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.

Lift Every Voice

One hundred and forty-five years ago today, on June 19th in 1865, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and with the defeat of Confederate forces by the Union Army, the last remaining slaves in Galveston, Texas were freed, ending chattel slavery in the United States. Today, June 19th or Juneteenth, is observed in most parts of the country with parades, family gatherings and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In addition, the great poem, Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson is often either read or sung. Johnson’s poem was set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson and is included in The Episcopal Church’s The Hymnal 1982. It is sometimes referred to as “The Black National Anthem.”

The poetry speaks for itself and so I offer it below.

If you want to listen to it sung, there are a number of versions on YouTube. My favorite is this one featuring the great bass opera singer Soloman Howard.

 

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Opening the Gates of Heaven for Ramadan

We are now almost through the month-long observance of Ramadan. 

PrayerA few weeks ago I came across the following quote: “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.”  This hadith from the Sahih al-Bukhari doesn’t mince words.   It seems particularly apt at the moment.

Ramadan will last until May 23rd.  It is the holiest month of the year in the Islamic calendar, during which the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Mohammad.  It is observed through prayer and by fasting from sunup to sundown, amongst other traditions throughout the month.

In past years, I’ve had the pleasure of being invited by Muslim friends to share in the breaking of the fast at sundown with an Iftar during Ramadan.  In this era of physical distancing, large celebratory Iftars will be difficult if not impossible for most people.

Our home is not far from a mosque, and it is always a delight to see children and their families dressed up in their finest outfits making their way to worship on Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan.  The excitement and joy is infectious.

I’ll add these pleasures to the long list of things I am grieving, just as I grieve the Easter and Passover celebrations prevented by the pandemic.  Indeed, Muslims, Christians and Jews have all paid a heavy price as the most holy days for each faith are coinciding with the tragedy of COVID-19.

In my post from last month, I quoted T.S. Elliot’s observation in his poem, The Waste Land, that April was the cruelest month.   Let us pray that during the month of May the “gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.”

(Photo credit: Mihrab (Prayer Niche) from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

April is the Cruelest Month

The first section of T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, The Waste Land, published in 1922, is entitled, “The Burial of the Dead.”

close up photo of purple lilac flowers
Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

That is the title of the funeral service from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer during Eliot’s time as it is the title of the service in The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer today.

The Rite for the Burial of the Dead seems an appropriate place to start under the circumstances in which we are currently living. There are likely going to be lots of funerals in the days and weeks to come. Some for people we know, love, and have lost.

Eliot’s poem then opens with the following lines:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Each of the first three lines of Eliot’s poem starts in darkness and moves to life-giving activity: breeding, mixing, stirring.

By ending each line with a word that brings the reader out of darkness into light, from death into life, Eliot takes the reader into the future—a future that is more abundant than the past.

This April will surely be remembered as one of the cruelest of all time for our country and the world. We are told that we are now in the midst of the darkest hours of the COVID-19 Pandemic here in New York City, with heartbreaking death rates. Even as I write this, unending ambulance sirens pierce through the silence of the traffic-less streets below my window.

And, at the same time, we must hold onto the knowledge that we will come through this moment. As Eliot’s poem shows, darkness will give way to light, death will be vanquished by life. Breeding, mixing, and stirring will prevail. Lilacs will bloom out of dull roots.

This April, as dark and as cruel as life around us may seem, look for the lilacs blooming out of dull roots. They’re there

Prisoners of Hope

Crocuses_in_the_snow_(8504467548)
Credit: Magnus Hagdorn (https://www.flickr.com/photos/hagdorned/8504467548/)

It has been almost two weeks since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.  

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a lifetime ago.  So much has changed so quickly I’m not sure what to feel at any given point. 

I woke up a few mornings ago and realized that not knowing what to feel actually provides me with the opportunity to choose how I’m going to feel.

Last week, a colleague reminded me of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah’s admonition:

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
    today I declare that I will restore to you double.

(Zechariah 9:12)

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

The COVID-19 Pandemic is testing us in ways that few imagined just a few weeks ago.  The cost—human, economic, social—is huge and growing.  It is easy to lose hope in these times.  But as the prophet Zechariah and De Gruchy remind us: despair is not an option.  

Not only must we remain hopeful ourselves, but we must also bring hope to others.  We can do this through our own acts every day—with our coworkers, our family members and our neighbors.  By doing so we are united with one another through our common humanity.  

Moreover, that is where we will find God.

It is through that strength of unity that we can be of real service to those in need even as we face challenges like the COVID-19 Pandemic. We are only going to get through this by working together. 

My prayer for each of you is that you can find the hope of which Zechariah reminds us so that you can continue to be a midwife of hope for others.

So, each morning when I get up, I choose hope.

Spiritual but not Religious

pexels-photo-257037In my experience the declaration that “I’m spiritual but not religious” is often greeted by a collective eye-roll in church circles.   For many of us affiliated with formal church or faith organizations, it can seem a ridiculous thing to say.

What we think we’re hearing is “I’m spiritual but not yet religious.”

Continue reading “Spiritual but not Religious”

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”