On Annunciation and Good Friday

Good Friday 2016

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.


“Christ is placed in the arms of his mother”; stations designed for Harcourt Parish by Barbara Tazewell.

John Donne wrote those words in 1608, one of the rare years, such as now in 2016, when Good Friday falls on March 25, the date one which the church typically recognizes the Festival of the Annunication to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is indeed seemingly incongruous to fall on the same day–indeed, it will not happen again for another century. The promise of the birth of Christ linked together with Christ’s bloody, brutal death. Donne’s poem hints at this incongruity with lines such as “The cedar plants itself and falls” and that wonderful image “Gabriel gives Christ to her and he her to John”

And yet Donne also makes the observation that these two events, incongruous as they might seem are indeed two sides of the same coin. “As in plain maps the furthest west is east.” Indeed, there was a period in the early centuries of the church (when dates were always shifting around) when the annunciation and Good Friday coincided intentionally. While we could get side-tracked with many many implications from that, there is one that I particularly want to highlight. This is something of a theological soap-box for me, namely the place of the doctrine of the incarnation in our observance of the crucifixion.

In my Palm Sunday sermon, I mentioned that a central image at the heart of our Christian faith is the kenosis, the self-emptying, the outpouring of Christ. That self-giving begins in the the work of the incarnation, when God comes to dwell with us in human form, but it culminates in the work of the cross. The ultimate act of self-denial, self sacrifice. Utter humility.

Good Friday is a day when we look with honesty at the darkness of our world. Both the cosmic–terror attacks, on going racial injustice. And the utterly personal–short tempers, unreflective consumerism. This is a dark day. But it is also the day that God confronted that darkness head-on. In defiance of the powers and principalities of a world that so often tells us to look out for ourselves … God gives of himself. Utterly. Completely. Willingly. The ultimate act of love. The work of reconciliation that is first signaled in the Angel’s proclamation to Mary comes to its completion in God’s willing self-sacrifice. And so Christ can cry from the cross “It is finished.”

Many of us are uncomfortable with Good Friday. Which is fair enough because there are some terrible theories in the Christian tradition about what it is that happened today. We rightly push against the idea that of a vengeful God who demanded human blood to atone for our sinfulness. But I also want to push against the idea that I hear preached and affirmed in our more progressive Christian circles that Jesus wasn’t really “supposed” to die. He was a victim of human betrayal. Good Friday didn’t need to happen. The violence of this day says more about us than it does about God. It seems we either cast Jesus as the hapless victim of a tyrannical deity or an angry mob. But in doing so we often rob the Christian narrative of its drama. The drama of God’s totally self-giving love for us. The drama of power displayed through weakness. Of defeat that will give way to victory.

There is another poem that links this theme of incarnation and crucifixion together, this one by Madeline L’Engle:
O you who bear the pain of the whole earth,
I bore you.
O you whose tears give human tears their worth,
I laughed with you.
You, who, when your hem is touched, give power,
I nourished you.
Who turn the day to night in this dark hour,
light comes from you.
O you who hold the world in your embrace,
I carried you.
O you who laughed and ate and walked the shore,
I played with you.
And I, who with all others, died for,
now I hold you.
May I be faithful to this final test,
in this last time I hold my child, my son,
His body close enfolded to my breast,
the holder held: the bearer bare.
Mourning to joy: darkness to mourn.
Open, my arms: your work is done.

Amen. It is finished.


“Goodbye ‘Room'”

So, I watched the Oscars last week. Which introduced me to Brie Larson’s award-winning performance in Room. Which inspired me not only to watch the film (and marvel at not only Larson’s performance but also that of her young co-star Jacob Tremblay) but also to read the novel and watch pretty much every interview with the cast I could find. I may be slightly obsessive.

Room-by-emma-donoghue-bookIt is difficult for me to figure out exactly why the story of Room captivated me as much as it did. I mean, Brie Larson’s performance is phenomenal, but the novel and the film both deal with some graphic and traumatic material. If you aren’t familiar with the premise, Room tells the story of five-year-old Jack and his relationship with “Ma,” whose real name we never learn in the novel.  Jack (our point-of-view character), has spent his entire life in a place he knows as“Room.” From Jack’s perspective, room  is the world. It is a good world. He has his friends like “Bed” and “Lamp” and “Table,” and he has a very set, normal routine. It takes a bit before we realize that “Room” is in fact a prison. It is the garden shed of a man who kidnapped “Ma” as a teenager and Jack is the outcome of her sexual assault.

Without given too much away, the pair eventually do escape and the rest of the novel is a fascinating exploration of the most mundane elements of the world, encountered by someone who has no frame of reference for them. Escaping from “Room” and encountering the world for the first time is the real trauma for Jack, not the imprisonment itself. He is confused by colors beyond what he experienced in Room, and going to a mall becomes like something out of a horror movie. We soon come to realize that there is a cost—there is something that Jack must give up—in order to experience all the wonderful things he has been deprived of for so long. He must give up the innocence, the simplicity, we might even say the perceived safety of “Room,” in order to experience life as a fully realized human being.

For all that “Room” deals with difficult subject matter and has an incredibly extreme premise at its core, there is something utterly universal in its message. Not only in Ma and Jack’s relationship as a universal reflection on parenting in all its complexities–without ever veering into the sentimental. But also in the whole question of what it means for each of us to step out of the simplicity and innocence of childhood as we grow up. Upon his escape from “Room,” Jack does indeed encounter much that pushes him to the limits of comprehension, but he also gradually discovers exciting things that he can take delight in–ice cream, and dogs, and playing ball in the back yard. When Jack and Ma have the opportunity to return to “Room” one last time, Jack realizes it is far smaller than he remembered, asking his mother “Did it shrink?”

While “Room” is most explicitly a meditation on what it means for us to “grow up” and move beyond the limited scope of our childhood understanding, I think there is also a more subtle challenge to how we approach the issue of faith. There is something relatively “safe” about faith in an understandable, controllable God who sits around rewarding good people and punishing bad people. If we offer the correct input–are decent people, good citizens, nice to one another–we will be counted as “good people” in the grand cosmic scheme of the universe. And yet, I cannot help but feel that God as revealed in the Christian narrative is a God who cannot be contained in such a clear-cut, rational box. The story of the Prodigal Son, which we heard in as our Lectionary Gospel just this past week, confronts us with the image of God as the father who runs out and embraces us even when we fundamentally do not deserve it. God offends our (at times) limited human understanding of what is “just” or “fair”, what is “right” or “wrong.” God cannot be controlled by our behavior because God loves us wildly, radically and somewhat absurdly, if we are honest about it.

We can try to lock God into boxes and limited categories of “righteousness” of our own making. But it seems if we do that, we settle for a spiritual reality that is far more impoverished that what God would wish to offer us. We all need to break out of “Room” and risk the greatness of the world.