Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Seven Last Words of Christ #7

Lenten Meditation
April 8, 2009

Seventh Word
Luke 24.46, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

It’s one thing to take your life in your hands. Want to scale that mountain? It’s your life. Want to hop on your granddaughter’s skateboard and try out the half-pipe? It’s your life. We tend to think what we do with ourselves in private and that doesn’t affect anyone else is our business. It’s a form of ethical egoism. An ex-Marine friend of mine said they called it the 180 rule when he was in the Pacific—what happens west of the 180th stays there. Vegas took ethical egoism and made it into a PR campaign. As long as no one else can get hurt, why not?

It’s another thing to take someone else’s life in your hands. Physicians take the Hippocratic Oath—first of all, do no harm. When your patient comes in need of help, you diagnose, you treat, but under it all, you recognize that you have an obligation to someone else’s health and happiness. Any time you drive a child to school you’re taking someone else’s life in your hands—so don’t text or do email while you’re driving. For that matter, even when you’re alone in the car, the other drivers on the road are in your hands. Professionally, personally, emotionally, legally—we have a responsibility for each other’s well-being, a sacredness of life to honor and uphold. If the Good Samaritan had come along a little earlier and seen the robbers beating up the man beside the road, he would have been obligated to stop the mugging, not just wait until it was over to bind the wounds. Internationally, politically, we get involved because when you have the responsibility to help someone else and the power to do it, it’s wrong not to. As Emmanuel Levinas put it after the Holocaust, when we meet someone face-to-face, we become responsible for them.

Taking your life in your own hands is relatively easy, but isolating. Taking another’s life in your hands is inevitable, and morally compelling.

It’s another thing entirely to place your life in God’s hands. This isn’t a question of obligation. The great commandment aside, you cannot order someone to love you and force it to happen. No matter how loud you scream, “Trust me!” or how successfully manipulative you are with someone else’s emotions, you can’t make someone have faith in you. And neither can God. With all God’s power to create, enable, and persuade, God cannot force us to love him or have faith in him and maintain that the results are genuine love and faith. It’s up to us. To place my life in God’s hands is to acknowledge that I am not the center of the universe. To place my life in God’s hands is ultimately an act of the deepest trust.

But when you have commended your life into God’s hands, you have done what Jesus did on the cross. You haven’t denied your own strength to act for yourself, because it takes tremendous strength to let go of that to which we most closely cling. You haven’t given up responsibility, because it is an act of great responsibility to decide where your life belongs. Instead, you have embodied the deepest faith and love of which human being are capable. You have come finally to the cross. You have found your life in God.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Seven Last Words of Christ #6

Lenten Meditation
April 1, 2009

Sixth Word
John 19.30, “It is finished.”

The artist makes the final stroke on the canvas, and the painting is finished. The surgeon ties off the final stitch. The operation is finished. You push back from the table, satisfied, full, the last drops of coffee cooling in the cup and the crumbs of cake clinging to the napkin. The meal is finished.

So many things come to an end. We live in time, you and I, so beginnings and endings make sense of our experience. Projects at work begin and end. Appointments begin and end. Relationships are more murky, but they, too, have their beginnings—just listen to a couple tell their story—and their ends, sometimes painful. Our main experience of the world is temporal, in time—chronos, in Greek. T.S. Eliot wrote, “For I … have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons; I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

What is so ordinary about Jesus’ death is that it takes place in real time. Each breath, each heartbeat, is measurable on a chart. In the horizontal plane of chronological time, he is nailed to the cross, lifted up, mocked. He dies in time. What is so extraordinary about Jesus’ death is that it also takes place outside of time and connects us to eternity. He dies before he should—the soldiers come to break his legs as an act of mercy, allowing his death to come more quickly, but he has already breathed his last. God’s mercy trumps that of soldiers … or disciples. The horizontal coffee-spoon reality is transformed by the verticality, the transcendence, of Jesus’ final moment.

The word tetelesthai (it is finished) conveys not only the end of something in time but the completion of something that stands outside of time—there is a fullness made complete in Jesus’ death, an action transforming the present. It is like a cup of water with a thin film of oil on the surface touched by a single drop of dish soap. The entire surface is transformed in every direction at once. When Jesus says tetelesthai, “it is finished,” everything, everywhere and every when, becomes different in the eternity of now. Past, present and future are transformed.

With Jesus’ death, what is finished isn’t like the final stroke on the canvas, the painting sold and hung. It isn’t like the surgeon’s work, now healed and never, we hope, to be needed again. It isn’t like finishing dinner, which we then begin to crave again in a few hours. What is finished in Jesus’ death is completed not just in time but outside of it, bringing time and space themselves into a sort of fullness that overflows in everlasting abundance, that burns with an eternal flame casting light through all of history.

We ourselves who have been baptized into his death are thus finished, complete, made whole. We who are in Christ receive newness of life, the paradox of salvation. Evil, sin, and death have no ultimate power. They come to an end. What endures brings wholeness, healing, love and light. What is finished, made complete on the cross, is our salvation.