Easter Series

Why It’s Okay to Cry When Notre Dame Burns

In response to the recent fire at the Notre Dame cathedral, most people I know fell into two camps: the ones talking about how tragic the event was…and those who felt those people had their priorities wrong. “Why all of the sadness about a cathedral when innocent people die every day from preventable causes?” they ask. “We have no right call this a tragedy compared to that.”

I understand the heart behind what they’re saying. Most of the people voicing those opinions care deeply about other issues—human trafficking, abuse, malnutrition, and every other evil that directly affects human lives. Many of them, like me, are Christians who are acting out their belief that physical things—even a thing as full of art and history and beauty as Notre Dame—will not ultimately last, while our own souls are eternal.

So…isn’t it right, even biblical, to set aside sadness for Notre Dame and replace it with better priorities?

Not necessarily. Come along with me to Ezra 3, where the exiled people of Israel are back in their ruined city, rebuilding the walls and the temple, dedicating back to the Lord what they’d built back from the ruins.

“And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.”

Joy and sorrow, crammed together in the same verses. They weren’t mourning the loss of human life. They were crying over the diminished glory of a place of worship, comparing it to Solomon’s temple and remembering its splendor.

It’s just a building.

Oh, but it’s all right to mourn for it. There’s a reason God left that aching contrast in the Bible, I think. We can let it remind us of the paradoxical reality of living in a world where nothing beautiful lasts. When we mourn Notre Dame, we might not know it, but it becomes a symbol for every broken promise and every stolen innocence and every child’s gravestone, for every injustice and suffering and pain.

“Not again,” we are saying together, watching the footage of smoke and flame. “Please, no. Just let one beautiful thing survive, this once.”

But it, like everything else, goes from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust. Just like we will.

I had the chance to tell the Ezra 3 story to the kids at our church a few months ago. It had been a particularly difficult week for me, and as I explained the passage, I told them, “It’s all right to come to church feeling deeply sad and bring that sadness to God. Sometimes our grief can be worship too.”

You could see understanding dawning on them. I know their families. Many of them have had hard years, filled with loss and setbacks and disappointments.

I hope they made the connection between this passage and why it’s okay to grieve at funeral and why Mom sometimes cries while singing “It is Well with My Soul” and why we can’t help but feel deeply sad when we see hurt and heartbreak and destruction in the world around us.

We weren’t meant for this. That’s the gospel, backed out from our individual lives to include all of history.

The world was good, the world is fallen, the world will be redeemed.

Good Friday comes before Easter, and we’re in the shadowy in-between of Easter and the Final Redemption. It’s all right to mourn for what’s broken and corrupted and silent and hard until that day. That includes the fiery destruction of a cathedral, but of course, it shouldn’t stop there.

We should be shocked and horrified by every account of evil and suffering we hear about, especially the kind that takes human life. It’s hard. We see a scrolling litany of it in our news, and it’s easy to know too much and feel too little.

We are, all of us, cathedrals, created to reflect the glory of God, every tiny, beautiful detail of our lives arranged to point to truth about him.

But it wasn’t just the world, generically, that is fallen. I wasn’t at that first Fall, but I’ve been present at thousands of miniature ones since then, where I deliberately reject the glory I’m supposed to bear. I break the law and turn away from good, I fear instead of trusting, lie instead of seeking truth, hurt instead of healing.

Sometimes I feel like a charred building, gutted out by flames with only remnants of good left behind. Sometimes I look around at this mess of a world and see a smoldering ruin. Something that once was—and could still be—heartbreakingly beautiful. But it has been destroyed beyond recognition.

That’s always my mindset going into Good Friday. That’s why I always cry for Judas, every single year, because in his failure and fall, I see my own, and all of humanity’s. I see, in his story, a thousand headlines about burning cathedrals, and it is a tragedy beyond words. I see myself, too, in the choices he made. Except for the last one.

I have fallen. But I have been and I am and I will be redeemed.

Notre Dame burned on Holy Week. That is sad, and it is good for our souls, I think, to be sad about every violent act that reminds us that this isn’t the way things are supposed to be.

But we’re on the other side of Easter, the first act of redemption that promises and makes possible the Great Restoration.

The world—in all its evil and chaos and hopelessness—has fallen. But redemption has come, is here, and will one day come in fullness. And that’s a reason to shout for joy.

(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas, either directly or indirectly. Here are the archives for anyone who’s interested: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.)

Judas and the Mermaids: the Seduction of Sin

If you’ve ever wondered how Proverbs 7 would sound as a folk song about a sexy mermaid (and really, who hasn’t?), this one is for you.

