John Bennison Words and Ways | 2013 | March

The Easter Way of Jesus: A Modern Day Via Dolorosa


"Crucifixon", contemporary Indian artist F.N.Souza

“Crucifixon”, contemporary Indian artist F.N.Souza

You can read and/or print a pdf version of this commentary here.

It has often been said you can’t get to Easter morning and an empty tomb except by way of Good Friday and the cross of crucifixion.  But since boyhood, that pilgrimage of Holy Week seemed like the same old story and well trodden path. Palm Sunday always started out well enough with glory, laud and honor. But by Maundy Thursday things had always seemed to take a turn for the worse, leaving most children like myself to wonder just what was so good about Good Friday.

The standard line – as best I could figure it out – was that whatever was bad for Jesus, was good for us. And then a few days later — as it turned out — it was good for Jesus too; since obviously you can’t get yourself raised to new life unless you’ve first died. Bummer.

 However, that last part at least has become a truism for me in my own life thus far. The number of times a little part of me has died along the way has always subsequently been met by a new lease on life; and, most importantly, not of my own making. There’s that, as well as the gift of knowing through personal experience that losing something of one’s life has led to gain elsewhere.

Most of us who have made it to middle age, and then pressed on towards our own ultimate demise, have done so with a certain knowing and appreciation that eventually – one way or another — life is all about recovery; usually, that is, recovery from whatever has preceded it that left unchecked would stop us in our tracks.

Sometimes one is so utterly changed, some would call it transformation.  But even with the certain knowledge of my own mortal imperfections and feet of clay, the eyes of my imagination can still glimpse what one might at least call a hint of that other word, resurrection.

As a preacher’s son wandering my own early paths of unknowing, I could only wonder about the non-sense of a story that was referred to as the “Passion” for some strange reason. So the innocent, good and righteous sacrificial savior suffers a horrific death so we wouldn’t have to do so ourselves?  Still makes no sense. Never did, never will.

The carved wooden crucifix that hung on the wall of my father’s study where he would write his sermons was far more illustrative to me than any orthodox doctrine he would subsequently pound out from the pulpit. With eyes transfixed on the woodworkers craft, I was always fascinated by that twisted torso, the pegged feet, the outstretched arms, and the head hung in utter subjugation with a spiked crown of thorns that inexorably expresses the human capacity we all have for cruelty and human violence.

In contrast, I have always found most objectionable the most common depictions of the crucifixion in two millennia of artwork where a thorny crown gets replaced with a golden halo, and the bloody and tattered loincloth is replaced with the royal robes one would be more likely to see worn by those earthly monarchs and pompous clerics Jesus was so apt to criticize.

If Jesus died for anything, he laid down his life like most social prophets and martyrs as a complete and utter refutation and relinquishment of any such vestiges of earthly kingdoms. Whatever the subsequent followers of the donkey king would retrospectively make of him, he was regarded by the powers that be as nothing more than a nuisance. As more than one biblical scholar has pointed out, the real significance of Jesus’ crucifixion lay in the fact that anyone subsequently noticed and cared about the execution of a nobody.  But it is the way of a nobody, not a somebody, that has so often altered the way of an otherwise weary world.

Recently the secular media has been enthralled with the resignation of a papal prince and the election of his replacement. Live coverage breathlessly covered every moment of the transition of papal power; from Benedict’s departure, to the “smoke cam” vigil, to emergence and debut of Pope Francis.

While press and pundits speculated on how this mega-corporation might deal differently now with its administrative nightmares like alleged financial corruption and mishandled abuse cases, celibacy and the role of women in an institution more akin to the Middle Ages, little attention has been given to any discussion of the arcane doctrines which even many of the church’s members no longer follow or believe; let alone the gospel premise upon which the institution would presume to claim any legitimate right to exist in the first place.

Much has been made of Pope Francis’ re-emphasis on the church’s mission to the poor; while naysayers undertaking their own post-election vetting process of the Holy Father have resurrected decades-old allegations that Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, once cooperated – if not collaborated — with Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship; when many priests sympathetic to those who opposed the regime’s treatment of dissidents were regarded as no more than a nuisance. They were allegedly identified by the church hierarchy, arrested, imprisoned, tortured and even killed.  Time and again throughout human history, it seems, we see the Passion play reenacted; only to have the names and places change, but the actors are seldom out of character.

At the same time, simple gestures and symbols matter.  The introduction of Francis to a watching world at the very least suggests a rebranded image of a peasant Pope. It has been said the fisherman’s ring on his finger is gold-plated this time; whereas his immediate predecessor’s was solid gold.  Still, such a choice was hardly ever a dilemma for the Galilean peasant sage; let alone those first followers who struggled to make sense of Jesus’ words, his deeds and early demise.

