“The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking
It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.”
Dion is on his knees and cries out with the lash of the whip. He inches forward, willing every muscle to keep moving, despite the brutal kicks and blows raining down on him. Soon he collapses, unable to crawl but still straining, as if even his finger tips pull him closer. Closer to the cross. I watch from my seat in the theatre and couldn’t care less about the people sitting next to me, or the mascara bleeding down my cheeks. Because, suddenly, the crucifixion makes sense.
Some things about Christianity turn me on, but other parts leave a bad taste in my mouth. There are the obvious detractors: violent episodes staining the church’s history (continuing as I type), politicians with swollen egos who manipulate religion to their advantage, and weird aspects of Christian sub-culture that surely make Jesus cringe. Even central tenets of the faith, like the crucifixion, cause me to wonder. I’ve often thought it would be much easier if we could all just celebrate the stories that resonate with Tricia and forget about the rest. This Tricia-ism would revel in Jesus as a light-bringing, bad-ass liberator and distribute propaganda depicting the God-man tracing his fingers through dust to save a woman caught in an affair or filling vats of wine at a party. Stories like these, and most others in the Gospels, would make the cut without a problem.
The cross, though, would throw a wrench into the cult strategic planning. We’d have to stop and think carefully if it fit our Tricia-sensiblities. But reading through the Biblical account a few times could get depressing and, at the very worst, convince us Hitler isn’t the only one who had a problem. Unfortunately, talk of needing a rescuer to save us from ourselves would cast a somber mood on the whole event so I’d probably suggesting skipping it for awhile and going back to the party scene instead. Parties are more palateable than ancient sacrificial rites, or our own neediness, anyway.
Besides the social awkwardness of the cross, the fact Jesus had to die a brutal death has never made sense to me. Sure, his people were used to slaughtering animals to make up for their mistakes, but couldn’t God have stepped out of the box a little here, knowing modern-day people like me might not appreciate the cultural context? And even though I get that part, how did all the barbaric substitution start in the first place? Why does something have to die to make a wrong a right? And, how does one guy suffering on a tree save anybody else?
Watching our actor friend, Dion, play Jesus in a musical production doesn’t systematically address these questions but it changes something for me. While he doggedly slithers forward towards the cross I tingle with gratitude and relief. My visceral response, watching this cosmic sacrifice, is more a weary “Finally!” than theological debate. Finally God has woken up. Finally He gets a taste of how bad it can get down here. Finally He comes to the rescue. Finally… He dies.
This might seems like a broody reaction.
“What about the beauty all around us?” you might interrupt. “It’s not so bad here. Why focus on the negative? Why so melancholy?”
Now, I’m a cup-half-full kind of person; looking for the upside is instinctual for me and comes without much effort. But when I read about military rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, how fathers and sons are forced to watch while soldiers crush wives and mothers, I come undone. When I imagine how it might have been for the Newtown teachers, picturing my own first grade students leaving dead friends behind, beauty escapes me.
If the Force of the Universe pressed all of its Godliness into a human body, lived our reality, and then came down with the sniffles, it wouldn’t be enough. Not for me. Not for my one-year-old niece in chemo. Not for the Jews in death camps, or the child dreading nightly incest. Taking on our suffering, bearing it for us, wouldn’t produce a bad case of the chills for this Force; it would kill it. And that’s what happened.
After the musical, I drop Belén’s buddy off at her front door with some awkward concern. “You might want to debrief with her,” I tell her dad. “I asked the girls what they thought about the play but I think you should ask her again.” Her dad closes the door and I walk back to my car, still soaked with the story we’d just witnessed onstage. Now, a month later, I realize she wasn’t the only one who needed debriefing. In fact, I’m still coming to terms with what we’re going to celebrate on Good Friday. I’m sure, though, that we need it. I need Good Friday.
I doubt Stanley Kunitz, the poet who penned the lines at the beginning of this post, was thinking of the crucifixion when he wrote his poem but upon reading it, I did. I thought of Dion reaching for the cross, limp but desperate, and I realized why the story is so important. Because of Good Friday, because God’s heart breaks and breaks, I live. Because Jesus went through dark and deeper dark and didn’t turn, I can stand it here.
PS. If you came to my blog looking for another sourdough recipe you must be confused and perhaps feeling bombarded. The truth is, this blog is unpredictable and inconsistent. Thanks for reading anyhow.