Seven Last Words

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Original film poster for the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar

My first memories of the Passion of Christ come not from church, but from listening to the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by Tim Rice.

When I was a child my family traveled to Israel and Palestine where my father, a priest, was enrolled in St. George’s College in Jerusalem to study the life of Jesus in the Holy Land. My brother and sister and I would ride the public bus from our home to school and then summer camp during the three months we lived there.

Throughout those months, the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar played constantly on Israeli radio and now is the background music to many of my memories of that time. As it happens, the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was likely being filmed in Israel at the time we were there, which might explain why the soundtrack was getting so much radio play. To this day, I watch or listen to Jesus Christ Superstar almost every year during Holy Week.

There are many problematic aspects to the 1973 film version, not least among which is the racial stereotyping of the cast, so I don’t necessarily recommend the film. However, in preparing for this sermon I watched the 2018 version starring John Legend as Jesus, which is much better on many levels.

In a piece of inspired casting, Alice Cooper plays King Herod.  The scene when Jesus, played by Legend, and Herod, played by Cooper, encounter each other manages to be comic, ironic and tragic. We see a Superstar from the past meeting the Superstar of the present and future and Cooper/Herod and Legend/Jesus both know it. I won’t say anymore for those of you who have not watched it.

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Jesus Christ Superstar ends at the cross with Jesus’s last words: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

The scene is searing, just as it is rendered in the text today from Luke, who is every bit as gifted a librettist and scene painter as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Jesus, ever the teacher, takes his final words from Psalm 31:

In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; * deliver me in your righteousness.

Incline your ear to me; * make haste to deliver me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold; * for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, * for you are my tower of strength.

Into your hands I commend my spirit, * for you have redeemed me O Lord, O God of truth.

Given the scene that Luke describes and all that we have heard leading up to this final moment, one can imagine the emotions that Jesus is feeling: fear, anger, hopelessness. However, by quoting Psalm 31, attributed to King David, Jesus flips the script. The crowd standing at the foot of the cross would have understood Jesus’s reference to Psalm 31 and its full meaning.

Taken out of context, Jesus’s last words can come across as conveying that he has given up, or as words of surrender, which is often how I have tended to hear these words and how Legend acts them in Jesus Christ Superstar.

However, if we turn to the words that come earlier in the Psalm, we can see that Jesus is calling on the LORD in confidence and hopefulness, knowing that as he traverses from his life here on earth to the next, he can have faith in his father’s love and protection and his ultimate victory over death on the cross.

By taking refuge in the LORD, Jesus will not be put to shame.  

The LORD will be his strong rock and castle and keep him safe.  

The LORD will lead and guide him.  

The LORD will free him from the secret traps set for him.  

The LORD will be his tower and strength.

So, while he addresses his last words to his father, he is instructing all of us as well.

We, too, by taking refuge in the LORD, will not be put to shame.  The LORD will keep us safe, lead us and guide us.  The LORD will free us and be our tower of strength.

Jesus is not surrendering.  

No. 

He is calling us to hope.

He is calling us to victory.

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We are now well over a year into the COVID-19 Pandemic and while the vaccines have given many of us hope, the last year has been filled with unspeakable tragedy and despair. For those of us who may see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must remember that for many, the pandemic rages on. Early on in the pandemic I took comfort in the Old Testament prophet Zechariah’s admonition: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.”

Yes, we are “prisoners of hope,” but we are called to be more than that.

The great South African theologian Steve De Gruchy took the concept of hope a step further and once said that as Christians “We are called to be midwives of hope” and to bring hope to others.

Despair is not an option.

Indeed, Jesus’ last words on the cross are not words of despair or surrender.  They are words of hopefulness and victory.

If Jesus can be hopeful and victorious under those circumstances, we have no excuse, even in the face of what we all have endured this last year.

Jesus was telling his followers, just as he is telling us today, that as darkness comes over the whole land, while the sun’s light fails and the curtain of the temple is torn in two, and as he breathes his last, that not only must we have confidence in the LORD and remain hopeful ourselves, we must bring hope to others so they can see that there is victory after the cross.

As Jesus sings in Jesus Christ Superstar: To conquer death you only have to die.”

AMEN

This meditation was presented as part of the Good Friday service at St. Bartholomew’s Church in the City of New York. The full service, including this meditation, can be found on the parish’s YouTube channel.

What can penguins teach us?

Prior to my recent trip to Antarctica, I confess that I had not given penguins much consideration.  Not beautiful. Smell bad. Can’t fly.  

Really, what was the point of a penguin?

Now, however, I have a new appreciation for the penguin.

Chinstraps Heading to the Ocean
Photo Courtesy of Evangeline Warren

As our ship lay at anchor off Deception Island in the Antarctic Ocean, we looked at its black volcanic rock-covered beach where we planned to make our landing.  From a distance one could see tens of thousands of chinstrap penguins marching in and out of sea. White breasts headed in. Black backs headed out.

Once on the shore, the sound of the birds cheerfully chatting and squawking at each other soon distracted from the smell.  We made our way up the beach, to the nesting area, where we observed what could best be described as the shift-change between parents.