This week I was listening to the Decemberists’s song “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes.” The first half of the song is a minor key dirge about a man drawn to his doom by a mythical rusalka, a Russian siren. Starting at the 3:45 mark in the lyric video below is a parallel story about a younger, more naïve victim and his gradual descent into the water.

 

Here’s the summary: ignoring his mother’s warnings about the danger of the wild rushes, a young man dips his feet into the water…and hears a woman’s sweet voice urging him to come deeper.

When the woman reassures him, “I long for your touch, but I won’t ask too much,” he steps in to his knees.

At “Come a little closer,” he wades in to his chest.

Then when she reminds him, “For deeper the water, the sweeter the sin,” he goes in to his neck.

And then, swept from his feet, he’s suddenly pulled under.

But it wasn’t really suddenly at all, was it?

And the listeners learn: all sin is seduction, and it leads to death. (more…)

The Vineyard: A Story for Good Friday

MARTHA

The Passover crowd surrounded him like buzzards. Sometime, selfishly, I wished Jesus would send them all away, and speak only to us as he used to back in Bethany. But of course, he couldn’t do that, not with so many of the curious gathering to hear him.

The parable he told was a short and direct: a man bought a vineyard and left tenants to tend it. When harvest came, he sent servants to collect the fruit. The tenants beat, abused, and even killed the servants. Finally, the owner sent his own son…but the tenants killed him too.

MARY

As Jesus told his story, I thought of a different vineyard. No other rabbi will teach women, of course, but there are certain stories they make sure we know: ones where women caused the downfall of men. We all know of Eve and Tamar and Bathsheba. They are cautionary tales.

And none more than Jezebel.

King Ahab found a vineyard he couldn’t have, and like the men in Jesus’ parable, he wanted to take it by force. But Queen Jezebel had a better plan. Invite the owner of the vineyard to a feast, she said, make him feel welcome, seat him in the best place, next to the king, his friend.

And then they betrayed him. Paid false witnesses to speak lies about him. And the crowd dragged him away and stoned him.

Ahab got everything he ever wanted, and for a moment, I wonder if he thought he was happy.

But when he went down to claim the vineyard, the word of the Lord came to him. The prophet Elijah declared that for his treachery, he too would die. Then Ahab regretted his choice…but it was too late.

And Jezebel? We’re not told if she had any regrets. I doubt she ever did.

LAZARUS

Like the other boys from well-to-do families, I studied the Scriptures. None fascinated me more than Isaiah. Something about him…a kind of lyricism. He spoke the truth, but he made poems instead of proclamations. He told stories.

That’s what Jesus does. That’s what I’ve done, these past few months. “Did you hear about the time I died and was brought back to life?” I say. And it draws people in, every time. Like this passage from Isaiah:

“My loved one had a vineyard

    on a fertile hillside.

He dug it up and cleared it of stones

    and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

    and cut out a winepress as well.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

    but it yielded only bad fruit.”

Everything was there in the parable—do you see it? The vines, the wall, the watchtower. I felt a kind of dread as Jesus spoke of the owner sending messengers, because I knew what would happen to them. I knew who they were.

They were Ezekiel and Nathan and Jeremiah and Micah and every other prophet who brought tidings a stubborn people didn’t want to hear. I saw Elijah in the parable. I saw Isaiah.

I saw myself.

MARTHA

Why would he come into Jerusalem at the time he is both most loved and most hated? Doesn’t he know he’s putting himself and all of his followers into danger, speaking like this?

He never has seemed to care about that.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to me, when Lazarus died.

It’s an outrageous statement, really. But I was too tired from crying to laugh, or to get angry, or even to question him. A moment before, I had thought there was nothing left in me at all, hollowed out by grief.

But then I heard myself replying, “I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God.”

And I realized there was something left after all: faith.

MARY 

Sometimes, after Jesus tells a parable, I look around to find the ones really listening and understanding, not just hearing.

Today, I saw the group of Pharisees on the fringes, their hateful glances shouting what they attempted to hide behind whispers. With joyful crowds all around Jesus, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem, they can’t speak against him—yet.

And then I turned away from our enemies, back to our friends and found there was one face among the disciples that was…different. Most were confused, others indignant, carried away by the injustice of the tenants. But one stood apart, a frown on his face, as if wondering: were the tenants the real villains of the story?

And I thought, “I have found Jezebel and Ahab.”

LAZARUS

The crowd was watching, waiting. But instead of telling us the ending of the story, Jesus asked us to supply it. “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

And I wanted to say, with Isaiah:

“Now I will tell you

    what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge,

    and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

    and it will be trampled.

I will make it a wasteland.”

Something terrible is coming, isn’t it?

