06 April 2007

Today Death dies...

Good Friday 2007: Isa 52.13-52.12; Heb 4.14-16, 5.7-9; John 18.1-19.42
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX


Our Savior is dead! Why do we mourn? He has bled for us. Been broken for us. Betrayed by a friend, denied by his students, falsely accused by his own people, mocked by the Romans, whipped into a bloody mess, traded for a murderer to be executed, marched to the city dump, and nailed to a cross, he is lifted up above Jerusalem to be seen—then, right then, and now, right now—to be seen by every eye that will turn to him and look. Look and truly see: who is that hanging on the Cross? Our Savior is dead! Why do we mourn? He had bled for us. Been broken for us. Who? Who has bled, been broken for us? Who hangs there on the Cross that matters? A rabbi? An innovative teacher of a peaceful Way? A rebel against Rome? A Jewish heretic? An annoying prophet out of Nazareth? Yes. And no. Pilate says he is the King of the Jews. The Jews say that he is revolutionary. His own friends do not know him. Hanging there, nailed hands and feet to the wood of the cross, bleeding out through hundreds of cuts and gashes, who do you say that he is? Point at him and name him! Will you name him: King? Teacher? Rebel? Friend? Savior? Do you bow and do honor to any king on earth? To a rebellious rabbi? To a friend you have betrayed? Not five days ago we stood in the crowd waving palms to welcome him here. Then we shouted for his blood, yelling up to Pilate: Crucify him! Crucify him! And here he is. Given to us as we asked. Our Savior is dead. Why do we mourn? He is pierced for our offenses and crushed for our sins. It is better that we rejoice! Breathe in relief! It is better that we laugh and praise God and sing and dance! But black mourning? No. Regret? Absolutely not. How about a kiss of humble gratitude? To touch the cross not with sorrow but with thanksgiving? Our Savior is dead. But we do not mourn. He freely suffered and died for us. So with confidence come to the throne of grace, God’s seat of every gift, every good, and receive His mercy, find His favor—a sacrifice, a blessing, a healing word—whatever you need when you need it. Death dies today, leaving only life—abundant, joyous, vigorous! The cross scatters the seed today that the tomb tomorrow will nurture. And on the day we have traveled so far to see, Christ will rise and flower—the Tree of Life!—and open the way for our lives with him forever. If today is dark, tomorrow is darker still. Hope then and do not mourn. Trust and do not be anxious. Love and do not fear. And give thanks! Our Savior is dead. For us, he is dead.

04 April 2007

The temptation to skip Good Friday

Wednesday of Holy Week: Isa 50.4-9 and Matthew 26.14-25
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory


Only a friend can truly offer you up to your enemies. Only someone who knows you intimately can deliver you over to those who would harm you. The difference then between snitching and betrayal is friendship. Anyone can snitch and get you caught. Only a friend can betray you, offer you up for sacrifice.

Though we generally look at the forty days in the desert as the test of Jesus’ resolve to die on the cross, we can also understand his odd friendship with Judas as a source of on-going temptation for him as well. Judas is the face of those to whom the Father has sent the Son. Sinners. The weak, the wild and weary, those who would kill, cheat, betray, rob; anyone who stands in habitual disobedience to the Word: the prostitutes, the hoarding rich, the greedy tax collectors. Judas, a real person, of course, is also a temptation for Jesus to let the cup pass, to stall and find another way to get the job of universal salvation accomplished. Though Jesus came to save sinners, must he die for the likes of Judas—for those who stink of the idolatry of self worship and vicious backstabbing? Why not just die for the smaller sinners? The ones who don’t really mean it? The ones who slip up occasionally? But really now, why would anyone need to die for them? Such meager sins need no sacrifice. Do you see the temptation?

Jesus exposes his betrayal at the Passover meal. Why? Consider: what hasn’t gone right for him up ‘til now? He rides into Jerusalem as a beggar and is greeted as a king. The accolades and adulation are fierce. His ideological enemies dog him, but they repeatedly fail to stump him in several contests on the Law. They fail again and again to arrest him for blasphemy. All those who oppose him in their hearts and minds fail to find a better way of catching him. They are helpless before the Word. The crowd that gather to hear him preach grow larger and more eager for his touch. Strategically speaking, Jesus is winning this battle and looking very much like the Father-sent prophet he is reported to be! Do you see the temptation?

