Benediction Online

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Last week I watched a movie from a few years ago starring Helen Mirren; ‘Mrs. Stone’s Roman Spring’. The newly widowed and fabulously rich Mrs. Stone decides to stay in Rome rather than face returning home without her husband. As she whiles away the time with a succession of gigolos, a street bum watches and sometimes stalks her. Eventually all those she thought were friends turn on her, and she carefully wraps her house keys in a linen handkerchief and throws them to the man watching in the street. He is very handsome, and from early in the film I had hoped that somehow they would find each other and true love but the filmmaker has depicted him as sinister and obsessed. As he unlocks the front door I wonder which will prove correct – will he assault her and the evening end in violence, or will she offer him a drink and over fine cognac find enough Italian to discover his soul? He climbs the stairs to the room where she is waiting, and the camera moves to his face and then to hers. As it does so the faces go out of focus and blur. The screen goes blank and the credits start rolling.

We don’t know for sure what happens. The filmmaker leaves it to our imagination. The end of the story is shrouded in mystery – it is blurred, but will somehow unfold from all that has gone before. Just like today’s readings.

Today is the last day of the Church’s year and so our readings are about the end of the Christian story. About where it’s all going in the end. But it’s an end which is unclear. The picture is blurred.

In the first reading, (Jer. 23 :1-6) Jeremiah is prophesying as Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonians. God will once again gather together the remnant of the people, those who are left and will provide them with good leadership. Once again the house of David will produce a good king who will execute justice and righteousness in the land. This is a prophecy of the Messiah, the Anointed One – the future king who will come and set all things to right.

In the second reading, (Col. 1:11-20)Paul quotes from a popular hymn about the Christ who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Paul has made a few changes to make it more theologically correct, but it is still a poem. It is a poem to the cosmic Christ, the Anointed One who is the beginning and the end.

The Gospel reading (Luke 23:33-43) brings us down to earth, to the apparent defeat on the cross. However much we may know the reality of the resurrection, the cross is still somber and sobering. Why do we have this reading on the Sunday when we celebrate Christ as King?

Because our King is like no other. A King or Queen is one who rules, who is powerful and glorious, but in the amazing contradiction of our God, we see the King powerless and humiliated, in great pain.

Three images superimposed on one another. The Messiah who will rule justly and righteously, the cosmic Christ who is the beginning and end of creation, and the Innocent One who while hanging on the shameful cross promises paradise to another.

It’s not surprising that the images blur in the camera lens. This is one of the places where our faith offers only mystery while we long for certainty.

People long for certainty. ‘How can I believe in a personal God,’ my friend asked me yesterday, ‘when there is so much random violence and terror? Why does God answer some prayers, protect some people and not others?’ There are no easy answers to that question yet I think it is a central one of our time. We have to make a serious attempt to address it at least for ourselves so that we can share our own fumbling answers with those who are looking for a life-giving relationship with God.

Today’s readings point to a future when the darkness will be dispersed and the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Cosmic Christ will be fully revealed in all his or her glory and power. If we are waiting for the day when all things will be resolved, does that mean that the Cosmic Christ is limited in power today? If God hears a torture victim’s prayers for help but allows the horror to happen anyway, does that mean that God doesn’t care?

It is no longer enough to say that there will be a day at the end of time when Christ is victorious. That’s like saying just do what the doctor says and all will be well. We are no longer content to believe that the authorities have everything under control; we have learned that so often they don’t. We live in a time of radical uncertainty when everything is and should be questioned. Including just what God is up to.

I don’t have a clear answer but I think the key is in our Gospel reading. God on the cross. God allowing Godself to be limited in human form. God in our pain. Either there is something necessary about pain, and it was necessary that God share in it, or there is something so random that God too was randomly attacked and victimized.

Even though Jesus could have gotten down from the cross, he didn’t. He was simultaneously the Christ and the broken body. Even through the pain, Christ was Sovereign. So the fact that we experience pain does not mean that God is no longer Sovereign but it does mean that we are human. Illness, random acts of violence and unexpected accidents and even intentional cruelty are part of what it means to be human. Prayer will not protect us from the consequences of being human any more than it will stop us aging.

The person whose house was saved when his neighbor’s burned may be grateful that God answered his prayer but that he still has a house does not mean that he is any godlier or any more beloved than his neighbor. Jesus said, “my kingdom is not of this world”. To be so attached to things that we see them as the evidence of God’s blessing is to miss the point entirely. Could that be true of health, physical well-being and lack of pain as well?
Could it be that, like Buddha suggested, we only suffer because we expect things to be different and we are attached to comfort and well-being?

The camera focuses in and then the image blurs. We don’t know how the story ends. We don’t know how God gets to be Sovereign Lord while creation continues to suffer. We don’t know why it seems that some prayer gets answered and some doesn’t. But we do know that despite it all the Cosmic Christ is the final power before the throne of God and that we have been called to worship and serve the living God, and continue to ask the difficult questions because it is in seeking the answers that we are changed and transformed into the Christ-filled beings we were made to be.


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