Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reproach, Reflection, and Revelation

I am writing this inside a dimly lit church sanctuary at 4 am as Fenya and I take our turn at the Easter Vigil. The idea is to ensure that the sanctuary is never empty, from the end of yesterday's Good Friday service until tonight's firelight ceremony, the first service of Easter. Besides the inconsistent percussion of my fingers on the iPad keyboard, the only other sounds are soft organ music from behind me, and Fenya's page turning beside me.

There are a number of spiritual books in the narthex, and the indoor labyrinth is set up so it can be walked. In the past, there has been art to reflect upon and stations with various worship practices outlined, but those keeping vigil are free to make whatever observances they wish. Writing has always been the most introspective thing I do, and so I have brought my tablet and a tv tray because of something I experienced at yesterday's Good Friday service.

Our household got to participate in two different ways this year: I did some readings as part of the story of the crucifixion of Christ, and Fenya sang. In wanting to change things up, and to help people look at The Passion in a different way, Rev. James had asked her about singing something secular, perhaps popular, as opposed to specifically sacred. "What's something people will recognize as mournful but not necessarily associated with Easter? Glen will be singing Pink Floyd's 'On the Turning Away' this weekend, is there anything like that you could work with?"

Fenya was intrigued at the chance to move outside her normal repertoire of chamber and choral music, and when she told me the plan, I racked my brain for something appropriate that she might be familiar with. Most of the saddest songs I can think of are rooted in the blues, but that really didn't fit her style. "The only thing I can think of that is a real lamentation is that Johnny Cash cover of 'Hurt', but I don't know how much of a fit that will be with Good Friday..." I confessed.

She became intrigued by the idea though, and sang it to James at her next opportunity, and he agreed that there was something there. I was a little skeptical until I got the order of service and saw that Fenya was singing right after I read Matthew 27:1-5 which includes this:

3 Then when Judas, the one who had betrayed him, saw that he had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and elders,
4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” But they said, “What is that to us? You see to it!”
5 And throwing the silver coins into the temple he departed. And he went away and hanged himself.

Moving straight from that last image to "I hurt myself today..." made for a petty effective segue. Now, obviously Trent Reznor was unlikely to have been thinking directly of Jesus and Judas when he wrote Hurt; I think of it primarily as it an insightful and personal song about someone recognizing their behaviour as selfish and self destructive but helpless to stop it or change. Having just read the passage where he hangs himself in shame, it is easy to imagine Judas singing
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here
What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way

I've always found Hurt to be a tremendously moving song, especially Johnny Cash's version, but hearing my daughter sing something so painful, especially in this context, was almost too much to bear. Likewise, a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Judas has always resonated with me, probably due to the undue influence Jesus Christ Superstar had on the formation of my personal theology, but imagining him admitting his wrong to Jesus and admitting He is his sweetest friend struck me as incredibly powerful, and the sensation of sudden humidity around the eyes was visible in several other faces around the church.

After the final reading, but before James' sermon, I got to read aloud a thousand-year-old prayer called The Reproaches. It's a fascinating responsive reading from medieval times which portrays God as reminding the listener all He has done for his people, and the ingratitude with which He has been repaid.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I gave you saving water from the rock, but you gave me gall and vinegar to drink.
For you I struck down the kings of Canaan, but you pierced your Saviour with a lance.
As I went up to read The Reproaches, I found myself responding very emotionally, which struck me as curious. It can sometimes be too easy to read Scriptural text and related writings dispassionately; the archaic language, the unfamiliar cadences and so on, and so I always try to take care that my voice is inflected and attempt to bring some sense of passion or drama to whatever I am presenting. Looking at these ancient accusations though, I felt my throat closing up, and struggled to maintain my composure. Where was this coming from?

I was midway through reading when I came to the sudden realization that, of all the wrongs we do to each other, there is none worse than betrayal, at least as far as I am concerned.

My capacity for understanding and empathy is far, far greater for someone who beats and robs another, than for someone who embezzled money from a charity, for instance. Physical injury and psychological trauma is far less affecting to me than this unsavoury idea of betraying the confidence of those who trust you. In entertainment, one of the fastest ways for a character to lose my respect is through marital infidelity. Even in games, I shy away from those which require deal-breaking in order to win, like Diplomacy. In Warhamer 40,000, a game whose faction appeal is far more dependent on visuals than background, there are no real 'good guys', but I will never play a Chaos Marine army, because they aren't just rebels, they are traitors.

I've been conscious of my antipathy towards betrayal for some time now, and the commitment to honesty and truth that comes with it reflects itself in so many other ways, like the fact that the only spankable offence when the girls were pre-schoolers was lying. Little things too, like how much I enjoy the mythical story of Tyr, who sacrificed his own hand to the mouth of a wolf in order to prove his commitment to an oath.

But where did it start? Racing through my memories while standing at the lectern, I saw my lowest times when I had let someone down, and other instances where I had felt betrayed, ranging from fickle childhood affiliations in elementary school, through to the revelation that someone I had worked with on a student association had duped myself and others in order to steal funds. An incident from childhood involving my father daring me to test the safety feature of a new garage door while laying under it took a place of prominence as well, and might actually be a big part of the root of it.

Suddenly I was struck by the sheer volume of treachery in the Easter story; not only the betrayal of Judas, but the denial of Peter, and the fickle crowd asking for Barrabas instead. Suddenly I had a clearer understanding of why the story of Christ's final days on Earth have such an impact on me.

The Easter story is filled with treachery, and reminds us and how often we have let others down, by not being more compassionate, or rushing to judge others, or being selfish. But it is ultimately a story of grace and forgiveness, and a reminder that it is never too late to change.

In all these years, I had never understood just how personal a story The Passion really is.

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