5.4.14 Holding the Christ-light
3 Easter A 2014 May 4, 2014
In the name of the risen Christ, still making himself known to us and through us. Amen.
You have to admit--resurrection must have been the LAST thing that Jesus' friends were expecting. But he came and made himself known to them in many different ways, didn't he? With Mary Magdalen at the tomb he called out her name and dispelled her despair and confusion. With Thomas he came to the upper room, and invited Thomas to touch his wounds. And Thomas' obsession with logic // and his disbelief were broken into little bits.
With Cleopas and his other friend in today's story about the road to Emmaus, Jesus came to them and opened up the Scriptures for them, and then broke bread with them, echoing the basic movements of the Eucharist. And their despondency and grief were shattered as their eyes were opened and they, too, recognized him.
It's all about recognition. Jesus comes to people who are without hope, and they recognize him. He comes to people who are doing just fine, for now, and they recognize him. He's still doing it.
Now, let’s ask: Where else in the Bible do we recognize Christ, besides these in-your-face post-Resurrection experiences? We recognize and acknowledge him every year coming to us in the form of a helpless infant born in a stable in a damp cave. We recognize his vulnerability and his need for human comfort. We reflect on that vulnerability when we read the passage from Philippians on Palm Sunday: that though he was equal to God, he did not see that equality as something to be grasped, but rather came to us in the form of a slave--a human being. We recognize him on the cross, having died for us in a way that we cannot even fathom.
Some of us may have heard the story on NPR recently about the statue that portrays Jesus as a homeless man. NPR, April 13, 2014, Weekend Edition Sunday, “Statue of a Homeless Jesus Startles a Wealthy Community.”
The statue is installed outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, N.C., a community of wealth and privilege. It's a figure done in dark bronze, lying on a park bench, as tall as a man, covered with a blanket, with his feet sticking out. Some people hate this statue. Others love it. One person wrote the church a letter and said that the statue “creeps him out.” Someone else actually thought it was a real homeless person and “called the cops on Jesus.”
But no matter if you love it or hate it, that statue gives us Jesus as a totally vulnerable homeless person, dependent on our care. It's a stunning reminder that we might even recognize Jesus in the face of the poor and homeless--people we might otherwise fear--if we only allow ourselves to consider all the ways in which we might recognize him. And of course it's a reminder to us to reach out to the people in all places in society, people we feel comfortable around and maybe especially people we DON'T feel comfortable around.
Now I'd like to tell a story about a very recent time when I recognized the presence of the risen Christ, mediated through another person. It happened just last week when we were on vacation in the west of Ireland. Barry and I wanted to try to climb the holy mountain called Croagh Patrick. Legend has it that Saint Patrick, bishop of Ireland in the 5th Century, spent an entire Lent up there, fasting and praying. Thousands of pilgrims make the trek each year to the top for prayer and for the view and--let's face it--for the sense of accomplishment.
Croagh Patrick is in County Mayo. It rises to 2500 feet elevation in a beautiful cone shape from the low countryside around it. And you might think the way up is a gentle spiral around the mountain until one gets to the top.
But you would be wrong.
The path goes up and up, with a few switchbacks, until the place where the slope changes dramatically. We stopped and had lunch at that place where the path goes up and up really steeply--without any switchbacks anymore--just up and up and up. And it’s scree—loose shale and slate. Really hard to climb.
I was silently thinking to myself I could never do this--that the slope was so steep that I would have to give into my fear of unprotected heights and turn around. I was so consumed with dread but also with the desire to get to the top, that I only got half my sandwich eaten before it was time to move on and try that slope.
(Barry said afterward he thought it must have been a 45-degree slope. I thought it was a good 60 degrees!)
Now, we had all the stuff a person should have for this kind of climb. I had on good hiking boots, long pants and layers. I also had 2 hiking poles that were incredibly useful on the slope. But I also had a huge amount of fear and dread that I carried on me like a backpack full of rocks.
The only thing that helped me get up that crazy, steep slope was keeping Barry in my sight just ahead of me. I asked him to stay close, and he did. His presence, freely given to me, was the only reason I could eventually climb that mountain.
I was thinking it must have been a little similar to people undergoing advanced medical treatments. Of course there are all the technologically advanced medicines and treatments. But these may not help so much with the fear. It's the presence of another human being who is able to mediate the kindness and compassion of God who makes all the difference.
As Barry was for me, a kind presence encouraging me step by step, we are all called to be // for each other. And that is a sacred task, being Christ to another, accompanying another person // through and past their paralyzing fear.
As I was thinking about this experience of ours I kept hearing the verse from our Maundy Thursday hymn ringing in my ears over and over:
I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night-time of your fear
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear. Words: Richard Gillard © 1974, Scripture in Song
Barry was holding the Christ-light for me, in the darkness of my fear. And not for the first time, either.
Yes, we did make it to the top, and the prayer was flowing and the view was grand. The climb down was difficult but not filled with fear. Thank God.
Now, we are indeed called to be Christ to each other, to mediate God's presence to each other. As Teresa of Avila reflected, "We are Christ's hands in the world."
But turn it around for a minute, and ask, how do we see Christ in people who are really, really difficult? Well, of course, maybe there is nothing at all godly in people who are really, really difficult. But I don't want to remain stuck there. I'd like to believe that there is something of God in just about everyone. But how do we see it?
I think the key here is to ask God for compassionate eyes, to be able to go underneath the rough or off-putting exterior of some folks. To ask for help in seeing that the always-angry person is hiding a huge pool of fear inside. To see that the person who has hurt us in the past was acting out of an unmet need to be loved and a striking inability to communicate it. These are just a few examples of how developing compassion for others might help us to see the Christ-light shining through them, despite the stuff that gets in the way sometimes.
Compassion develops over time--through prayer and our own knowledge of ourselves as flawed individuals.
It's all about recognizing Christ. And even more than that, it's all about being Christ for others, bringing hope and care and compassion. Reaching out to people who are easy to take care of, and especially to the most difficult or needy people, nearby and far away.
So: When have you last seen the risen Christ?