Friday, March 26, 2010

Lenten meditation #3

My family and I are reading a devotional together for Lent and Easter called “Bread and Wine,” which has challenged and in some cases perplexed us. What a sad, dark discipline it is to stop and ponder such matters as repentance, temptation, the passion of Jesus and his crucifixion. The readings on resurrection and new life can’t come soon enough. As expert as I’ve become at tribulation of the spirit, nothing quite prepares me for going all the way to the cross with Christ. But there are no half-measures for anyone serious about wanting to follow him. This is something we each have to do alone.

In a reading this past week, Henri Nouwen reflects upon the central word in the story of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane. He writes that this is “to be handed over.” Some Bibles translate this word as “betrayed,” but the Greek (Nouwen writes) says that Jesus was “handed over.” The word is used for Judas, but also for God. God did not spare Jesus, but handed him over to benefit us all (Romans 8:32). This “handing over” creates a useful word picture for those of us who think visually.

This is a relevant thought for anyone who has ever been seriously ill. I’ve railed against the bad treatment I’ve sometimes received at the hands of careless nurses and doctors, as have others who have felt a similar loss of control in their lives. When we are accustomed to being masters of our fate, it’s not easy to leave our care wholly to others. This is especially true living at a time and in a culture where our value as human beings is based on personal productivity, success and action. When you have always been independent, it’s emotionally wrenching to have to drop out of the race. It feels like defeat.

Nouwen, in typically brilliant fashion, makes the point that this act of being handed over plays a pivotal role in the life of Jesus. It divides that part of his life filled with teaching and activity from his passion, in which he is merely the recipient of other people’s initiatives. It is then that he’s first arrested, taken to Pilate, mocked, crowned with thorns, and finally nailed to the cross. He allows these things to be done in order to fulfill his vocation. Jesus wasn’t just a great teacher and miracle worker—although he was indeed those. He also knew that he had to surrender control and suffer the agony of physical death. He put himself into the hands of venal, mortal humans.

The love that Jesus shows in his passion is one that does not seek control. Knowing this, how much easier it should be for us to submit to necessary medical care, when required, where the forces at work are mostly benevolent. There is much to be said for what our lives represent when we are no longer active in the way we once were, but we are instead being acted upon. Being in others’ hands is no less a part of life than being the hands that help others. It’s all a matter of God’s timing.

When my dad was dying from a brain disorder in the mid-1990s, I sat with him one day at the nursing home and just talked about things I felt needed to be said. He was unable to communicate or even to move much, but what he gave me at that time was the opportunity to speak my peace. It was sweet just to be with him. He gazed at me with clear, blue eyes that seemed to tell me that things were OK. He was helpless and locked in a body that was quickly winding down. I wasn’t there when he died, but my mom, an aunt and two of my siblings were. He kissed them all good-by, and then left this world.

My dad died well, not that he had much to say about the matter. He had long since surrendered control of his body. Many of us will reach that turning point eventually, in some fashion or another. Some of us will yield control gradually and with preparation, and others dragged kicking and screaming. My dad was the recipient of divine love even while lying there quietly on that hospital bed. His essential humanity was fully present. His life was not complete until he had received love and care that could not be reciprocated. His life was in the hands of others, and in God’s. He was being prepared for a deeper love.

Handing ourselves over is one of the hardest things we can contemplate—but we must. Fortunately, we have a model. Jesus walks before us.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Thank you, Peter, for this new post, and for once again leading me to the Cross.