Monday, April 13, 2009

The Easter Message and the Need for the Churches' Decline

I did not blog during the last two days of what Catholics call the holy triduum, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, or on Easter, because it seems to me the world is too full of words. Meaningless words.

And I am sometimes part of the process of spinning out those words that mean too little, on this blog.

I think the instinct of the church during the holy triduum and Easter is a good one: to say less and do more. To act. Liturgy is always enactment, drama, theater. But it is never so starkly holy theater as in the days leading up to Easter and on Easter itself, when the entire story of salvation is acted out, rather than preached about, in many churches.

Good Friday liturgies re-enact the dramatic climax of the gospel stories of Jesus’s life, by re-telling the story of his passion and crucifixion in a theatrical point-counterpoint style that involves the entire congregation. The point, it seems to me, is that the significance of what is being enacted far surpasses what mere words can tell us. A point underscored by the Holy Saturday liturgy, in which a liturgical enactment of the creation story, the crossing of the Red Sea, and so forth, becomes part of the message of Easter, and weaves that message into the entire history of salvation in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Words are fragile, lame things when such significance is at stake. How is it possible to capture in words, for instance, a story of crucifixion in which the protagonist refuses to use words—in which he refuses to offer a defense of himself against false charges that will lead to his death, because he knows that any words he speaks will be used against him?

This recognition—of the futility and the slippery, sliding deceptiveness of language in the hands of those who abuse it in order to deceive and crucify others—is at the very heart of the story of Jesus’s passion. What we often forget as we watch the prettified enactments and iconic representations of this story is that this is the story of a poor, powerless man up against all the powers possible in his world: a man they were intent on crucifying, and whom they would crucify, no matter what he said in his defense.

The story of Jesus’s death is a story about the ultimate end of those who believe in something that transcends the power and control of the big men and big women of the world. Those on top continuously crucify. They have no choice except to do so, because their use of power is totally corrupt, and the innocent poor people of the world—Jesus included—reveal the corruption and total emptiness of their power. It reveals it to themselves, and they do not want to see themselves as they are.

What is surprising about Jesus’s death is not so much his death itself. That is predictable. What is surprising is what happened with that death—that it was overturned. That it became not the occasion for his total demise, for what the powerful of the land intended when they crucified him: the utter silencing of his voice and the stories he told, their evisceration, so that these stories of God's loving presence to the downtrodden and the possibility of an entirely different world would not cause trouble.

What is surprising about Jesus’s death is that his death became the preliminary to—indeed, the centerpoint of—the final triumph of his message, such that everything he said and did in his short, marginal life suddenly became refulgent with a significance immediately apparent to the wretched of the earth, in particular, a significance that ruling powers always wish to discount and to combat, but which becomes only more refulgent, the more it is suppressed.

In this respect, the story of Jesus and his life is part and parcel of many other stories, because the world is chock full of failures seeking significance for our little lives. The world is bursting at the seams with little folks used up and thrown away by the powerful of the world, many of whom talk about God and lug conspicuously displayed symbols like the cross or crosiers around as they use up and throw away people very much like the Jesus whom they betray by their lives and their behavior.

The story of Jesus links Jesus and his story to the other religions of the world, too, though Christian exclusivists allied to the powerful of the earth want to deny that significance, because it makes the Christian message less capable of the ideological distortion to which the powerful need to subject that message, in order to keep it from challenging their injustice. Those religions also care about and illuminate the significance of things for those of us who hunger for such significance, after all, in a world in which the powerful try to hoard all significance for themselves alone, and to twist the meaning of things to shore up their unjust claims to power.

What the story of Jesus links less and less to, for many of us, is the church itself. The church has succeeded at this point in history in becoming a dreadful problem—a glaring counter-sign to the message it transmits to us, to the memory of the living Jesus that it continues to enshrine within its decaying structures.

If one thinks about it, the point seems obvious: if words are too frail to bear the entire message, the good news, that was the life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus; if the only ultimate way to transmit that message is through enactment and not verbal communication: then the best—the only—way the church can present this message to the world is through its life. Not through its preaching. Certainly not in catechisms and encyclicals and books, glorious as all those are.

Jesus was the message he proclaimed. Every story he told, he acted as well. There was complete conformity between who he was and what he taught. When he spoke about the unbelievable intrusion of God’s reign into history and what that unbelievable intrusion meant, he sat down to eat with whores. And tax collectors. And women contaminated by menstrual blood. Public sinners. Outcasts, the wretched of the land, for whom there was no hope. Not in the officially, ritually upright, exceedingly verbose religion of the land.

Only in the presence of a God who cares enough to sit at table with us, break bread with us, and offer all (astonishing word) of us some of that bread.

In how he died and what happened to him following his death, Jesus became his message in a way that transcends all attempts to wrap up the message he imparted by his stories and actions during his ministry. He gave himself completely in such a way that he became, literally so, broken bread and poured-out wine. For all. And most of all, for the wretched of the earth, with whom he had cast his lot during his lifetime, and amidst whom he sat at table, eating and drinking.

The church cannot communicate this message effectively to the world until it actually lives the message—simply, starkly, with fewer words and stronger intent to live the message unambiguously and without prevarication. The church cannot communicate this message until the church's life conforms, in a discernible and attention-grabbing way, to the message it seeks to communicate.

And for many of us, there’s the problem, today. It’s not just in the grievous shortcomings of many Christian pastors—though that is a serious stumbling block to many of us. It’s not just in the abuse of Christian language and Christian symbols and Christian words—to the point that many of us wish Christian churches would just shut up for a while.

It’s in how the churches live—in how we who call ourselves Christians live. The problem is in the huge gap between what is most central to the life and message of Jesus—he ate with outcasts; he broke the bread and said, "Take and eat, all of you; this is my body"—and what the church is and what the church does today.

Until the gap is addressed forthrightly (and I have no expectation that it will be addressed forthrightly, as I say this), the churches will continue their decline in many areas of the world. And should continue their decline, because they have become a huge impediment for many of us who continue to find significance in the message their decaying structures transmits and enshrines, but not in the institution maintaining those structures.