O’Connor: Walking Backwards in Holy Week

illustration by Greg Ruth

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been 93, and I would have taken great joy watching this iconoclast toss firecrackers into our modern sensibilities. Strange, isn’t it, to think O’Conner could have lived into the era of Twitter if lupus hadn’t cut her low at 39. Did you know that O’Conner’s first claim to fame was when she was six? A British newsreel company traveled to her family farm in Millsville, Georgia, to capture young Flannery’s (she went by Mary then) feat: she taught a chicken to walk backwards. “I was just there to assist the chicken,” she would explain later, “but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

Hyperbole, of course, but O’Conner did, in so many ways, walk backwards into her world. She was a farm girl, spending much of her energies raising both barnyard poultry and exotic fowl (with particular interest in peacocks). She was Southern, which made her an oddity among the literary elite. She was Catholic, which made her an oddity among the Southern aristocracy. Yet she was a person of her place, a person of her people. She wrote the world in which she lived. When criticized for her stories’ dark underbelly, O’Connor was unmoved. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

Isn’t it strange that Christian faith has so often been used as a means to deny our bleakest realities? Isn’t it strange that some of our weakest art, our most naive fiction, our blandest passions, arrive with the label ‘Christian’ plastered upon their fragile façade? How can God heal what we will not acknowledge? How can Christ’s passion strike into the crucible of our lives if we do not own the fact that there is a powerful darkness? If we do not tell the truth of how we flail and rage but appear entirely helpless to enact any remedy? With our Christian edicts and our glib announcements, perhaps we’ve got hold of the wrong horror.

We need art that carries us into our full experience, that won’t let us go until we do justice with the bare facts of our lives. We need stories that grapple with all of our humanness, narrating both the havoc and the luster. We need to be reminded that Easter announces our true hope: ruin is not the end. There is joy. There is life. But they come through, not around, the valley of the shadow of death.

We’ve taken our first steps into Holy Week, and is there any stranger, any more backwards way,  to heal, to bring peace, to renew the world, than to willingly endure ridicule and torture, to embrace death? Is not Jesus’ march to the Cross a long walk backwards?

Missing the Big One. On Holy Week.

With the boys on spring break, we returned late Saturday night from a whirlwind sprint to Arkansas and Tennessee to see family, including a new baby nephew Cooper who’s a chunk of burning love, let me tell you. Under the brilliant moon, we pulled our Subaru into the Lane and aware of how groggy and bleary-eyed we all were, I knew that in a few hours, when Sunday morning rose from the ashes, I would be the only one rousing. So I was off to church and returned home a couple hours later, Bodo’s bagels in tow.

Later in the afternoon, Wyatt, now reoriented to the land of the living, remembered what day it was. “Wait,” Wyatt said, “today’s Palm Sunday. I missed a big one.” He did, of course. But then isn’t that one of the themes of the story? Didn’t most everyone miss a big one? Didn’t most everyone miss the King of the World, the Love of the World, riding into their midst? Didn’t they miss the awful gravity of where he was heading? Didn’t they miss the treacherous path love asked him to take? Don’t we all seem to miss so much?

I miss God riding into my life on a daily basis. I live with a wonder of a woman, but half the time I’m clueless to all the grace she bears into the world. There’s two wild and brilliant and outrageous boys who live with us, and I feel true sorrow when I see how quickly the sands are pouring through the hourglass, a punch to the gut when I have a moment of clarity and reckon with the hundred ways I’m missing opportunities to chunk the tyrannical distractions and just be dad. If that weren’t enough: friendships missed; opportunities blown right past; that Japanese maple blooms with barely a glance; divine invitations unanswered.

But Jesus rode right on into their life. Jesus was not burning with wounded rage on Palm Sunday, and he (astoundingly) wasn’t bent toward fury on that Good, Dark Friday either. It is the way of humans to blunder along, to miss what’s right in front of us. And it’s the way of God to stand and wait, arms open wide, for us to recognize our foolishness and come home. And at the Cross, we find God’s waiting place, the true gathering place, where all who’ve been slow to clue in can finally say yes, can finally receive the welcome God’s been trying to give since forever.

It’s never too late to say yes to love. The opportunities we’ve missed will not ruin us; they will be overwhelmed by God’s embrace. God waits.

