March 24, 2013
Jesus died. It was a small event. Just another execution, a diversion for the people, entertainment for an afternoon. People enjoy hovering gawking at other’s misfortune.
He died and nothing changed. It was a minute victory for Roman rulers -- one suspected revolutionary was dead. It was a small victory for the religious establishment -- one dicey leader died. It was a sizable tragedy for his followers.
At the time, historically speaking, his death was barely a blip, quite forgettable, quite unremarkable, quite unexceptional. Certainly not what sociologists might describe as a generational defining moment.
Carl Manheim, one such sociologist, argues that generations can be shaped by a singular event that becomes the ruling metaphor for their approach to life. "Depression era children grew up wary of being wasteful," he says. "The baby boomers came of age in a time of great prosperity, but also great uncertainty in witnessing the assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK and the Vietnam War. By contrast, Generation X, roughly those between 29 and 40 years of age, had no defining moment."
They didn’t when he wrote that, but they do now. We all do.
There have been numerous defining moments in our national history. Each event was personal in impact.
The sinking of the Titanic. Pearl Harbor. Hiroshima. The assassination of JFK. The Challenger explosion. The Pan Am crash over Lockerbie. Columbine. 9/11. Sandy Hook.
Jesus said to the thief, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” With what amount of confidence, do you think, that thief lived the rest of his life? What amount of confidence do we live our lives in Jesus’ promise? Jesus said to his Disciples and to us, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” The thief’s life was only a matter of a few hours. The test of faith was brief. Our part of “the age” may last until beyond what our current sensibilities conjure up.
Shortly after President Kennedy was murdered, telephones rang in schools across our nation. Classes were canceled. School children were sent home. Machine shops closed. Gas stations stopped pumping. Shops and markets drew their curtains. Mothers stopped working. Architects laid down pencils. Lawyers put down pens. Doctors stopped doctoring. Clergy opened churches for prayer. Citizens in mourning went to their homes, turned on their black-and-white sets to watch and try to understand the assassination of JFK.
This was a sudden end of a new beginning. Our nation grieved for a magnificent dream, and for our president, both lost. That one November day shaped a generation.
JFK, his brother Bobby and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. --all killed. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, flower children, napalm and the secret bombing of Cambodia defined a generation, leaving it splintered, fractured and alienated. Anti-establishment children left their homes, turned their backs on their families, leaving their square mothers and flat-topped fathers confused.
There was the attempt to kill President Ronald Reagan and then Pope John Paul II. What evil lurks in our hearts and lives. Fortunately they survived.
On September 18, 2001, an elderly woman named Mrs. Kestenbaum went to her post office in Cape Elizabeth and found a package from her dear son, Howard Kestenbaum. The package was his Rosh Hashanah gift to his mother. It was a jar of golden honey and a note that read, "May your New Year be sweet. Love, Howie."
On September 11, 2001, in the morning, on his way to his job at the World Trade Center, Howie Kestenbaum had stopped at his post office to mail her present. Howie died that morning, in a tower, one death among 4,000.
All these events, just like that of JFK, all made the residents of this nation stop – it made many around the world stop.
When Jesus died, his generation wasn't defined. When Jesus died, except for some women at the foot of the cross, no one mourned. No one knew this death was exceptional. There was no press report. No news briefing. No shocked nation. Few took notice of another Jew's execution.
He did change the course of history, which we now realize. But at the time, who knew? Who cared?
The disciples didn't know. They had fled and returned to their former occupations, hauling nets, collecting taxes, pounding nails, trying to forget, trying to blend in, trying to hide.
Religious leaders didn't know. Many rejoiced that an agitating rabble-rouser was eliminated. They were anxious to get on with Passover.
The political leaders didn't know. They just wanted to get rid of that troublemaker and keep peace in an unimportant Roman province. "Keep the peace" equaled "keep their jobs."
The people didn't know. They were thoroughly disillusioned.
The soldiers didn't know. They gambled for his clothes.
The thief hung dying on the cross, spent the rest of his life in agony. After hearing the promise, it would be one thing to have some level of hope while there still was movement, even words, from the center cross. But what about after Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”
What about the hours left to the thief after it was clear that Jesus had breathed his last and there was no evidence of life or concern or possible help from that center cross? A thief, who dying on the cross could not tell that there was a three hour darkness and a temple curtain torn in two? What could possibly sustain confidence for the future when the promisor could not hold out in the present? And then, after hours of silence from the dead savior, soldiers came to break the legs of the crucified three, one more insult, one more demonstration of the domination by evil. They did not even bother to break the legs of Jesus, seeing that he was already dead. No possibility for faith in the promise and the future.
