Saturday, April 11, 2020

Approaching Holy Saturday with Fleming Rutledge


This blog entry continues a series of meditations on the Three Days of Holy Week, guided by The Undoing of Death, a book of sermons for Holy Week by the Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge.  This entry focuses on her sermon, “Midnight in the Kingdom of Death”.



38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.  (John 19:38-42)



At the end, or what seems to be the end, it is Nicodemus of all people who, with Joseph of Arimathea, comes to lay Jesus to rest.    Nicodemus, as John reminds us, ”had at first come to Jesus by night”, brings the spices and ointments to prepare the body for burial.   It sounds like a costly amount, “a hundred pounds” of “myrrh and aloes”, but Nicodemus was a wealthy, prominent man.    Perhaps, as Jesus’ body was brought to the tomb, if Nicodemus thought about that night when the rabbi had told him, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).  If he did remember those words, I wonder what he thought of them as Nicodemus watched the works roll the stone into place, as the tomb was sealed, and the finality of death asserted itself?


 As the Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge reminds us, night and darkness in John’s Gospel are symbolic of sin and death, the forces opposed to God.  Jesus tells Nicodemus as much when he says “this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19).   Now, as Nicodemus and Jospeh leave the tomb and the shadows begin to lengthen, darkness and evil seem to have won.


Normally the church’s observance of Easter Eve occurs at night.   The liturgy of the Great Vigil invites us back into a church that was left darkened and bare at the end of Maundy Thursday, all the fair linens, bright colours and brass and gold removed.   It is a time when, as Rutledge says, “The realm of darkness appears to be victorious.  There is nothing left of the Messiah but the grave” (p. 236).   On the Eve of Easter, the church normally gathers in darkness to remind itself of what is at stake.


“Jesus has entered the realm of Death.   The mythology of the Greeks and Romans is by no means wrong here; the dead must cross over the black waters of the river Styx into the kingdom of darkness from which no one can ever return.   The Son of God, by his own permission, has been given over to the realm of night.  This is where he has gone.   We say in the Creed, “He descended into hell.”   Death rules there.   Satan rules there.  The corpse lies there twenty-four hours, thirty-four hours.  It is night” (p. 237).


Normally at the start of the Great Vigil, the New Fire outside the church, and the return of the church’s white linens and hanging, would signal the victory the we come to celebrate. However, today on this Easter Eve I am recording this service of Morning Prayer in the light of day, and yet as we lie in the grip of this pandemic and wait for it to peak, does it not feel like night?   The trees are in bud, snowdrops and crocuses have emerged, but even in that spring sunshine the coronavirus lies in wait.   In hospitals across the world people are struggling to breathe, refrigerator trucks are filling with the dead, and families mourn without the comfort of funerals.  If we are not in the realm of death, we are somewhere adjacent to it, in a place where the reality of Jesus’ tomb seems more apparent to us now than it has for many Easter’s past.


If there is a gift in this strange time, it is that every health care worker who risks their lives daily, every person who comes off a ventilator and lives, every act of kindness done for the isolated and vulnerable, all these things point to hope and life.   We may now in a place where death seems more real, but we are also situated so that we may better perceive the promise of resurrection.   We are in a better place to appreciate the enormity of God’s victory.   As Rutledge notes, and as the Great Vigil of Easter will tell us in better times to come, the resurrection happened at night.    When the light of dawn entered the tomb, all it revealed were the empty grave cloths of the risen Christ.


As we the church remain apart from one another, this Easter may feel like a pale shadow of what we normally celebrate.    One day, soon, I pray, we will have a chance to gather and celebrate at the table of our Risen Lord, and won’t that be a joyous occasion?    I think of that day, when St. Margaret’s is full again, and I know I will cry for happiness on that day.   For now, though, as we gather virtually, let us remember that we know what Nicodemus could not know as he walked away from he sealed tomb in the gathering dusk.  We know that the grave is empty and that death has been defeated.   God spoke in the night, the Spirit raised our Lord’s body, the stone was rolled back, and Jesus walked out into the garden, into the dawn, into the realm of life.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Approaching Good Friday with Fleming Rutledge

This blog entry continues a series of meditations on the Three Days of Holy Week, guided by The Undoing of Death, a book of sermons for Holy Week by the Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge.  This entry focuses on her sermon, The Third Sign: The Open Tombs.


Good Friday is replete with devotional themes - the Stages of the Cross, the Wounds of Christ, our Lord’s Last Words, among others - Fleming Rutledge’s Three Meditations on Three Signs of Calvary draw our attention to the events triggered by the death of Jesus.  These events include the darkness at noon, the tearing of the Temple veil, and the opening of the tombs described in Matthew 24.


50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’


It is as if the cross, at the moment of Jesus death, is the epicentre of a disruption that radiates out with seismic force.   To say that these events are unnatural would scarce do them justice.  Creation itself is profoundly shaken, not just physically but in the case of those awoken and emerged from the opened tombs, metaphysically.   It is as if the paradox of the death of the one who was with God in the beginning, before all things were made, cannot be reconciled by nature.


Rutledge is I believe right to focus on these strange events and say they mark the start of something new. 


“The course of the world is interrupted here.  Things will never again be as they were before, and in the eclipse as well as in the earthquake and the splitting of the rocks, God calls forth his whole creation as witness to his divine intervention.  The universe is benched off its axis and sent spinning in another direction.  The turn of the ages takes place today” (190).