Broken on Good Friday

christ cross stone

In 1983, Eric Wolterstorff died in a tragic accident while climbing the Alps. He was 25. His father Nicholas, a theologian and philosopher from Yale, journaled his sorrow in the months that followed. Among his weary words were these:

I tried music. But why is this music all so affirmative? Has it always been like that? Perhaps then a requiem, that glorious German Requiem of Brahms. I have to turn it off. There’s too little brokenness in it. Is there no music that speaks of our terrible brokenness? That’s not what I mean. I mean: Is there no music that fits in our brokenness? The music that speaks about our brokenness is not itself broken. Is there no broken music?

If we are to walk backwards in our world and if we are to reckon with the true horrors, then we need broken music. We need brave people who are not afraid to linger in the falling-apart places. I do not mean folks who by their disposition only see the bleak, for bleak is thank goodness not at all the whole of it. I do not mean artists who use the grotesque as their shtick or politicians who use our fear of calamity to bolster their power. I mean people who know the Beauty of the world but who also know there is a wasteland in the human soul. People who know Love but who also, deep in their marrow, know how many of our nights and days are overwhelmed by sadness.

And we do not need people to pontificate all these sorrows we know full well but are unable to escape. We need brave souls who will enter with us, who will help us meet our afflictions honestly and help us grapple in the dirt. We need friends who know that we must, like Jacob, wrestle into the cold midnight with an angel or a demon – who can say which just yet?

We need musicians who will sing the song with us – and sometimes for us – that we have not yet been able to sing. We need poets who will write the costly verse, born out of their own travail, and then offer it as gift to those of in such disarray that we are unable to locate the language. We need writers who, after they have cut their skin and their soul and bled onto the page, say, “Come, I’ll walk with you for the next hard mile.” We need preachers who don’t merely give us homilies from on high but who wonder with us if the good news could be true – and then preach with the conviction of one whose very life hangs on this hope. We need the broken ones.

Of course, offering one’s broken self for the healing of another is central to the Christian narrative and to how our faith takes on flesh in every time and place. Good Friday gives us a God broken. A God shattered under a dark sky. A God with us in our bleakest place. A God spilt out as balm for our wound, as hope that points us toward Easter.

O’Connor, Holy Week and Walking Backwards

Today is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been 88, and I would have taken great joy watching this iconoclast toss firecrackers into our modern sensibilities. Strange, isn’t it, to think O’Conner could have lived into the era of YouTube if lupus hadn’t cut her low at 39. O’Conner’s first claim to fame happened when she was six. A British newsreel company traveled to her family farm in Millsville, Georgia to capture young Flannery’s (she went by Mary then) feat: she taught a chicken to walk backwards. “I was just there to assist the chicken,” she said, “but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

Hyperbole, of course, but O’Conner did, in so many ways, walk backwards into her world. She was a farm girl, spending much of her energies raising both barnyard poultry and exotic fowl (with particular interest in peacocks). She was Southern, which made her an oddity among the literary elite. She was Catholic, which made her an oddity among the Southern aristocracy. Yet she was a person of her place, a person of her people. She wrote the world in which she lived. When criticized for her stories’ dark underbelly, O’Connor was unmoved. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

The Christian way, from its very core, is to walk backwards. In yesterday’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, the image of the bloodied Messiah offering his cheeks to those who ripped his beard would not leave me. “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” said the suffering Savior. God never hides from insult or spitting, from the dark nightmares of our world, from the sorrowful stories we live. God does not hide from the horror. God steps into the very middle of it.

Isn’t it strange that Christian faith has so often been used as a means to deny our bleakest realities? Isn’t it strange that some of our weakest art, our most naive fiction, our blandest passions, arrive with the label ‘Christian’ plastered upon their fragile façade? How can God heal what we will not acknowledge? How can Christ’s passion strike into the crucible of our lives if we do not own the fact that there is a powerful darkness, if we do not tell the truth of how we flail and rage but appear entirely helpless to enact any remedy? With our Christian edicts and our moral announcements, perhaps we’ve got hold of the wrong horror.

And how can the beauty we offer possibly embody our full glory and splendor if we believe our gritty, emblazoned humanness unworthy of our keen attention and our unvarnished description?

We need art that carries us into our full humanness, that won’t let us go until we do justice with the bare facts of our lives. We need stories that grapple with all of our humanness, narrating both the havoc and the luster. We need to be reminded that Easter announces our hope that ruin is not the end. There is joy. There is life. But they come through, not around, the valley of the shadow of death. And this traverse will surely seem like walking backwards.