MARTHA

Jesus’ parables are rather straightforward when you stop puzzling over the details and ask two simple questions: where is God and where am I?

This time, I knew: God owns the vineyard. And I want to be a branch that bears fruit, a faithful tenant. Whatever comes next, that is something I can be sure of.

But sometimes, when I allow myself to think on it, I do wonder: what is coming next?

MARY

“Are you there, my old enemy?” That’s what Ahab said to the prophet in the vineyard. It’s a terrifying thing, calling the one sent from God your enemy. I wonder, has Judas thought of that?

Jesus must know. What did he say? “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

This may be the Lord’s doing, but it is not marvelous in my eyes. No. I am afraid. That’s my old enemy: fear. And there’s no need to ask if it’s there. It always will be…but especially today.

Sometimes, I can still smell the perfume I used for his anointing. “She is preparing me for my burial,” Jesus said, when one of the disciples protested that I had wasted something expensive that could be used for a better purpose.

Judas. It was Judas, who said that, wasn’t it?

LAZARUS

“The vineyard of the LORD Almighty

    is the nation of Israel,

and the people of Judah

    are the vines he delighted in.

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;

    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”

The crowd walked away from Jesus’ parable feeling satisfied, because there was justice. The right prevailed. But the passage about the vineyard from Isaiah ends with blood and distress. Which will we see, this Passover?

But he can’t die. Surely not the one who already showed power over death. It isn’t possible.

This can’t be how the story ends.

(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas, either directly or indirectly. Here are the archives: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.)

 

Almost Midnight: A Story for Maundy Thursday

 

Passover

Do you know what my favorite part of Passover is, brother? The bitter herbs.

Don’t look at me like that. I saw you slip some under the table last year, coward, even though Mother didn’t catch you. You shouldn’t do that, you know. We’re meant to remember: nothing sweet comes without something bitter.

Every year, parents are supposed to tell their children of why we celebrate the Passover meal. Now that Father is gone, I suppose it falls to me, then, being the oldest.

Mother doesn’t tell it right. She tells only the sweet—God’s mercy in leading us to freedom. Just like a woman, I suppose. The God they serve is weak and beautiful, the psalms they sing are the ones with happy endings, the ones without curses or darkness or unanswered questions.

I’ll show you the bitter, Simon. You’re old enough now. You listen, and you tell me if it doesn’t feel more real.

Do you ever wonder what the angel of death looked like? I do. I’ve drawn sketches of him, hundreds of times. He’s no pure and golden archangel like the ones in the temple, that’s for sure. I see a figure with a bared sword the size of a city wall, towering with thundering steps, crushing all who stand in his path and try to resist. Red eyes, the smoke of wrath curling about him. And blood. His robe is dripping with blood.

It’s almost midnight in Egypt. The cruel oppressors are in their beds, but they don’t sleep well, none of them, for their dreams are haunted by the ravaging disease, the crawling pestilence, and unfathomable darkness of the plagues. More than that, some have heard whispers of worse to come.

Among our people, no one sleeps. Everyone is preparing for the great Exodus, following God’s instructions, holding their breath under blood-drenched doorposts. Counting down till midnight.

Yes, the women could bake the unleavened bread and whisper prayers and lullabies over their children that night. But someone had to slit the lamb’s throat. There is the bitter in the sweet, Simon. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” God himself said that.

Then…midnight comes, and the angel of death unsheathes his sword. The story started with rivers of blood, and that is where it ends. The blood of the lambs…and the blood of every firstborn son of Egypt. I’d have died, if I’d been born among them.

What would you do, waking up, to find the angel of death had slaughtered all the heirs in your land, great to small?

You’d cry out, just like they did. Listen, Simon. Can you hear what it must have sounded like? I hear it sometimes, in my dreams. It sounds like every tax collector dying in agony, every Roman mother wailing for a lost son, every oppressor cowering in fear, suddenly realizing that the weak people they belittled and bullied for so long decided it was time to fight back.

We don’t know how the angel struck them down. I like to think, sometimes, that they were hacked to pieces.

Don’t look at me like that. They threw our babies into the Nile to be drowned or eaten by beasts. It’s no more than they deserved. And besides, they had fair warning.

Sometimes I wonder about Pharaoh—how could someone who had seen all the miracles of God that he had, who had heard God’s messenger predict exactly what would happen still make the choice he did?

And then I realize I already know: power. Control. The desire for more, always more, never satisfied. I understand him. Sometimes, when I tell the story to myself at Passover, I am Pharaoh, proud and determined. Sometimes I am the angel of death, bringing justice by the sword. Sometimes I am Moses. Sometimes I am God himself.