And then there is Judas. Greedy, obstinate, fawning, self-righteous, falsely pious, and two-faced: “Surely it is not I who will betray you, Rabbi?” Jesus answers Judas in exactly the same way he will answer Pilate later this week: “You have said so.” This must have hit Judas in the stomach like a fist! He knows! He knows I will give him over to his enemies. Of course, he knows. And he has known along, hasn’t he? Judas is a temptation, a vile little reminder to Jesus that his death will offer the vilest of the vile a chance at eternal life. A reminder that he dies on the cross for every greedy, obstinate, fawning, self-righteous, falsely pious, and two-faced friend out there; any and everyone who would stab a friend in the back and collect a fee for the deed. These people are the ones the Son of God must suffer for?! The reigning champ of Father-sent prophets must die so that useless scum might live? Do you see the temptation?

Indeed Judas is the devil as our tradition says. He tempted Jesus in the desert but failed to move him to sin. So he returns with Judas’ face to try again. Perhaps unwittingly, he shows Christ the truth of his sacrifice on the cross. He will die for Judas and those like Judas who suffer from all the maladies of rebellion against the Word. He will die to free the liar, the caged, the fanatical, the obsessive, the narcissist, the melancholic, and the manic. And he will free them into a divine passion, a Fatherly love that burns away every speck of dark longing the iron bite of sin’s chains and for the cool flow of oblivion. He will love us all into a spectacular judgment, a weighing of joy and hope against despair and with Christ we will tip the scale into White Hot Beauty.

But not yet. Not yet. Do you see the temptation? Will you, like Judas, betray Christ? Of course you will. And you will do so happily. Or else.

02 April 2007

No Shame! Proclaim the Death of Jesus!

Monday of Holy Week: Isaiah 42.1-7 and John 12.1-11
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


Honored Lazarus reclines at table with Jesus. Martha serves them. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfumed oil, drying them with her hair. And Judas, the thieving betrayer, counts the cost of her devotion and objects: “Why not sell the oil and give the money to the poor?” Surely, Judas is right. He is a thief and he will ultimately betray our Lord to his executioners, but the good sense of his objection is clear: that oil was worth three hundred days’ wages! That’s a lot of bread and cooking oil for the poor. Jesus, however, being one to promote the excessive over the frugal, the wasteful over the efficient, tells Judas to leave Mary alone. He says, “Let her keep this [oil] for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” His point? It is better to waste expensive oil burying one man than it is to feed three hundred of the poor? No. He’s going to die and soon. His death is the price for our lives.

Look again at who’s gathered in the house with Jesus: Lazarus, Martha, Mary, Judas. Jesus has with him the man whom he raised from the dead. A woman who serves him with her working hands. A woman who serves him extravagantly with her adoration and care. And a disciple who despises Jesus’ excess and hides his contempt for him with pious platitudes about the poor. Here Jesus has with him a living miracle, a selfless good work, an indulgent act of devotion, and a heart hardened by avarice and scorn. A week or so before his death he has with him the Church—the Church in all her supernatural life after death; her hard labor at love in service; her genuine, though sometimes wildly generous, piety; and all her dark practicality, worldly worry, and survivalist self-preservation. Jesus says to this Body assembled for dinner: my death is coming; I die for you. Nothing, then, is to be counted excessive or wasteful when held up against the Cross!

This is a difficult time of year for thinking Christians. What do we make of this gruesome exchange of one life for the lives of us all? An Anglican bishop in the U.K. has said that our traditional understanding of Christ’s death on the cross as a vicarious sacrifice turns God into a psychopathic murderer. Others have said that his death is merely exemplary—an example of how to die for one’s friends—not at all a death “for us” as in “instead of us.” And still others have taken his death to be a defiant act of revolution against imperialism and the fascist state. Judas, were he a theologian today, could invent no better diversionary fantasies! Augustine preaches that “[t]he death of the Lord our God should not be a cause of shame for us; rather, it should be our greatest hope, our greatest glory.” Do not be embarrassed by Christ’s death for us. Do not be worried about ridicule or scorn. Do not be anxious about the laughter of the world. Thinking Christians think with the Church and serve and pray with the Church and live daily the miracle of conversion to holiness.

One last question from Augustine: “Why does our human frailty hesitate to believe that mankind will one day live with God?” And I would add: why do we hesitate to believe that we will live with God b/c of the death of His Son on the cross? An answer in a question: what is more excessive, more extravagant than the death of the Son of God in exchange for our lives? The price is scandalous, the cost beyond counting. This is why the Cross must be greatest hope and our greatest glory!

Without fear, without hesitation or shame: confess that Christ died for us so that we might live!