O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today’s Gospel, which you read in your home rite of Spiritual Communion this morning, tells the story of the risen Jesus making himself known to two dejected disciples as they walked home to Emmaus on the night of Easter. Rumors of the corpse of Jesus having disappeared from the tomb were circulating, and they weren’t sure what to think. But they were sure that the man they had believed to be the Messiah was dead, and that along with him had died their hope that a new creation would come about through his leadership.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! This year we can’t all cry out those words together in a full church, but it is nonetheless true, and it is a proclamation that is even more meaningful right now: Death is conquered. Christ is risen.
I watched a webinar a week or two ago in which one of the guests was Dr. Lydia Dougdale, a physician at Columbia University who specializes in treatment of the aged and in medical ethics. She has a book coming out called “The Lost Art of Dying Well,” which responds to the fact that unlike countless previous generations, we Westerners whose lifespans have happened to fall in the past century or so have been uniquely able to skirt the topic of death, and especially to avoid talking about the fact that we ourselves will die. We have forgotten how to receive mortality as an opportunity to ask big questions, how to prepare intentionally for death.
And we need to relearn this, because mortality has once again taken center stage, along with its colleagues powerlessness, anger, and fear. Over 20,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the USA so far. There aren’t enough beds, there isn’t enough equipment. We don’t know what will happen -- to our businesses, to our retirement savings, to our plans for 2021, to our vulnerable family members; we don’t know, if the disease claims someone we love, if we will even be able to go to their funeral. And, as Dougdale says, contemporary people like us are not used to thinking about these kinds of things. We don’t easily ask, “Am I ready to die? Am I spending my life in a way that really counts?” But now, the times force us to pose such questions.
There are people who treat the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, of Easter, as a sort of analgesic, designed to dull the pain of questions like that. A comforting story that helps us feel better and keeps us distracted from suffering. Some of us have probably had people try and use it that way on us, try to rush us out of our crushing grief at the loss of someone especially dear: don’t feel sad, he’s in a better place, just remember she’s with the angels now, you should be happy for her.
If we have anything to say (and this year especially) on Easter Sunday with integrity, it had better not sound like any of that. It had better start with the truth that Jesus suffered and died in agony. Like the people in ICUs all over the world, he gasped for breath on the Cross as his lungs filled with fluid. Like the people confined and quarantined, he faced his torment without his friends and colleagues, and in his final hour even without the felt presence of God, whom he said had also forsaken him. He was crushed by shame. He descended into hell.
This is what happened to God in Christ. We can’t skip over that. We shouldn’t ever, but especially not this year. Because we need that truth now -- not just to know that ever since then God is with us, completely with us in the sickness and the isolation and the powerlessness and the approach of death. We need so badly to know that God accompanies us there, that he understands completely the experience of isolation and powerlessness and fear.
But we also need to know something else. We need to understand that all this is what Jesus was raised from, raised through, raised against, raised to conquer. In his resurrection Jesus does not suddenly waltz onstage like some bespangled assistant we just saw a stage magician cut into three pieces, delightfully whole and cheery at the end of what only seemed an ordeal, waving and accepting applause and saying “See! I’m fine after all! Thanks, ladies and gentlemen!”
No. Jesus appears carrying everything he has been through, the wounds to prove it still gaping open. He appears bearing in his now risen and glorified body the entire incalculable weight of sin and death, soaked through with every drop of human fear and despair and hopelessness throughout the ages, his pierced heart full to overflowing with every wailing widow, every abandoned or abused child, every steadily mounting fever, every flatlined heart monitor, every gasp for breath that has ever been. In his risen flesh he is carrying it. Carrying it all, yet radiant.
By his death and resurrection Jesus has acknowledged, and taken into himself, and metabolized every atom of evil that has ever corrupted and destroyed the creatures of earth, and returned it as good. Every atom of death that has ever broken a human heart, and returned it as life. Not just more of this life, a few extra years to string out the distractions and the stresses we all used to take so seriously before COVID-19, but everlasting life, God’s own life, a life that is immune to evil. That life starts the moment Easter starts, the moment the tomb is empty, the moment Jesus’ lifeless and destroyed body becomes his risen body.