Rutledge puts these events in Pauline terms as signs of a new creation which interrupts “the present evil age” (Gal 1:4), reorienting away from its inexorable entropic decline and heralding a hitherto unknown future which “gives life to the dead and calls into being the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17).


As Rev. Rutledge writes, “God has not abandoned his creation to its own fate.   God in Jesus Christ places himself squarely in the path of this world’s careering course towards self-destruction and reverses it.  … We orient ourselves not to what we have been, but to what by the grace of God we shall be” (191-192).


There is trope in popular culture, now strip-mined to parody and exhaustion - of the undead rising from the graves, and I confess that as a child this Matthean detail of the dead appearing to many did creep me out.   However, the fact that these wakened sleepers are “the saints” should allay out fears.   These faithful ones are not the walking dead, but rather are the first fruits of Jesus’ conquest of death.


Rutledge again:  “Life is given to the dead through Jesus’ death.  … The opening of the tombs takes place, not on the morning of the Resurrection, but at the moment of Jesus’ last struggle for breath.   Matthew is telling us that “the powers of death have done their worst” and they cannot contain him.

And so the sign of the open tombs and the risen saints is this:  Jesus Christ did not enter death in order to give us an example of a good and brave death, nor even in order to come back from the dead himself, but rather, to unlock our prison doors and lead us free” (Rutledge 192).


In this new world, made possible by Jesus’ death, we are reoriented towards life, freedom, and possibility.  What will we find if we, the faithful, free from a story that leads inevitably to our decline and death, emerge from our open tombs?

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Approaching Maundy Thursday with Fleming Rutledge



The journey through Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, offers the faithful so many vantage points, and so many fruitful opportunities for reflection, that I often make this journey with a trusted spiritual guide.  The Anglican preacher and writer, Fleming Rutledge, knows the landscape well and I have come to rely on her wisdom and insight.   This year I am working through her book The Undoing of Death, a collection of her sermons for Holy Week, preached across the years of her storied ministry.


For Maundy Thursday, the choice of spiritual vistas and biblical lookout points is especially rich.   We could think long and profitably about Jesus’ institution of communion, by which the church remembers and partakes in his life and sacrifice.   The Johannine account of the Lord’s humble action of washing the disciple’s feet invites us to reflect on the cost of being a servant and the opportunity to enter into new and fulsome forms of community.   Our Saviour’s long ordeal in the garden before his arrest allows us to appreciate Jesus’ costly obedience to the Father, an obedience mirrored so poorly in the sleeping disciples.


This year, however, Fleming Rutledge showed me something I confess I had never consciously noticed before.  In her sermon for Maundy Thursday, “The Lord Looked at Peter”, she zeroes in on Luke’s account of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, and the Jesus’ reaction - “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Lk 22:61) - which provokes Peter’s bitter and ashamed weeping at his faithlessness.   


Here is some of Rutledge’s deep meditation on this simple line from Luke:


“The look of Jesus comes from the depths of the Holy Trinity the was in the beginning before the world was made.   The look of our Lord is lit from within by the uncreated light of the incarnate Word.   It is the look that goes along with the prayer that we said at the beginning of this service: “O God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid …”  Do you ever think about those words that we say so often?  Can you focus for a moment on what this really means, no secrets hid from God?  There is a sense in which we spend our whole lives hiding secrets not only from one another but from ourselves.   There is no hiding from God, however.  Peter tried to hide, but the Lord found him with that look.  Jesus’ look penetrated through Peter like the “two-edged sword” in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “percing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of the One with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:12-13).


How can we survive this piercing look?  The answer is, we can’t, any more than Peter could.  Something has to happen to us, something that we do not deserve, cannot earn, and have no right to expect.  That is what we have been learning during these forty days and forty nights of Lent.  Beginning with that long confession of sins which we said on our knees on Ash Wednesday, we have examined ourselves before the searching gaze of the Lord and we have repented in dust and ashes.  I hope that many of you recognize this Lenten movement in our lives.   It puts us in the right frame of mind for this evening at our Lord’s table.” (p 92).


Rutledge’s sermon is intended for a congregation that will shortly go forward to receive communion, on the night when the words of institution, “This is my body, this is my blood” ring clearer than on any other night of the Christian year.    This strange and terrible year, we are cut off from the comforts of bread and wine, bereft of the companionship of the faithful in a hushed and darkened church.  I mourn this privation.


Even in isolation from church and sacrament, we are nevertheless still under the Lord’s gaze, from which we could not escape should we wish to.   Jesus’ gaze perceives all our pretensions to piety, all our failures of charity, all our inadequacies.   Under this gaze, like Peter, I am a poor thing indeed.  Should this gaze be pitiless, I could not bear it.  Like Isaiah before the throne of God and its flaming seraphim, I would be lost. 


Let us take comfort, then, that Jesus sees us clearly with loving eyes.   Rutledge writes that “Jesus’ look is … a look of restitution, of reconsitution, of rectification.  The transmission of this story, which must have been approved of by Peter himself, is the living testimony that the moment of Peter’s humiliation is also the beginning of his rehabilitation.  Being judged and found wanting by God is, believe it or not, the very fabric of our salvation.   It is in this judgement that we are redeemed.   The Judge himself, at the very moment of Peter’s betrayal, is taking he judgement upon himself” (pp. 93-95).

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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