Tonight’s service was a Calvary version of a traditional tenebrae service. In this service the light was extinguished, little by little, as we heard scripture, music, and poetry that told the stories of our faith and made space for reflection. Our service ended with the Kol Nidre played on the cello, an Aramaic prayer usually played or sung at the opening Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. At the end of worship the sanctuary was very dark. We left in silence.
During worship, after each scripture reading, we heard these short reflections continuing the theme of our Lenten series on sin and focused on the words sin, hell, repentance, penance, and salvation.
Sin. There are experiences we have and decisions we make that connect us to each other and to God. And there are experiences we have and decisions we make that alienate us from each other and from God. There is something inside you and me that longs for relationship…and there are so many things that keep us separated from God and from each other. Sin.
It’s sin that blinds our eyes to God, right here among us. It’s sin that stops our ears from hearing the call of grace. It’s sin that keeps us stagnant when we should be living the gospel, ushering in the kingdom of God. It’s sin when we raise our fists and our voices and yell: “If you are really the son of God, save yourself!”
Hell is real. Hell, an ongoing situation of separation from God and from each other, happens all the time in this life and beyond this life.
On this night especially, we must summon the courage to speak of hell, to name the pain of separation, to be honest about our estrangement and failure and even our destruction. In our humanity we join Jesus’ mother and the other women, and the disciples, standing at the foot of a cross, real-time witnesses to the horror of humanity gone horribly, terribly wrong.
And the only hope we have comes when we’re able to look up and see, not the hell we’ve created, but the love that stands resolute in the face of it all.
When we do that, we will see each other with new eyes. We will turn our backs on the hell we create and the hell we deserve. And we will walk toward redemption instead.
“Here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” At the foot of the cross we wonder: can we live with courageous abandon into relationship, redemption, healing, hope…love? Can we walk away from hell?
Repentance. If there’s any occasion to consider it, tonight’s probably the night. Here, in the shadow of a cross, though, you may be thinking what I’m thinking: there aren’t enough ways to say I’m sorry. Here at the biggest accident scene of our humanity, we know like we’ve never known before: we need to repent, and it’s likely that nothing we say or do will ever be enough to make it all better.
That’s okay, though, because repentance isn’t really about realizing I’m bad and then becoming good. No, repentance has to do with carrying shame-filled secrets…and becoming real. Vulnerable. Seen for who I really am. And loved anyway.
The thief on the cross next to Jesus repented. But his repentance didn’t consist of Jesus pointing out his failings and telling him to start behaving. Instead, in the middle of his own desperate pain, Jesus looked at him, saw everything he was, and loved him.
Repentance is about being real, about somebody looking at me and seeing me—in all my pain and loveliness and brokenness and possibility—and saying I love you. Or, even: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That night it began. Penance. Maybe it began for only just a few, but it began. With the horror of our violent humanity illustrated on a crossbeam against the dark sky, some people knew.
They turned their eyes away when he groaned.
Tears slipped down their cheeks when the sour wine met his lips.
They felt the darkness, the dread inside, when he whispered, “Forsaken. God has forsaken me.”
Then they knew for sure: they could never make up for what we’ve done. And we know: we can never make up for what we’ve done.
But penance is not making up for what we did, bringing things back to the way they were before we sinned. Penance is moving ourselves ever and always toward healed relationship with God and with each other.
And that’s what began just as the darkness fell and the curtain in the temple ripped and all creation cried. That’s when we began, little by little, moving toward God because we saw God, right in front of us, forgiving.
Salvation. It’s why we’re here. It’s the acknowledgement that something needs to change, to be saved. That we need to be saved. The mystery of how that happens is hard to explain, but tonight more than ever, it’s salvation we long for.
Right here, tonight, when heaven and earth collide, we know: we need transformation here and now, both in our individual lives, and in the whole world. We need liberation from bondage, return from exile, rescue from peril, well-being out of infirmity, trust from fear, justice from injustice. Here. For you and for me and for all of us together.
And tonight, in the shadow of a cross, it’s going to take everything we have to believe that God’s ongoing work of salvation is taking place right now, all over this world. In the pain and hopelessness and fear of crucifixion two thousand years ago…in the pain and hopelessness and fear of the world we live in, tonight we summon all the courage we can to believe that a larger narrative is being written, an arc of salvation in which God is ever calling us to participate.
This subversive hope, a claim that drives us to stifle hope, and step harder on the downtrodden and resist redemption, will drive us to destruction. It will drive us to the cross. What more poignant reminder do we need that salvation, the ongoing, redemptive work of God in the world, is dangerous business?
God is love.
Love is the only thing that can save us.
We try our best to kill God.