The life of the resurrection has not avoided, not downplayed, but faced and conquered evil, and it invades our world on Easter morning. It comes determined, having raised Jesus, to raise everyone and everything else with him. And it cannot be stopped.
Hear me right: the risen life Jesus has won for us today will not keep you from passing through death, or from losing your retirement savings, or from being hospitalized with COVID-19. God does not promise such things. But he does promise that none of that, when you face it anchored in the life of the Risen Christ, can conquer you. None of that can kill you. None of that can ruin you. Because Christ has already conquered, killed, and ruined death, and you belong to him forever.
A reading from Ephesians: Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true... Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
It is intensely painful not to be able to gather for Mass in this space on Sundays. Now there are ways we can pray together on Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, and the Sunday Spiritual Communion devotions being sent out on the parish email list, and the phone calls a team of people are placing to check in with everyone. We need to stay connected, so these are all good. According to C-U Public Health, they’re even an essential service. But it is still intensely painful not to be able to gather for Mass in this space on Sundays.
Paul writes to the Ephesians today, Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light. This sacrifice of not meeting is painful, but I know that all of us understand that helping reduce the spread of COVID 19 is, for us right now, part of living as children of light, part of loving our neighbors.
And so we are discovering solitude. It has a long history. There have always been people in the Christian tradition whom God called to stay apart, to spend time in the desert. Jesus did it for 40 days and 40 nights, fasting in the wild, which is where we get this season of Lent. The early desert fathers and mothers did it, and hermits still do it today.
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing.”
This command of God in Genesis 12, our first reading, marks the moment in long-ago history when God starts to create a family for himself, this great nation of children of Abraham. In our second reading from Romans, Paul, over 1000 years later, is still reflecting on that moment -- how did Abraham get access to God’s family? Was it having a special ethnic heritage, or did his behavior reach some threshold that entitled him to be selected? No. It was God’s choice, pure and simple, and Abraham’s yes to that choice, pure and simple.
In the Gospel today, Jesus expands on the same principle as he speaks with Nicodemus: The image Jesus uses is that God offers people who have been born in the ordinary way a second, different kind of birth, a birth into God’s kingdom (Jesus doesn’t employ the idea of family much). This kingdom does not depend on your heritage, where you come from, what religion your parents belong to, or whether you are a kind or respectable person. None of that has any effect. The only way to even perceive God’s Kingdom, Jesus says, much less be born into it, is by responding to God in trust. All three readings are getting at the same thing: God makes an offer of incorporation, and if we take God up on it, God will do what he promises.
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
In some situations, it makes sense to cover up embarrassing parts of your life. The cocktail party conversation that begins with a casual “how are you” is probably not the moment to talk about the trouble you’re having making your mortgage payments. It’s the moment for “oh, fine, thanks.” When the guy comes to fix the water heater, there’s no point in telling him the anguish of dealing with your mother’s addiction to painkillers. Just show him the stairs to the basement and leave it be.
But there are other situations where covering up something painful or embarrassing is absolutely the wrong thing to do. It defeats the purpose, for example, if you go to the doctor and say “oh, fine, thanks” when in fact you’ve been having uncontrollable tremors in your left leg or steadily worsening blind spots in your right eye. Getting out of your doctor’s office having managed to deceive her or yourself about your problems is not the goal. The goal is to reveal your problems so that they can get healed.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The ashes that will mark our foreheads today are to be for us “a sign of our mortality and penitence.” The season of Lent is therefore a season for the whole person, body and soul: the mortality of the one and the penitence of the other. And yet these twin themes are signified together by the single sign of ashes, imposed upon the forehead of a single individual. Thus they are bound together, inextricably, just as body and soul are bound together. True penitence will never stray far from our acceptance of death, nor will death require of us anything less than a final act of penitence before the mercy of God. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return -- Ash Wednesday reminds us that mortality is the form that penitence takes; that the Christian life of penitence is the practice of death.
