For one thing, it forced me take a closer look at the Christian calendar. I grew up in a Korean immigrant church in the suburbs of Seattle. Sure, it was Presbyterian, but it was also marked by a Korean spirituality: they spoke in tongues, believed in prophecy, and prayed with vigor. In that way, it was much like a charismatic church, except that they sang more hymns and the crazy stuff never showed up on a Sunday. But it definitely wasn’t a typical Presbyerian church.
In terms of the Christian calendar, the Big Two always made it in: Christmas and Easter. I mean, how else were we going to satisfy our materialistic urges, right? But I didn’t know about Advent and Lent until I went to college. And Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian community, got no mention. Shouldn’t we feel sorry for poor ol’ Church? Imagine how you’d feel if someone forgot your birthday every year?
I only learned about Maundy Thursday recently. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. The day before Good Friday, Jesus and his students were having their last meal together, and he wanted to them to become the kind of community he’d always envisioned and lived out. So he gave them a new command: to love one another. That’s where Maundy comes from. It’s from the Latin, mandatum which means “command.” It’s where we get the word “mandate,” but Mandate Thursday or Command Thursday just doesn’t ring off the ear like Maundy.
So it was Good Friday and I was still praying and racking my brain for one passage to teach. (I like to teach out of one passage instead of many: you can only have so many plates spinning before they all hit the floor.) I needed a passage that would speak about Good Friday without jumping ahead to Easter Sunday. That’s hard to do.
Then a story laid itself down in front of my path of thinking: a few years ago, I was up in the Sierra Madre foothills at a Passionist retreat center. The grounds are hidden in a residential neighborhood, but after driving through the gate and up the road, the grounds are idyllic and well-manicured. It’s tear-jerkingly gorgeous at sunset. (At night, however, the rooms and hallways can be a little scary: sculptures and crucifixes of bleeding Jesuses hang everywhere. It felt like a scene in a bad horror film.) But the place is perfect to spend time in reflection. I spent two weeks there, learning about the connections between spirituality and ministry, because it’s amazing how quickly those two strands which were meant to be intertwined often become severed.
One afternoon, the priest (we called him “Father,” at any rate) that ran the center walked us through the Stations of the Cross. I’ve never heard of them before, but they’re supposed to help us reflect on the Passion of Christ. The Latin passio means to suffer, and we were to think about his sufferings (Ah, it clicked: a Passionist retreat center.)
We walked up to the first station: white bricks protruded from a red brick background to make a portico. This represented the courtroom. On the left of the portico is a stone relief of Jesus being condemned by Pilate. The priest made some reflections about this scene, and then ended with a question, “Where have you felt condemned?” And then he gave us some silence.
But, shouldn’t we reflect on Christ’s condemnation? I thought.
We followed a path through the grove to the second station: a similar red brick structure, except in the middle, it only had a stone relief of Jesus. He’s given a cross to carry. And after some reflections the Priest asked, “What burdens are you carrying today?” Then more silence.
But, isn’t this about Jesus?
Then we walked silently along to the next station, and this time the relief portrayed Jesus falling for the first time. And after some reflections, the Priest asked, “What are the ways you’ve fallen?”
And finally, I got it: we weren’t just being thankful for what Christ has done, we were participating with Christ in what he was doing.
As a protestant, when I watched, “The Passion of the Christ,” I sat in the theater after most everyone else filed out, shaking and sobbing with gratitude for what Jesus has done. He died for me, so that I might have life. But this movie, at its core, is a Catholic movie. Mel Gibson patterned his film after the Stations of the Cross. So when many Catholics watch it, they are connecting their own lives with the Passion of Jesus. In Christ, they die. And both views are true.
I still use other passages in the talk, but Luke 9:23 becomes the core one. In light of the Stations, it started to make much more sense: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
Good Friday isn’t just a memorial, but an invitation: to die each day in Christ, so that we might truly live. All that is junk within me, I allow to die with Christ. So that who I’m supposed to be, in Christ, can truly live. And again I’m thankful, not only for what he’s done, but what he’s doing in me.