Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Before I tell you the story about Mary at the Cross, I think it wise to clarify precisely where it is I am spiritually coming from this morning. When it came my turn (as it unmercifully does every year) to be roasted during our annual fellowship dinner skit a few weeks back, one of the lines about me was that some in the congregation were nervous about (and now I quote) "the Christian Creep" that some were saying was occurring in our worship here at RRUC. Now at the time, I chuckled along with everyone else, not giving the comment much thought. But then a week later a dear long time member of our congregation called me up to confess that this was in fact precisely her feeling, and that she was concerned I was taking the congregation in "a Christian direction." This surprised me, for as I told her, as a lifelong Unitarian Universalist (raised in a decidedly humanist congregation in the Midwest) I have NEVER regarded myself a Christian, nor do I ever spiritually expect to...I'm much too spiritually eclectic to be comfortable with a Christian label! But I also shared with this long time member something I very much want all of you to hear this Easter morning when I offer my reflections on a rather central part of the Christian Easter story. While I do not regard myself a Christian (that is one who primarily spiritually defines himself within the Christian metaphor and milieu) I (unlike a lot of UU's who have come to this movement out of an unpleasant Christian past, or come from a Jewish background with an equally - and understandably -- uneasy relationship with Christianity) do not feel that Christianity has done me any harm, nor am I hostile to it as a faith stance and spiritual tradition. I am in fact in a very congenial relationship with much of Christianity (much in the same way I delight in the beauty and wisdom of Judaism and Buddhism). So I do not hesitate (from time to time from this pulpit...most especially around Christmas and Easter times, logically) to VISIT particular pieces of the Christian story, visit them as a Unitarian Universalist, to see what of universal spiritual value might be there for us (as a diverse congregation of folks who are all over the map in regards to our individual relationships with Christianity). Not only do I believe we must occasionally VISIT the Christian story (to avoid being, among other things, culturally and theologically illiterate) but I believe the reason the Christian story has endured all these many centuries since the death of Jesus is that it has (nestled quietly within it) NUGGETS OF UNIVERSAL AND USEFUL SPIRITUAL INSIGHT (as does every great religious tradition of the world) that we ignore or dismiss at our religious peril. As my colleague Daniel Budd of our Shaker Heights, Ohio, congregation writes:
I look at [the] Easter [story of Jesus' death], as I do at all the teaching stories of religion - AS POETRY. Like a poem, these stories have no one meaning. Like a poem, these stories are filled with images that speak to human living and experience. Like a poem, these stories have arisen - and continue to be told - because they speak in various ways to the living and experiencing of people still. Like a poem, we often have to let our preconceptions [and I might add prejudices] fall way before we can hear what it has to say.
So, what I'm trying to positively suggest to everyone in this room this morning is that just because you don't call yourself a Christian (or have in the past had little or no use for Christian imagery) doesn't mean you cannot be spiritually (and emotionally) enriched by pondering this curious old story.
Now if you are a Unitarian Universalist who stands in a somewhat more hesitant (our outright hostile) relationship with Christianity than I do, my focusing on the crucifixion/resurrection story this morning should push all your anxiety buttons (for surely there is no more difficult part of the Christian metaphor for Unitarian Universalists to move with spiritually than this theologically complex tale of death, betrayal and resurrection!). All I ask this Easter morning (as we once again naturally face the reality of death and the quest for hope in our lives) is this that you listen to what I have to say about Mary at the cross, and decide (when I have finished) if there isn't something of sustaining substance there for your trembling human heart this Easter.
All right...Mary at the cross. As I mentioned in the newsletter, it is something of a curiosity that only one of the Gospel narratives (that which bears the name of Jesus' disciple John, though was certainly written by someone else long after John's death) only one of the gospel narratives places Mary, Jesus' mother, at the cross to witness her son's Crucifixion. In the other three gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark and Luke) by the time Jesus is nailed to the cross on that hillside, we are told that all of his terrified disciples have fled into hiding, and only a few of the women who had traveled with him during his itinerant Gallilean ministry watch the terrible scene from a distance. But in the book that bears John's name, Mary and a few other of his followers including one of the disciples are at the foot of the cross, and fully witness his painful end. I read from it:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister...and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, 'woman, here is your son.'...After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said...I am thirsty.' A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So [the soldiers] put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, 'It is finished.' Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
As sad and painful as this brief account is, it is nonetheless a highly sanitized description of the cruelty of crucifixion as practiced in that time by the Romans. Listen to this more graphic account from biblical scholar Massey Shepherd which will give you a better sense of what must have been the true horror of that moment,
The cruel punishment of crucifixion, which the Romans took over from the Carthaginians and Persians, was inflicted only on slaves and 'foreigners,' usually for robbery or sedition. It might last for several days before death at last occurred from hunger, thirst, exhaustion, or bleeding from wounds - including the wounds of scourging [that is repeated whippings that caused much suffering and bleeding], which usually preceded it. Breaking the legs of the crucified added to the agony, though it hastened the end - and was possibly a precaution against escape. Jesus' death within three hours was unusual, but he had already suffered much [physical] abuse.
Imagine (just for a moment then please) the painful scene at the cross that day. There is Jesus nailed up on the cross...strung up, humiliated and helpless with two other condemned prisoners...beaten, whipped, naked and bleeding...in great pain slowly suffocating to death. And there is Mary...his mother...the woman who carried him in her womb for nine months, gave him birth, raised him with Joseph, and watched him develop into the remarkable man he had become...only to watch him now die a horrible death before his 34th birthday. Imagine how heart-breaking and hellish this day must have been for Mary. Can any of us imagine the unanswerable pain and sorrow she must have been feeling watching her own son struggle for breath? Is there any grief deeper or more unbearable in this life than a parent having to witness the torture and death of his or her own child? Out of all the tragedies, absurdities, misfortunes and injustices which befall us in life (and we all know that tragedies, crucifixions and sorrows come in many forms), is there any which more violates everything we hope for and count on in our lives than the death of one of our own children? How could Mary's spirit not be absolutely crushed by what she witnessed that terrible day? I imagine that when she was finally lead away from that cruel and violent scene after her son breathed his last breath, that (between her grief and her tears) she wondered if life would ever again be meaningful, tolerable or joyful. How, after witnessing such pointless cruelty and suffering, can a human being begin to reconstruct a life of meaning, purpose and joy?
And this is where I wish to focus our spiritual attentions this morning...with Mary...with Mary's heart AFTER the cross...with her heart's journey...after she moved away from that terrible execution of her son back (assumedly) into the life (now muted by pain) she was still given to live. I have already told you I do not consider myself a Christian, so it won't surprise you to hear that I frankly don't care at all spiritually about what happened to Jesus after his death. The theology of resurrection (and the promise of eternal life) which Christianity has constructed around the death of Jesus (which is deeply meaningful for so many of our Christian neighbors) has never made any sense to me as a Unitarian Universalist...it just doesn't seem real or relevant to my everyday spiritual experience on this earth, which is probably the first and foremost reason I will never be a Christian (even though I place great spiritual value and authority of Jesus' bold and compassionate teachings of mercy, justice and love). I have nothing to say about the resurrection story that has been woven around Jesus, it means nothing to me. THE RESURRECTION I WANT TO PONDER THIS EASTER MORNING IS THE RESURRECTION - SLOW, SPASMOTIC AND INCREMENTAL TO BE SURE - THAT I WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE SLOWLY HAPPENED IN MARY'S HEART...as she moved away from that terrible cross and back into her daily life of routine tasks, ordinary relationships and simple living. For many Christians, the whole focus this Easter morning is on a SUPERNATURAL, OTHER-WORLDLY RESURRECTION into eternal life. For me as a Unitarian Universalist, the whole focus this Easter must be on an UTTERLY NATURAL, THIS-WORLDLY RESURRECTION...the kind of resurrection I can believe in...the kind of resurrection I have seen people accomplish...the kind of resurrection that happens (usually quietly...slowly...bravely...miraculously) within ordinary, beating, human hearts struggling to affirm and rediscover life in the face of death...like Mary's after the cross.
Christian scriptures, of course, offer no help in reflecting about Mary's spiritual and emotional journey after the crucifixion of her son. After the book of John places her beneath the cross, looking up at her dying son, there is not one more word written about the mother of Jesus in any of the gospel narratives or any of the later books written during the early years of the church. This should not (I suppose) surprise us, for Middle Eastern culture at that time was fiercely male-dominated and patriarchal (and therefore generally ignored what women were thinking, feeling or experiencing), and besides the men writing the early Christian books were not interested in Mary's story, only in Jesus' upon whom an entire theology, religion, and church structure were diligently being built. So all I can do on this Easter Sunday is SPECULATE about Mary...speculate about her emotional and spiritual journey after her son's crucifixion...based not on any biblical first hand accounts, but rather upon what I know (what YOU know)about how people (human beings like you and me) RECONSTRUCT AND RECONSTITUTE our lives following unimaginable sorrow, tragedy and loss.
To help me ponder what Mary's journey of the heart might have been like after what she witnessed beneath the cross, I decided to ask two families from this congregation (who have also tragically and painfully lost children of their own) to share with me (if they would) how they (after suffering such a great life shock and dislocation themselves) spiritually and emotionally worked their way back to a life that felt worth having. Carol and Darold Silkwood (with whom I met a couple of weeks ago) lost their beloved son David in 1996 (at the age of 38) to HIV/AIDS disease. They stood by him (not for 3 hours as Mary had to do with Jesus) but for many months as their son suffered horribly from some of the worst conditions of that disease. They recounted for me, of course, how very hard this time was for them, as I'm sure you can all imagine, and how long and complicated an emotional and spiritual journey it has also been since then. I also spoke with RRUC member Carol Ann Clark (who with her husband John), lost a son and almost a daughter to a horrible, senseless house fire eleven years ago in Salt Lake City, an event (of course) which threw their entire family's life in utter turmoil and pain, and will be with them for the rest of their lives. After spending some time with these parents who had to face the worst shock and sorrow any parent can face, I can sense how much they suffered at the time of their loss. But I also sense how all three of these members of our congregation (in their unique, interesting, and individual ways) are today useful, purposeful, contented and fully engaged people - resurrected folks if you will who have somehow successfully moved on from tragedy and rediscover meaning, purpose, hope and joyfulness in their lives. What I asked them when we met was, in effect, simply this: "As a parent living in the shadow of a cross, how did you each manage your personal spiritual and emotional resurrection and reconstitution? How did you learn once again (as you so obviously and purposefully have) to see the sun, to find laughter on your lips, to secure meaning in your days, and a routine spring once again in your step?"
And what they told me leads me to the first thing I want to suggest about Mary after the cross. Although we have no historical record to prove it, chances are (because human beings are durably and courageously built the way they are) that her heart was successful (as were these RRUC parents) in RECONSTITUTING AND RESURRECTING HER HEART...after the unimaginable existential devastation she had endured. Knowing what I do about human pain and the spiritual resiliency of persons, I choose to believe that Mary - ordinary Gallilean...mother of Jesus...witness to her own son's crucifixion - that Mary (after enduring an almost certain inevitable period of sorrow and grief in which all of life no doubt seemed pointless, cruel and gray) emerged finally from this enveloping sadness to once again see and live her life with contentment, purpose, engagement and hope. In my mind's eye, I imagine Mary (perhaps 2 or 3 years after the crucifixion of her son...by then certainly an aging woman in her early fifties (I say aging because people in those ancient times rarely lived past their sixties) I imagine Mary late in life slowly emerging back into the sunlight that is ordinary, routine life with both purpose and gladness...I imagine her resurrected (if you will) quite naturally back into fullness of ordinary life and being. In my spiritual imagination I see Mary living a simple life in Nazareth (or some other undistinguished, agrarian Gallilean village) her eyes twinkling in glad radiance as she is handed the newest baby born in the village. I see her on her knees in her small, hard-scrabble garden -- her hands delighting in the morning's work of weeding and tending, gently nurturing the vegetables that she will later make into such delicious soup, and tending also the brightly colored flowers that will adorn her simple table. I imagine her resurrected from the shadow of the cross, once again giving and taking simple pleasure from life's holy simplicities - enjoying the early morning sounds of the songbirds that float in through the open window as she savors the lazy cuddling time with her spouse of four decades Joseph...cheerfully bantering with (and teasing) the young wives about their frustrations with their young husbands (as together they gather firewood at dusk in the beautiful hills) ...taking quiet pleasure (before she drifts off to sleep) thinking of her children (yes, including bitter/sweet memories the one she lost all out of natural order) and grand children, and the great grand children now on the way. I imagine Mary in simple moments of living...smiling and soulful...satisfied with her life...resurrected from the numbing pain she must have felt at the cross...reconstituted in the spirit... rejuvenated in her living...simply and courageously live and grateful (deep to the heart) for what she yet has.