While one parent tends the nest and their chicks, the other parent makes its way down to the sea to fish for their offspring.  During the fishing expedition, taking the penguin as far away as 50 miles, the penguin gorges on food, returning to relieve its mate and feed its offspring.

After a brief check in and handoff, the other parent heads down to the sea for its turn to fish.  The remaining parent takes its place on the nest and supervises the chicks. Male and female penguins share this responsibility equally.

Watching well over 50,000 penguins do this over several hours, I began to reconsider the penguin.  Several things impressed me then and remain with me still.

Penguins are loyal.  Penguins commit to a mate and then their offspring.  Moreover, a penguin can find and recognize both its mate and its chicks amongst tens of thousands of others, even after wandering miles away on land and sea.

Loyalty
Photo Courtesy of Evangeline Warren

Penguins are humble. Not known for its beauty, vanity is not a vice in which a penguin can afford to indulge.  It sits in its own guano patiently waiting and tending its offspring while its mate fishes.  

Penguins are determined.  As a penguin makes its way single-mindedly back and forth between the ocean and its nest, it encounters many obstacles.  Rocks, icebergs, predators, rain, sleet, snow, other penguins. And yet, the penguin presses on in its mission to take care of its family.

Penguins are brave.  The penguin world is full of bigger and meaner beasts than they are.  Leopard seals stalk the shoreline as penguins dive into the sea to fish.  Skua birds cruise the skies looking for a moment to swoop in and snatch a chick.  Yet the penguin goes about its business with courage.

Loyalty. Humility. Determination. Bravery. 

These are not choices a penguin makes.  Evolution has made them necessary characteristics for their survival. 

However, they are choices we can make.  

What would our world be like if we all chose to be unfailingly loyal, humble, determined, and brave?

Light in a Very Dark Place

black-and-white-blur-book-164821We are now approaching the darkest days of the year.  Our Advent wreaths and Hanukkah menorahs have brought light into our lives.  It is an opportune time to reflect on how one can bring light to dark places.

Several months ago friends from out of town invited me to a benefit organized to support Musicambia.  I accepted because I wanted to spend time with these friends and this was going to be a good way to do it.

After a nice dinner getting caught up on family news, we made our way to the event.  We settled into our seats and I began to focus on Musicambia and its mission.

First up was Dexter.

Continue reading “Light in a Very Dark Place”

The beating heart of a home

Big Ben Inner Clock Face
By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35619684

When my in-laws were downsizing out of their home in Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada and moving to an apartment, they very generously gave us a grandfather clock that stood in their front hall.  The clock was made in Halifax in Yorkshire, England, probably in the late 18th century and stands well over 9 feet tall.  

Fortunately our apartment in New York has high enough ceilings to accommodate it, and so my wife and I moved it into our living room.  We never got around to having the clock works cleaned and repaired, so the clock has stood mute for well over ten years. Continue reading “The beating heart of a home”

Interstellar Space

Living as I do in an urban environment, it is not usually possible to see many, if any, stars on a regular basis.  Fortunately, my work takes me off the beaten path to places where there is little ambient light to obscure the night sky.  

Most recently, I found myself in the desert of New Mexico at the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert on a silent retreat.  There, after the sun had set, the heavens blazed.

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Continue reading “Interstellar Space”

How Democracies Die

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How Democracies Die
By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Let me confess up front:  I have not yet read this book.  I’m screwing up my courage to do so.  However, I’ve heard just enough about it to be extremely concerned and intrigued.

The authors argue that in recent times authoritarian leaders have actually come to power through democratic processes.  The good old days of military coups seem to be a relic of the past.

Once in power, these leaders all share four common traits: Continue reading “How Democracies Die”

Juneteenth

Today, June 19th, marks the anniversary of the day Texas abolished slavery in 1865.  Several states, including Texas, recognize it. The Federal Government has also recognized “Juneteenth Independence Day,” although it is not an official Federal holiday.

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Perhaps of more consequence, Apple added Juneteenth to the list of official U.S. holidays this year.  I’m embarrassed to admit that while I had a vague sense of Juneteenth, it wasn’t until it popped up on my phone that I started to pay attention.

So I dug deeper… Continue reading “Juneteenth”

Marriage

IMG-0835As Martin Luther wrote, “There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion, or company than a good marriage.”  

I couldn’t agree more.  And not just because my wife and I are about to celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary, I promise.

The fact of the matter is that I’m a big fan of marriage.   Continue reading “Marriage”

One billboard outside Sandusky, Ohio

Each year my wife and I attend St. Bartholomew’s three-hour Good Friday service.  Each year I wonder how on earth I will sit through three hours of music, extended periods of silent prayer, readings on the seven last words of Christ, and a homily on each.  Each year the time disappears. Continue reading “One billboard outside Sandusky, Ohio”

Twenty characteristics that make a genius

Leonardo_da_Vinci_LUCAN_Hohenstatt_20_Uffizi_copyIn keeping with my desire to observe Advent by seeking out beauty (see my November 28th post) and my fascination with Salvator Mundi (see my November 14th post), I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s masterful and insightful biography of Leonardo Da Vinci.  

Isaacson concludes his book by identifying twenty characteristics that make a genius.  Isaacson has given this list some thought, having written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and now Leonardo.

So what does it take? Continue reading “Twenty characteristics that make a genius”