Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Walking The King’s Highway

The Church Year is something like a parade with floats.

The floats are the seasons, fasts, feasts and festivals of the year, each theme based on some facet of God’s love for the world and for humanity.  Advent recalls the ages when a fallen human race waited expectantly for the promised Deliverer.  Christmas celebrates the moment when the Word of God became flesh, and lived among us as a man.  The weeks of Epiphany, which means “appearance” or “manifestation”, focus on the Galilean ministry of Jesus, as he manifested himself to ordinary people, and especially to his disciples.

Now, in Lent, there is a new float, and a different theme.  In Matthew 16:21-28 we read of the moment when Jesus tells his closest followers that the road he is walking leads to Jerusalem, to suffering and to death.  Simon Peter wants nothing of this: “God forbid, Lord!  This shall never happen to you.”  The objection earns Peter the sharpest rebuke in the New Testament: “Get behind me Satan!  You are a hindrance to me.  You are not on the side of God, but of men.”  Jesus goes on to explain that this new road, with its obstacles, suffering and death, is the very heart and center of his mission.  Bypass this, he says, and all the rest will be for nothing.

Yes, and yet my natural self sides with Peter.

That the King’s Highway to eternal life runs through, not around, the evils, the suffering, the apparent absurdity of the world is among the most difficult lessons of Christian living.

We don’t like it, but consider the alternative.   Suppose that in his ministry Jesus had confined himself to doing good, speaking words of comfort and offering forgiveness.  Suppose he never took on the corruption and hypocrisy of the world, never took risks, never faced evil, died peacefully in old age, or perhaps bypassed death altogether.  If that had been the course of his life, we would lose the distinctive Christian claim that in Christ, God came among us, shared our common lot in all its particulars, conquered sin and death and made possible the redemption of the world.

C.S. Lewis compares Christ’s work to that of an old-style teacher of penmanship, who guides the student’s hand through the exercises in order to let the student experience the way it feels to form letters and words correctly.  When Jesus is showing us the way of mercy and compassion, we are usually eager to follow and learn more.  Lent, however, marks the harder lessons, which tax our minds, and even more test our wills.

If we allow it, this subdued, somber season can allow us to enter and deal with parts of our humanity that we would prefer to avoid.  Is there injustice in the world?  Is there prejudice in my soul?  Does life seem meaningless?  Do I harbor thoughts that frighten me?  Have I done those things I ought not to have done, or left undone those things I ought to have done?  Do I fear that the universe is without God, or do I fear that God is all too real?  We often close off these questions, and countless others, in a corner of our mind that becomes for us a deep cellar-space with no light, but occasional growlings and scratchings at the door.

Lent can be a time to explore the cellar, if we will accept Jesus’ challenge to his disciples to accompany him to Jerusalem.  The way may be frightening, but we will have an experienced guide, one who faced it all with the same fear and trepidation we feel, who experienced the worst of it, and in the end triumphed over it.  His advice to us is stark and simple: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”   Whoever would be spared the terrors of the cellar will eventually be consumed by them, but whoever will risk letting Him serve as guide will overcome.

How to do that?  Some Quakers recommend once a year making a full accounting of all you have done, thought, wished for and feared, submitting it to God and listening for affirmation or correction.  Those of us not steeped in Quaker discipline usually find a need for more structure.  One dimension can be fulfilled by following the course of Lenten services at your own church.  For your private time, prayerfully examine the past twelve months, using as reference points the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters 5-7) and St. Paul’s hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13).  Our challenge is to walk this difficult road, not alone, but in company with the One who has already walked it, knowing it is hard and frightening, but in the hope that the journey is possible and the goal is worth the struggle.

Howard MacMullen
© February, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment