Tuesday, March 31, 2015

I thirst.

After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. (John 19:28)

Down by the river I have often stood where the water sweeps from left to right, pouring towards me and then passing away, inexorably, indifferent to my presence. As I immerse myself in it I get used to the cold and I find my way along the bottom, my feet searching stable places between the stones, until I find that one deepest pool. There I stand, the fresh clear cold water washing against me, and I look up river and down. It is always here, always moving. I am here today. I will not always be here. I will be in desert places.

In one of those desert places a group of pilgrims traveled following the footsteps of Jesus, from his childhood home and his early ministry paths, to the long uphill climb to Jerusalem. As the bus carried us along downstream through the Jordan Valley from Galilee toward Jericho, someone asked about keeping kosher, and the practice of separating meat and milk. (“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Deut 14.21) And I thought, you are keeping separate that which gives life – milk – and that which comes from dealing death – meat. But there is a time when life and death are brought back together, the time of baptism. We die to our own old life; we rise to new life in Christ.

We turned off the highway and went west toward the hills, to the border marked by the river Jordan. There we walked down the bank and stood where a curve of the river swept toward me from the left and away again to the right, carrying with it silt – and sorrow. There we stepped into the water and there we renewed our baptismal vows, and received anointing.

Jesus stood by that river, accepted the baptism of his cousin John, and received the blessing of the Spirit: “This is my Son, my Beloved. In him I am well pleased.”

There was plenty of water for baptism. It was a little dirty, a little fast, and the bottom was uncertain. On either side of the river soldiers kept watch, weapons ready. Perhaps that was no different in the time of Jesus and John. What were they up to? Sedition?

And yet the real revolution was yet to come. It would come when there was no water. It would come when there was no hope. It would come when there was no life. And yet. It would come. Beyond hope, beyond despair, beyond death… but he did not know that yet.

Jesus was on the cross. And like any human he was thirsty. And he said, “I thirst.”

Water is the sacred essential of life. For in all the universe, when wise men seek turning heavenwards eyes of knowledge, what they look for is this same sure stuff, essential to life. When they look for life in the universe, astronomers say, they look for water. And they say there are therefore twenty billion inhabitable plants in our galaxy alone. Where it is, life is possible; where it is not, nothing lives.

And yet here he is without it. Imagine him, pinned there between heaven and earth, on a rock outside the city, surrounded by soldiers, lookers-on, and a few faithful women. There is no solace now, no comfort. There is no life to look forward to. He lacks the basic stuff of survival. He is a human being without resource. He is one of us. He needs water.

In all the universe, water is sacred, the primal substance of life. Combine of two common atoms, it is found on twenty billion planets in our galaxy. Where it exists life is possible; where there is no water, nothing lives. Exclude the possibility. On earth three per-cent of fresh water lies on the surface, ten per-cent of that three per-cent in Lake Superior alone. But it is not evenly distributed. Need it as we may, we cannot always get it. Ask farmers with crops stricken by drought. Ask people who have crossed the desert. Ask this man, hanging on a cross.

Like thousands before him and millions after, he thirsts.

Think of all the times and places turned to dust now hallowed by his presence.

            Mary’s well, in the childhood village of Nazareth, was perhaps the only source of living flowing water there. From it they drew and drank.

            Jordan River, where John his cousin put him under, covered his head with glad stream, sounding the depths of rebirth. He submitted to that ritual and received his blessing. Down on the river he found death and life together: death in immersion, death of a sort, of the part of all of us that needs to be shed, and there from the living water he emerged newly alive, proclaimed beloved, ready for his mission.

            Along the lakeshore of Galilee he walked, among fishing boats and nets in small villages, gathering his first disciples. By that sweet sea he found his first fast friends, fisher folk, and called them to a new life and a new task.

            Back up the hill then, to Cana, they went, where the wine ran out – until ahead of his time his hand revealed what would be poured out, what would be transformed. The water of life he changed into sacrament’s prefiguration, like Eucharist wine. Joyous in recreation yet sorrowful in anticipation, blessing the jars marked thereafter for the cool clearness reddened and heated, fore-speaking that which was pouring from him now. Remember later what it means.

            And the well woman of Samaria: what had he said to her? I know of living, flowing water, you know not of – for I am the source, the spring for the well from which eternally it comes.

            From Jericho’s ancient spring, where people have drunk for eight thousand years, on the road to Jerusalem the travelers tread.

            By the pools of Bethesda he brought healing … and yet the precious element was soon to be lacking, for him. He himself, the source of life, would soon be in need of it. A meal ended, betrayal began. He prayed in a garden. You know the story. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. And so we find him –

            – suspended between death and life, between those heavens and this sordid torturing rock into which his mocking tree is planted. (It is said below him rests Adam on whose head his precious blood descends and cleanses, symbol of all our release.)