 

 

God’s Shape (upon holy week)

If you are a man with roots than run South (or Southwest, as in my case), then chances are that cornbread claims a sacred place, alongside other relics like grits, football and music with a twang. My grandma made cornbread (straight, not sweet) in cast iron skillets, the kind with decades of grease massaged into every crevice. On special occasions, she would go more elaborate and pull out a cast iron sheet with small molds of corncobs cut into the pan. Dinner offered a basket overflowing with piping hot, individual sized loaves of cornbread. The bread looked cute, all sitting there dressed up like corn freshly shucked; but we knew what it really was – and we were eager to dive in.

When we hear the word form, we often think of something like that. A form is the shape of something, but it may or may not have congruence with what's actually inside. However, the Bible's word for form means something more. In Scripture, a form is the outward visibility of something's true inner quality. In other words, St. Paul would say that the form of cornbread looks like cornbread. And oh how we could play with that image for a bit.

Imagine then what the Scriptures mean when they tell us that Jesus was "in the form of God." We read this little section of Philippians, electric with all its mystery and possibility, each year at the beginning of Holy Week, the week we find ourselves in, the week when Jesus does the absurd, the week when God dies. Apparently, God has a form. Only, for the first bulk of human history, humans had not been able to see that form. We didn't have the capacity for such a vision. 

Until Jesus. The scandal of Paul's words is not the assertion that Jesus is a good human presenting to us a model of God-like life or even that Jesus is a good human who also happens to be Divine in some impossibly mysterious way (though Jesus was human and was divine and it is mysterious). Rather, Paul announces that Jesus is what God looks like when God goes physical. Jesus acted as he did and lived as he did because this is the way God lives and acts. If God was to be humanly visible, then Jesus was the necessary expression. Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.

Jesus did not go to a cross and suffer humiliation to illustrate some other truth about God or to exert unthinkable energy to finally get our attention. Jesus certainly did not surrender his entire being as an act of appeasement to twist a begruding Father's arm toward mercy. This is the daring claim: Jesus is what God looks like when God takes human shape. When God goes visible, then God lays down his life for others. God does not exploit what is rightfully his to exploit. God surrenders himself for the sake of love. 

Stanley Hauerwas, resisting sentimentalized visions of Jesus' passion, warns of the "bathos [which] drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God." If we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus, walking the via dolorosa, the way of grief and suffering. 

The shape God takes, the shape love takes, is cruciform. God's form is Jesus, suspended on a cross, crying out for the healing of the world.

Days of Quiet. And Weeping.

jan richardson

Today and the next couple days that follow offer the calm before the storm. Palm Sunday comes with a flurry (though it always seems an eerie day I don't know quite what to do with), and Maundy Thursday will arrive soon enough — those somber final hours before the initiation of the maddening affliction Jesus will endure. On Thursday, the events take on a convulsive pace, spasm after spasm of death. The flurry of revelry subsumed by the fury of rejection. But today and tomorrow and the day after, we have stillness.

Perhaps Jesus needed these days. By now, Jesus was well aware of what was to come, all the perdition he must embrace. Soon, he would pray to the Father and ask if there might be any other way. Perhaps Jesus needed these days with his friends. I wonder the conversations he shared with that motley crew. Those poor fellows always seemed a step behind (or three or four), but how Jesus loved them. I imagine Jesus cherished these quiet hours. And I imagine there was laughter. I suspect there was added tenderness in Jesus' way and words. Death would fall heavy on Jesus; but, God knows, it would also fall heavy on those Jesus loved. The grief of loss can be the harshest burden, especially if you don't know how the story ends; and the gospels paint the picture of disciples who had not a clue of where this story went. Their agony would be great, and Jesus knew it.

Perhaps this was why Jesus wept over Jerusalem on the day he entered the city among the Hosannas and the waving palms. Jesus was alone in his knowledge that the people "had not recognized the time of God's coming" to them. (Luke 19:44) Jesus was alone in bearing the burden of the cataclysm those he loved would suffer. Everyone else rejoiced, but for Jesus the Cross had already begun.

The Saturday Between

On this day of stone-silence,
We sit fixed in the Saturday between.
Between tears and joy.
Between poverty and plenty.
Between ruin and triumph.
Between despair and delight.
Between forgotten and welcomed.
Between fearful and joyful.
Between war and war no more.
Between dark and light.
Between gloom and glory.
Between tears and laughter.
Between death. And life.
We sit fixed, riveted, in this Saturday between.

And this moment
Casts a pale, hallow light
Over the Long Saturday,
The many days
Where the world waits. Between.

But between is not the end, never is.
It is only between.