Friday, April 14, 2006

Meditation on the Passion

Even now as I‘m writing, I’m engaging in my traditional Holy Week meditation: I’m listening to Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. In fact, listening specifically on Good Friday seems almost to have become the tradition; there have been too many Holy Weeks in recent years when I have let my schedule rush on, and left my traditional meditation on the Passion wait until the eleventh hour.

I have been moved by this music, and by this creative telling of the Passion story ever since. I was 15 when it was first published, a two-disk vinyl set. I was 16, I think, when the first stage presentation came to my home town. It was more a concert then, and less an opera production. There were the principles, a rock band, an orchestra, and a gospel choir. There were no props, no costumes, and little pretence. The music was all we heard. The music spoke powerfully enough.

Outside there were picketers, proclaiming that this was a “blasphemous” production. They had not heard it, I expect, at least not most of them. (Isn’t that still the way when there is a major retelling of a Biblical story: too much complaint from those who have no idea what they’re really complaining about?) Even if they had heard the music, they had certainly missed the point. Even today, as I have been listening, I have looked at articles on the web about this opera. Even today, most miss the point.

Why do I find this so moving? Part of the answer to those questions, of course, is that this is music, and music is powerfully important in my life and in my spirituality. I was raised in a “stiff-upper-lip,” Appalachian culture. We do not readily or easily share emotions. We are modest and quiet in joy; we are restrained and private in grief. The life and history which that culture reflects is hard and constant: hard rocks in thin fields, hard rocks in deep mines. It often took my ancestors all they had to keep getting the work done, and there was little time and energy for emotional expression. The exception was music: in comic songs and sad ballads, in hymns and gospel songs they opened their feelings to themselves, to one another, and to God. I have learned much about sharing my feelings in therapy and in clinical training and in loving relationships. Still, I have that restraint deep in my soul. Musical reflection on the Lord’s Passion moves me in ways that I will not otherwise allow.

And this music has stayed with me. I know it by heart, and in order. I listen to is as a unit today; but all through this week I have been hearing it. I cannot contemplate the Procession of the Palms without hearing, “Hosannah, heysannah.” I cannot reflect on the trial before Pilate without hearing, “We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?” With each Gospel reading this week, with each event recalled, some piece of this opera comes to mind.

And there is a more basic reason, a more important reason, that I meditate with this work. I believe we pass over – indeed, we run away from – what it means that Jesus is fully human, “true Man of true Man,” as in the Nicene Creed. We cling to the full divinity of Christ. It gives us comfort because we know it is the full divinity of Christ that insures that God in Christ has the power to save us from the fallenness of the world, and the fallenness of our own souls. We want to focus on the miracles and the wonders, and miss the human frailty. We want even to skip the Passion most of the year; and even in Holy Week to touch it only as a whistle stop on the way to Easter. That is not the teaching of the Church, of course, in any of our variations of the Christian Tradition; but it is our human response. We have enough fears out of our own humanity. We don’t want to see any of those in Christ, or in those closest to him.

But this telling of the Passion focuses brightly and fiercely on the sheer, limited, adulterated humanity of all involved. There is nothing pretty or romantic or sanctified about these people, from Jesus on down. This is, I believe, how we would see these events, and how, I believe, the disciples may well have seen them. Scripture is clear that again and again, called to see God doing something cosmic in Christ, the disciples saw only the son of David, called to reestablish the Israel of the past, and not to create the Israel of the future. They did not know what was going to happen; and so they were terrified, hiding, betraying Jesus and running for their lives. Superstar does not end in the Resurrection; it ends in the tomb. And that is where Friday ended for those first and closest disciples.

We try to hold this fact: that for our humanity to be raised, Christ’s humanity had to be full. Christ and those around him had to be every bit has human, every bit as limited as anybody else was – as we are. As Fr. Howard Rhys, who taught me New Testament, was wont to say, “You can’t see the Messiah as God the Father walking around Palestine on two feet;” you can’t, at least, without losing Jesus’ humanity, and without risking ours. It is oh, so comforting to pass over all this: to see this Passover as involving no human risk and no human grief at all; as saving us without engaging and confronting us as we really are. But if we do not understand what they saw, those first disciples; if we do not feel the grief and the confusion and the real fear that they felt – that he felt: “My God! My God, why have you forgotten me? - we do not really understand what God in Christ was willing to give for us. We will not really understand what it will mean for them – what it can mean for us – when on the third day they discover the tomb empty.

May God be with us all through the power and the grief and the sadness of this day, through the fear and the confusion of tomorrow; so that we may be with God on the Third Day for the glory that will be revealed.


Stasi said...

Thank you for visiting me and especially for this moving meditation. I am going to put in the movie right now!!

The Observer said...

Odd that I find someone else who "gets it."

One time the daughter was interviewing the local newspaper's media critic (a Christian writer of some merit - Bob Darden, btw) and I tagged along.

Her interview was about Amy Grant (he knew her). While there I asked him about "Superstar"; which he dismissed as strictly a Pop culture phenomenon and not really of the Christian realm. I've always disagreed with him about his take on it. It's nice to have my opinion reaffirmed.