Love is Watching Someone Die
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
April 14, 2019 – Palm Sunday
In the Name of God: Creator, Crucified, and Abyss of Love. + AMEN.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians includes the elegant Christ hymn we find in today’s reading: that we are to have the same mind in us as was in Christ Jesus, who, although he was in the same mold as God himself, did not grasp after equality with God, but took on weakness, became the very epitome of humility, directed his whole life toward God, which led him to his death, on a cross. It’s a powerful hymn, one that probably predated Paul and was used by some of the very earliest Christians to express their beliefs about Jesus, their confession of who they took Jesus to be. But the line about death on a cross is in danger of being swallowed up by the exaltation. It is in danger of glossing over the actual death and hastening on into Easter.
And aren’t we in a similar danger. We are tempted to hop over the passion and head straight for resurrection. To get past the ugly and morbid bits, and get straight to the happy bits, the Peeps and Chocolate bunnies, the lilies and the lilacs. But this Holy Week that we have now entered into, and the Three Holy Days, or the Triduum, slow down the story so we do not miss something essential. As the exercises for the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation puts it: In proposing Holy Week, “the Church breaks time, literally breaks it, in order to open again the wound that is my humanity.” The wound that is my humanity. Attending to the mysteries of Holy Week is attending to this wound that is our humanity, a wound entered into by the Author of all so that it might be healed.
We are always in danger of missing the wound of God’s humanity. That is why we slow down the story during Holy Week, and prepare ourselves for it with Lent. Sometimes, I think about the day of the crucifixion in the lives of Jesus’s friends and disciples. What an odd day. A surreal day. An utterly incredible day. Has ever anyone known grief like this? Has ever anyone known love like this? Keep in mind, it was at a festival time: when Jesus and his friends were partying with Jerusalem, remembering the faithfulness of God toward God’s people, when God liberated them from Egypt, when God’s avenging angel, a death-dealing angel, passed over God’s people, spared them, sheltered them, kept them safe. Just a couple of days before they had come into town with rip-roaring songs of praise to God.
I think of street fairs and neighborhood block parties I’ve seen, college festivities, too, I suppose. I think of Jerusalem littered with red Dixie cups, a faint smell of spilled beer in the air, the wafting aroma of barbecue, and the unmistakable energy of delight and reveling. And the surreal shift when such exuberance turns to tragedy: when injury or death comes to the party. It is an indescribable feeling: the bottom drops out of your stomach, your legs melt away, and who knows what’s holding you up any more.
“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But. All his acquaintances. All those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”
Watching? In horror, in disbelief, in the perfect knowledge that something was broken beyond repair. The wish that it all could start over, the gnawing sense that no, no, no time must be rewindable, because this cannot have happened. There was supposed to be more time. More joy. More life. Before the goodbye that they didn’t get to have. They were watching. The crowds went home, their buzz thoroughly doused. But not those who knew him. They watched. From a distance. I can almost see them huddled together, leaning on each other, none daring to say anything to break the sacred silence of their collective, raw grief. We slow down the story in Holy Week, beginning with the improbably juxtaposition of Palms and Passion so that we can watch with them.
I am haunted by a song called “What Sarah Said” (by Death Cab For Cutie). I am haunted by it because I was introduced to it shortly before my father died in an ICU. It starts in the middle of a thought: “And it came to me then \ that every plan \ is a tiny prayer to Father Time,” and it describes the experience of watching someone die…in an ICU. The song is called, “What Sarah Said,” because the song reaches it’s climax with the lines, “But I’m thinking of what Sarah said: That Love is watching someone die.”
What were Jesus’s friends doing? Watching him die. If we are able to watch with them, we will not miss what is essential: the profound love at the bottom of it all. I don’t pretend to understand just how Jesus’s crucifixion saves us or why exactly it is a sacramental recapitulation of his passion that nourishes us. What I do know is that it is this wound of humanity, Jesus’s entering into the grip of death that heals us, redeems the shards and begins to make them whole again. As I attend to the inconceivable death of God laid out in my hearing, I find myself in the company of those who loved him beyond measure, whose own hearts broke that day, and it teaches me to love.
We are tempted to shake our heads like the crowds, beat our breasts, and just go back to our lives. But that’s not the invitation. The invitation is to watch with those who loved him, and to become what we see. To slow down the story, and even break time, to make sure we hear it again. The invitation is to catch sight of, and even find ourselves wrapped up in, the mystery of divine love. Love is watching someone die. Or maybe, watching someone die is Love, and then every death becomes a kind of sacrament of Jesus’s death, so that Jesus’s death can gather up everyone in God. And in attending to Jesus in his Passion, maybe we, too, will find ourselves among the company of those who know him, who love him, and whose lives are forever transfigured by Jesus.