Over my morning coffee last month I happened to catch the live coverage of the former Pontiff’s departure from the public eye. The television cameras followed every small step the old man would take, as he emerged from his impressive Vatican residence, impeccably adorned in his pure white cassock.  He would walk past dozens of members of his household staff who would bow and curtsy, to a polished black limousine, adorned with a shiny silver papal seal on the door, and two flags posted on the front bumper like any other head of state.

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Dust and Ashes: The Gift of Mortality

Comments are welcome at the end of the commentary. A pdf version to print and/or read is here.

Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (John 11:44)  Right: “Raising of Lazarus” - mid-12th century mosaic, Capella di Palatina Palermo, Italy

“Raising of Lazarus” – mid-12th century mosaic, Capella di Palatina Palermo, Italy

Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

(John 11:44)


Ash on an old man’s sleeve

Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

Dust in the air suspended

Marks the place where a story ended.

From Little Gidding, The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot


Avowed atheist Susan Jacoby recently created a dust up with a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review entitled, “The Blessings of Atheism.” She wrote in response to all the god-talk that appeared in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown massacre; where much of the attempts at consoling the bereaved stirred up, once again, the unanswerable questions or inadequate answers to human suffering and death so often peddled around in popular religious belief.

So too, not long ago author and “non-believer,” Christopher Hitchen’s posthumously published his little book Mortality; recounting his rambling thoughts on his own imminent demise; after a terminal diagnosis left him a sufficient number of days to find himself “deported from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”

But what, or where to, after that?  What if this really is all there is?

It seems there has always been the human hankering to imagine all kinds of fanciful notions, in our attempts to recapitulate our mortal existence into something more than it is.  Many religious traditions, including centuries of “mainline” orthodox Christianity, employ great mythic stories to describe a life subsumed into something greater than we can either know, or grasp, except by “faith.” Heaven knows, some folks try to better themselves, merely in the hope of a remote possibility there is something more, after our death, which is a certainty.

There has always been the human hankering to imagine all kinds of fanciful notions, in our attempts to recapitulate our mortal existence into something more than it is.  … Heaven knows, some folks try to better themselves, merely hoping in the possibility there something more, after our death, which is a certainty.

Where theologians fail to persuade, even a Harvard neurosurgeon recently stepped in to describe what he says was his own scientifically verifiable near-death experience in his book, Evidence of the Afterlife. But in the end, the unanswerable question persists for many: Is it all dust and ashes?

This is the liturgical time of year when many in the Christian tradition undergo a seasonal pilgrimage in which the faithful are reminded at the onset we mortals are nothing more than dust. And so we will one day return to that from whence we came.

Then the traditional forty days end with the perennial re-enactment of a passion play commemorating the mortal demise of the one whom Christians even these many centuries later would profess to follow. Many do so in the hope of some kind of immortality for themselves in some indecipherable form or other; attributing to Jesus a “resurrection” that means the same thing to them as god-like immortality; while others of us may find such imaginings to be not only reasonably implausible, but of less importance than what we take to be of greater significance and meaning in this faith tradition.

Such indifference is somewhat akin to the unimportance of debating “believability” in all those wonderful miracle stories found in the gospels; which, by definition, can’t be explained without explaining them away. But where, in addition, the point of the miracle isn’t so much the dazzling magical  feat, but the consequence of healing the outcast, or feeding the hungry multitude, or inspiring someone like Lazurus with a new lease life. It is what I call the Lazarus factor and effect that’ll be further explored in this commentary.

Otherwise, the vainglorious hope of immortality can become so enshrouded in our mortal fears that we become – like Lazarus in his early grave – so wrapped up in death that we fail to truly acknowledge and appreciate the gift of our mortality for what it is; nothing more, nor less.

With the certain assurance then that we are but dust and ash, we can ask ourselves if the gift of our mortality is not only enough, but more than enough?  And if so, as the psalmist says, how then shall we “number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom?” (Psalm 90:12)


Mortal, can these bones live?

The biblical tradition is certainly full of life and death struggles; including plenty of stories of murder and mayhem. There are great mythic tales of the dead being raised or renewed to new life.  The prophet/priest Ezekiel, preaching to the exiles after the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, gives an expansive image of a valley full of dry bones, and asks, “Mortal, can these bones live again?”  (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Rattling bones are then reconstituted with sinew, flesh and the breath of life. But context is always essential when giving authoritative weight to anything as important as scripture. And so, lest we read too much into the story and miss the point, the prophet provides his own interpretation. “Then he said to me,” Ezekiel explains, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.”

The familiar passage is not about the reconstitution of one’s mortal nature, but the assurance of an enduring legacy left to those who still draw breath.

Okay, but what about those who nonetheless wonder about our own individual mortality? What about those of us who have felt as though we were as good as dead at one or more times in our life?

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