They say our God is a merciful deliverer. Don’t believe them, Simon. They tell you that to keep you docile, in hope that someday, if we pray enough, if we follow enough commandments, God will lead us out from the Roman empire.

They forget that our God is a warrior with legions of angelic armies at his command. Any Passover, at his command, and plagues and pestilence could sweep down again on our oppressors. Maybe not this Passover. Maybe not the next. But someday.

They call me a Zealot. Well, David himself said, “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” That’s in one of those Psalms Mother doesn’t sing. Do you know what it’s like to be consumed by something? By anger, by desire, by a need to rise up to a glorious destiny?

No? I suppose that would be too much to ask. I’ve always felt…very alone.

There’s something about the Passover, though. It’s special to me, somehow. If I could rise up on that day with the sword of the Lord and do something—anything—to stir our people out of their apathy, I could make them all free. I, Judas Iscariot, could be the second Moses.

So eat those bitter herbs, Simon. Let them linger on your tongue. Savor them. Remember that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, and if we wait too long, that blood might be ours instead of our enemies.

The day of death is coming, and soon. And I, for one, intend to be there when it happens.

 

(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas. Here are the archives: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.)

Holy Week with the Pharisees, Act Three, Scene Three

(The last script in a series leading up to Easter. To start at the beginning, go here.)

holyweek

Act Three, Scene Three

 

(MICHELLE is sweeping her porch, staring out at the street, when PETE runs on, clearly distracted by something. He nearly runs into her.)

PETE: Sorry about that. Gotta go!

MICHELLE: You again. Shouldn’t you be hiding with the rest of your friends until you can sneak out of Jerusalem?

PETE: Oh, we won’t be hiding now. Not after he showed up.

MICHELLE: He?

PETE: Guess you wouldn’t have heard. Of course not. How would you have?

MICHELLE: Trying to draw out the suspense. Well, it won’t work. Not on me. (Long pause, sighs.) All right, fine. What haven’t I heard?

PETE: I found a better ending. (more…)

Holy Week with the Pharisees, Act Three, Scene Two

(The eighth script in a series leading up to Easter. To start at the beginning, go here.)

holyweek

Act Three, Scene Two

(NICHOLAS, JOSEPHINE, and MICHELLE are sitting in a room together. NICHOLAS is halfheartedly looking through a large book, JOSEPHINE is pacing, MICHELLE is just staring.)

NICHOLAS: Well.

MICHELLE: Well.

JOSEPHINE: You can just say it, Michelle. You were right after all.

MICHELLE: Right about what?

JOSEPHINE: Not becoming a follower of Jesus. He was a fraud, like all the others.

MICHELLE: I wish I’d been wrong.

JOSEPHINE: And I wish I had listened to you. The body I buried—bloodied and torn…he was human, Michelle, just like any of us.

NICHOLAS: He was, after all, a good teacher, Josephine. The way he talked about God. God who loved us…

JOSEPHINE: I don’t appreciate being lied to, Nicholas. I don’t appreciate being…died on. Abandoned. Left clinging to a few stories about a banquet and a Father…

NICHOLAS: They were such beautiful stories, though.

JOSEPHINE: Stories are just lies, Nicholas. Let’s not kid ourselves. Not anymore.

NICHOLAS: I just can’t understand it. I was so sure he was the one.

JOSEPHINE: You carried his dead body, Nicholas. Saviors don’t die. Haven’t you read the Scriptures?

NICHOLAS: Of course I’ve read the Scriptures! I’ve memorized most of them! (more…)

Holy Week with the Pharisees, Act Three, Scene One

(The seventh script in a series leading up to Easter. To start at the beginning, go here.)

holyweek

Act Three, Scene One

 

(JOSEPHINE and NICHOLAS are seated facing the audience. NICHOLAS has his head in his hands. JOSEPHINE is staring blankly. A table with books is nearby.)

NICHOLAS: We have broken the Law. We, the Pharisees, have betrayed what we loved most.

JOSEPHINE (Wearily): What else could we do? They were all watching.

NICHOLAS: An illegal trial, late at night. False witnesses. Destroying the temple…refusing to pay taxes to Caesar…revolt and rebellion…he never said any of those things!

JOSEPHINE: But why, Nicholas? Why didn’t he defend himself? I would have said something, would have spoken up—if he had. But he never did.

NICHOLAS: We have broken the Law. No, no, it’s worse than that.

JOSEPHINE: I never knew there was something worse for Pharisee than breaking the Law.

NICHOLAS: We have broken him. I…have betrayed what I loved most. He was my teacher, Josephine. He was my friend. (They sit in silence, until ANNA and JEREMIAH enter.) (more…)