thursday last night was unbelievable. One of our ministers gave a heart stopping sermon on what the forgiveness of God means. Our service also includes the opportunity to participate in a foot washing ceremony, following the example of Christ as servant. After the stripping of the altar, they shut off all the lights and our assistant rector read the Gospel passage of Jesus praying in the garden and being arrested. When the Scripture reading was over, everyone just left in silence. The profundity really can't be captured with words.

All of this is to say, for those who believe, hearing again the story of Christianity can never be cliche'. So, thank you, for posting your reflections with such eloquence.

J. Morgan Caler said...

Good Lord! I just saw this. What a great post! Mair and I managed to go to the Good Friday service and the Vigil as well this year and it was incredible. I felt the same things you described this time around. Thanks so much for the amazing post. I hope all is well and the Easter was wonderful for you and your kiss-ass husband.

J. Morgan Caler said...

Sorry about that; I meant to write "kick-ass," but instead wrote "kiss-ass." I am not sure if that was a Freudian slip or a fat-finger slip, but I hope you both let it slide right out of memory.

An Anonymous Thomyst said...

I enjoyed your thoughts. Suffering the same difficulties of detachment by abstraction--ironically unraveling knowledge by knowing truth--I wholeheartedly sympathize. Thanks again.

Plankiest said...

That was absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for that.