After thinking about Mary emerging from the shadow of the cross (which, again, my heart would like to believe she did)...and talking with those parents in this congregation who had similarly suffered and lost so much, yet they too have succeeded in reconstituting their lives - and then thinking about all the others, many in this room now, who have had to suffer the slow and painful loss of a spouse of many decades and yet have succeeded in working their way back to full and purposeful living -- here's how I believe resurrection (the kind of resurrection we can create and know in our living) works. I believe there must always be two interacting components (active partners if you will) for any human resurrection to happen. First (and this is a faith statement on my part, for this is the way I believe life fundamentally is) there is 1) THE FAITHFUL AND INSISTENT HOLINESS OF LIFE which is somehow always calling us (no matter how bruised and battered we sometimes are) back to full life and being, and second there is 2) THE WILLING HUMAN HEART -- the receptive heart, the supple heart -- that is open to moving through despair, that is willing to see the rich and healing possibilities that still lie before one, that is ready to take (that often uneven journey) back to a full, meaningful and joyful life.
Let me reflect briefly on each of these two, essential components of resurrection in turn.
First the insistent holiness of life. The world I see and know has (at its core) an unquenchable beauty, an insistent charm, a persistent purposefulness, an undying lifefulness that is always spilling itself out for us to know and be blessed by. Amidst all of the very real trials, tragedies and tribulations we experience in this mortal creation, life miraculously remains this profligate gift -- crammed with ready beauty, full of abundant blessing, ripe with generous beneficence. No matter what cross we stand beneath (losing a child, losing a spouse, losing our own health or confidence with living even)...life remains steadfast, as a complex miracle of ready blessing (including - and this is important - the reliable gift of other people around us who so unstintingly offer us their kindness, support and love when we are recovering from sorrow).
But life (in all its insistent and faithful holiness) cannot work its healing, saving, resurrection magic if our hearts are not willing to be blessed, touched, enlivened reconstituted and healed. When we find ourselves suddenly living beneath the painful shadow of the cross (whether we ourselves are feeling crucified by life circumstance or we sorrowfully witnessing the crucifixion of someone we love) our hearts need to work with life (in a healing, resurrection partnership) if we are ever to successfully wend our way back to a place in our everyday living that simply feels once again beautiful, holy and right.
Here is the simple, hopeful image I would leave you with this Easter morning, dear friends. It is an image of a resurrected Mary. A Mother returned to life...right here on Earth. Three years after the crucifixion of her son...now an old woman moving slower (but surely wiser) than she once did...quietly and purposefully living out her life in the simple, dusty streets of Nazareth...with a wound in her heart that of course will never entirely go away (so it is with all crucifixions we experience, just ask any parent who has lost a child...any spouse who has lost a partner of 50 years) but re-connected and reconstituted in her living, with restored contentment, renewed purpose and a rejuvenated heart. See the satisfied look in her eye as she watches yet another peaceful Judean sunset sink hot and holy into the purple hills. Feel the happy satisfaction in her hands as she holds the new granddaughter that has just been born. Listen to the comforting stillness in her heart as she enjoys another supper of lentil soup, bread and wine with her husband Joseph whose presence in her life fits like an old comfortable shoe.
Believe in Mary's resurrection after the cross, dear friends, believe she returned (and returned well) to life - for life (and the supple heart) can and do thus regularly conspire to save us back to full human being. And believe something else, dear friends...believe something else. Next time the shadow of the cross sweeps uninvited and painful across your path - as it will, for many are the faces of death and negation in this mortal creation -- believe in the possibility of your own eventual resurrection. For life is always singing to us, dear ones, life is always faithfully calling us back to renewing purpose...joy...and possibility. And the good news is that your heart is always and ever free (always and ever free) to slowly join the melody. Believe nothing less this Easter Sunday...absolutely nothing less.