Is our situation so very different? Hanging between earth and heaven, day by day, year by year – a painful reminder of our human existence. For many of us, suffering is as life-suffocating as Jesus’ suffering. For those who were not affected directly by the tragedies I mentioned before, they are tormented only with meaninglessness, guilty of sins not realized, under judgment for crimes too well remembered. Many of us are confused, ignorant of life’s meaning and goal, certain only of doubt. Some circumstances would seem to justify a stance of doubt. How could a good God permit so much evil to fall upon creatures whom God purposes to love?
With each Lent, and especially holy week from Palm Sunday thru Good Friday, the image of the dying Jesus is impressed on the eyes of the world. We read throughout the week the seemingly morbid scenes of his trial, suffering and crucifixion. What a somber note for church. Instead of being lifted up, we are being brought down. But are we?
Do we know? Do we understand choosing the cross can be for us the defining moment of our spiritual lives? Have we encountered Christ in a way that affirms that Jesus was not just a good man, not just someone who showed us how to love one another, but as the Savior, who died on that Good Friday many years ago, in a specific time and place, died for the sins of the world?
It was a tragedy. He died that day. Yes, he did, and his death was a terrible tragedy, but it was also a magnificent victory. It was a Tragic Victory that, over the centuries, has become pivotal, formative and earth changing. He was buried over in the garden, and some of the soldiers of the squadron were sent to guard the opening of the grave where the great stone had been rolled.
Yet, the next Sunday you should have heard their story! The stone was rolled away while the guards were in some magical trance; fore they knew if they slept during their guard, they would have been executed to failure to do their duty. And when they came out of their trance and looked to the grave, the stone was rolled away and the grave was empty! The word is that he was alive! He had risen from the grave, risen from the dead!
What if the thieves had known what we know now of Jesus’ resurrection even in their moment of dying? Is not that the very way God has made good on the promise that whoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish but have everlasting life? How differently the phrases “Today, paradise” and “with you always” sound when the “I lay down my life and on the third day I take it up again” is known to be true. How different all the promises sound when remembered with the resurrection.
There is a true story of a couple who lived during the WWII who were Jews but had converted to Catholicism. The husband was acquainted with one of the Nazi soldiers who one day came for a visit at their home. In a conversation, the husband asked the Nazi soldier how many Jews he thought he had killed thus far. The Nazi soldier answered many thousand. The husband asked how many he killed in a small town he named. The Nazi answered a few hundred. The husband then asked how many he killed in the home town of the husband’s wife’s home town. The Nazi answered all of them as if to boast.
The husband then asked the Nazi if he ever asked God for forgiveness. The Nazi soldier said no, I do not believe there is a God so there is no such thing as forgiveness. The husband then stated that his wife had been upstairs all this time sleeping and had not heard this conversation at all; however he was going to call her down. She did, and when she arrived the husband said to her that the Nazi soldier in front of her is the one who killed her mother, her father, her brothers and sisters and all her family. She looked at the soldier for a moment then went up to him, threw her arms around him, hugged him and stated, “As God forgives you, I forgive you!” The Nazi soldier threw himself at her feet and cried in deep sorrow.
In his rising, through his holy transformation, he became our only hope that life is more than flesh and bone. Jesus Christ, through death and resurrection, becomes our open channel, our willing vehicle, our ransom, who can and will lead us home to God, if and only if, we are willing. Unless we open our hearts, souls, minds and lives to Christ, his great victory will remain but a tragedy ... not for him, but for us.
Our Blessed Lord is not content simply to repeat over and over, “It is I, myself. Behold, I live!” He says to us as he said to those first Disciples, “Have you anything to eat?” And when they gave him a piece of broiled fish, he took it and ate before them and their eyes were opened. To us he says, “Take and eat, take and drink.” And so we eat with Him and know He is risen, and we trust ever more surely that He is with us even to the end of the age.
Still the tendons tear, the bones are broken, the wars continue, the shootings seemingly never stop, the agony goes on. But the promise is made sure in the Resurrection; the promise remains for every day. And look; the table is set, the cloth is spread. Come, for all things are now ready!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.