And from his side the living water flows.

            Our freedom restored to worship without fault or folly we start fresh now except this wellspring man from whom this freedom comes pinned to board and upright suspended gasping dying parched and dried out like an overcooked chicken nobody wants to see, even on a dung hill, now there is nothing left in him to exhaust or extinguish, now he is dying: I thirst.

            Humanity on the cross. Not some illusion. Not some fake. Not some cheat. Not some cheap grace. No. The expensive, all costing, kind of grace. The absolute obedience that compels us to think unpleasant thoughts. If that was his cross, and he picked it up, what does it mean to pick up mine? If he could thirst, I could thirst; how could I live? Would God save me?

            Or is something more expensive, all costing, in mind for me, too?

Monday, March 9, 2015

whip of cords

In many ways my trip to the Holy Land was the simplest of the three pilgrimages I’ve been on: 2002, Celtic Northumbria and Scotland, 2007, Into the West of Ireland, and 2015, Holy Land. The means were straightforward: sign up for a package tour with Bishops Beisner and Rickel. We gathered by the door of Tel Aviv airport where we met our guides and driver. It was a very Christian trip – Episcopalian/Anglican, even liberal non-Evangelical Anglican, to be more specific. There were ecumenical and interfaith encounters certainly. And what we see encompassed all three Abrahamic faiths as well as prehistoric ruins. We largely bypassed what was not on our focus; which was: (1) footsteps of Jesus, (2) current Palestinian predicament, and (3) riding in a bus together.

Of these the first is the reason I went. We began where we could begin.

Mount Tabor, transfiguration
Tabgha, multiplication; Nazareth, annunciation; Capernaum, Magdala: Galilee
Jordan River, baptism
Bethlehem, nativity
Jerusalem, crucifixion
            Settlements, a Palestinian hill town
Jaffa, airport

At Capernaum I got a sense from the ruins of the synagogue (post 1st Century C.E.) that lie on top of the building Jesus would have known, that it was not a very big place: 300m along the lakeshore – of course that lakeshore, along which Jesus came to call his first disciples…

And so from a building not much bigger than a small church (St. Andrew’s Tucson, e.g.) Jesus and his friends crossed the street to a small house where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law. And the whole town crowded round the door that evening, hoping for more healing – which they got. But in the morning he gathered his team and moved on, announcing in word and deed that the reign of God was beginning. And they moved about that region so the news spread.

Eventually it was time to go up to Jerusalem so they took the Jericho road. And on the way he healed beggars and warned them, and all who would follow him, that it was necessary for him to go – and take his message and its consequences all the way.

This meant appearing at the center of Jewish religion at the tensest, busiest time as all converged on the Temple – where the great feast would be inaugurated. But he would not live to see it – if John’s timing is right.

From the triumphal entry on a colt, a political drama enacting the arrival of God’s anointed – in pointed opposition to Herod and Rome – to his teaching in the Temple, he continues his mission, announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom: now not in a small synagogue but on a big open plaza with the Temple machinery plonk in the middle of it, the possibility of thousands gathering who could hear and see him – and then he does this! [The Cleansing of the Temple] – which may have set the match to the tinder. He drives out the cattle and overthrows the business dealings because that is what the Messiah does when he arrives. So they plot to kill him – or have him removed, as an administrative inconvenience.

Grabbed in the dark outside of town at his encampment among olive trees, he is dragged – lets himself be dragged – to the house of Caiaphas then across town to stand before Pilate. On the common pavement the soldiers mock him, play games with him on their traditional game board (see where they kept score) and load the crosspiece on his back of the engine of his own execution. They march him through the marketplace, indifferent or gawking people brushing past him and they go take him outside the walls, up a little precipice, pound in the upright, and kill him. Rome is done with him – except for the laughter, the relieved chatter, the embarrassed or amused spectator. His body can rot there for all they care – or be case on a dung heap. Rome has no tears to shed.

But a pious Jew (like Tobit) takes the body and gives it proper burial, in a new tomb. It would stay there until the flesh is consumed and the bones collected and put in an ossuary (see examples in Israel Museum including Caiaphas’ and a Jesus son of Joseph) if all went as expected.

Just why did Jesus go up to Jerusalem? What did he hope to accomplish?

Luke 4:18-19
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Mark 1:14-15
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Did he achieve his purpose? After all?

You can go there – to a place archaeologists say is “very probably” the tomb, and lay your head on the stone – the marble slab where the body lay. Eyes closed. All is dark. Time stops. Then breath returns.

Is the world the same? Or different?