But this annual reminder of our mortality confronts us at the level of our most basic drive for self-preservation, which by itself is all well and good. Humans instinctively protect the lives that God has given us from danger and harm, and so the fear of death is one of the major guiding principles of human life. But the Bible describes the fear of death as something that enslaves us; something that has a power of its own that binds us.  For human beings, the fear of death is therefore never just a matter of our natural sense of caution and safety. Because human mortality is the consequence of sin, death forever stands as the irrefutable evidence of our condition. And yet death is the one thing that sin cannot admit or accept. Sin is fundamentally a kind of self-deception, a futile attempt to claim life for ourselves apart from God and neighbor. It represents a rebellion against the God who is the creator and preserver of life itself, and thus it inevitably leads to death, for anything that is alienated from the life of God is dead by definition.
When Mark and I have the chance to go to New York City, one of the things we try to get on the agenda is to visit the Frick Collection on the upper East Side. The Frick is a former private mansion, and it houses artworks that the 19th century steel magnate Henry Clay Frick acquired over his life. Though there’s been some remodeling, the rooms still resemble the way they looked when Frick lived there. And in his living room, across from the fireplace, over a rug that picks up its colors to make it stand out even more dramatically, hangs one of the most important works in the collection: Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy.”
Bellini puts Francis in an outdoor scene, standing beside a cliff which contains a small shelter; there are some animals and a town in the background, but the thing that draws your attention is Francis himself. He’s gazing awestruck off to the left, outside the frame, so we can’t actually see what he’s looking at. But whatever it may be, it is bathing both him and the landscape behind him in indescribable light.
This glow reflects off the rocks, and a laurel tree nearby is not only sparkling, but also inclined, as if the light source from outside the frame is radiating with such force that it’s become a physical weight, bending this tree over partway. St. Francis is looking right at whatever that invisible force outside the frame is, and his arms have stretched out at his sides in a mixture of surrender and awe. And you can just see the prints of the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus, beginning to form in Francis’ palms. Bellini’s painting, like many passages in Scripture, give amazing testimony to what the presence of God can do when it is manifest to a human being.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a troop of rather insolent squirrels that lives right outside our house that I have named the Squirrel Punks. Because these aren’t your ordinary squirrels. They have managed to enlarge what was once a small hole in our trash bin to just their size so that they can crawl in and help themselves to all the leftovers. Which means that when you open the trash bin unawares, you often happen upon the squirrel party of the century. And then of course they have the nerve to perch themselves directly in front of our front porch windows, as if to taunt us. Like I said, squirrel punks.
Of course, I know that there is nothing at all intentional about their behavior, let alone malicious. Because I know that at the end of the day, they’re just squirrels; and squirrels are incapable of being punks. Squirrels, like the rest of the animal kingdom, live by the instinct. Squirrels don’t have to try to act like squirrels -- you could say that being a squirrel just “comes naturally” to them. So despite my suspicions, the squirrel punks are just being squirrels.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
You can always count on St. Paul to go for the rhetorical flourish. Despite all those protestations we just heard about how un-lofty and artless his words are, he has such an instinct for verbal drama. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Nothing, whatsoever, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. As we continue reading along in 1st Corinthians, Paul is really talking here about his initial approach to the residents of Corinth, but reading that sentence in chapter 2 could make you think this is either going to be a very short letter, or a very repetitive one. After all, he claims he’s only got one topic.
When you get to know this letter, you discover that it has far more than one topic. As I said 2 weeks ago, we are in early stages in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians at this point, though we’ll be reading nearly the whole thing as part of our Lenten program, and you’ll see that in fact it’s 16 chapters long and covers all sorts of topics, some of them quite pragmatic. Paul writes about conflict within a parish. He writes about the importance of collaborative servant leadership. There’s a section on lawsuits and a section on marriage. There’s some complex stuff dealing with the religious pluralism in Corinth.