Jesus Died on a Friday, Right?

ET_ecQpXsAEESMcJesus died on a Friday, right?

I don’t think so.

In fact, I’d say, probably not.

Maybe, though…

In yet another file on “the scriptures aren’t internally cohesive and that’s OK because they weren’t written to be,” we take a quick look at the Last Supper-Crucifixion-Resurrection arc in the gospels.

Also: don’t @ me, bro.  I know you may not like what follows, but…well…pastors really should be more intellectually honest about this stuff.

This question is particularly timely for two reasons.  First, it’s Holy Week and these events are on the minds of Christians today.  And secondly, tonight begins the Jewish feast of Passover, so it is especially timely.

There is a third reason, though…but I’ll get to that in a minute.  Just wait.

I should note that Passover and Holy Week don’t always align, though…and Christians are surprised to hear this.  Passover in the Jewish calendar is on a fixed date. But on the Gregorian calendar the date of Passover changes because the lunisolar calendar, on which the Jewish calendar is based, doesn’t align with the Gregorian calendar precisely.

Easter is also based on the lunisolar calendar, but on a fixed sign: the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Confused?  Yeah, there’s a lot of qualification there…

Bottom line: they don’t always line up, and aren’t meant to.

And maybe it’s better that they don’t always line up because, and here’s the big kicker: Jesus was preparing for Passover in Jerusalem when he was arrested, tried, and crucified, but his “Last Supper” was actually not the Passover meal.

Probably.

I know. Your Sunday School teachers and parish pastors oversimplified things a bit, but it is more than likely, in my estimation, that Jesus was not celebrating the Passover at the Last Supper.

In fact, and here’s the other reason that I think this conversation is important today (Wednesday, April 8th 2020) of all days: I’m pretty sure that tonight is the memorial of the Last Supper for Jesus…even though Christians will celebrate Maundy Thursday tomorrow night.  Which means the Last Supper was on a Wednesday, and Jesus may have died on a Thursday.

Why do I think this?

Well, tonight starts Passover on the Jewish calendar.  But they won’t they eat the Passover meal until tomorrow night, right?  That’s the important thing to remember: though Passover starts tonight, they won’t eat the meal until the end of the day (sundown-sundown).

Today is all about preparation.  In the gospels Jesus sends his disciples to go and prepare a place for them to celebrate the Passover meal…which they do, in all the Gospel accounts.  And it says they finish preparations, and then have a meal.  But is it the Passover meal?  It never indicates it is.  It just says they make preparations and then share a meal.

This is a pretty important detail to leave out of the account.

And because it’s never clearly spelled out, and for the reasons below, it actually seems more likely that the meal that Jesus shares with his disciples is actually the meal before the Passover meal, not the Passover itself.

Another indicator that it’s not Passover, but actually just the meal before, is that Jesus is not celebrating with his mother and sisters.  As the head of the household, he wouldn’t miss celebrating Passover with his family.

It’s also worth noting that the word used in all of the Last Supper accounts for the bread, artos, points to a regular yeast-loaf.  Were it the unleavened bread of the Passover, matzos would have been used.

Now, despite all this, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do present the Last Supper in such a way that it would be easy to point to Jesus dying on a Friday and the Last Supper being a Thursday Passover.  In fact, it may be that those Gospel writers did think that, though they also could have had a copyist make revisions, placing it on Thursday-Friday-Saturday path (which is a long story…primarily about a copyist adding the word “again” into a certain line in Luke 22:14 to do all this, but we need not go there today).

John seems pretty convinced that Jesus died on a Thursday, though.  How do we know?

He writes that the Last Supper happened “before the festival of Passover.” (John 13:1)  The writer of John’s gospel also notes that, when they handed Jesus over to the authorities, the accusers wouldn’t enter Pilate’s courtyard because they would be unclean and therefore unable to eat the Passover “that evening.” (John 18:28)

It’s also worth noting that, after the crucifixion, they wanted to remove Jesus’ body from the cross because it was a Sabbath day of “great solemnity.”  Now, to the untrained ear, that would be an “ah-ha!” moment pointing to a Friday death.  Sundown on Friday is the start of the Sabbath, yes?

Except…

There are other marked Sabbaths in the Jewish calendar, including any Passover.  And in this particular year it appears that there are two Sabbaths back-to-back, which does happen (as it does this very year, 2020!): there is the Passover Sabbath break, followed by the weekly Sabbath break.

In addition to the above, the indicators outside of the gospels themselves point not to a Passover, but to a meal before the Passover.

In 1 Corinthians, which provides for us the language of the liturgy, the Apostle Paul, a Jewish leader, does not mention that Jesus was at Passover when he took the bread and blessed it, but rather notes instead, “on the night in which he was betrayed…” (11:23)

Why would he leave that important detail out?  And his writing was the first one we know about on the matter.

Another little tidbit comes from one of the only extra-Biblical sources of the time that mention Jesus at all (a blog for another day), the Talmud notes that, “They hung Joshua the Nazarene on the ‘eve of the Passover.'” (b. Sanhedrin 67a and 43a)

And finally, though not really finally because we could certainly go down the rabbit hole farther, it’s important to note that the tradition that Jesus was in the tomb “for three days and three nights,” which is internally consistent in the gospels, cannot be accurate by the Jewish calendar if Jesus died on a Friday.  If Jesus died on a Friday, assuming he was placed in the tomb just before sundown, he was actually only in there about two days and two nights.  I mean, while this little detail could be chocked up to hyperbole or whatnot, it’s worth noting that for this particular arc of the Jesus story, the days and nights are significant because it tied Jesus back to the salvation story of Jonah, which they wanted to do.

By this point you may be asking yourself: why does any of it matter?

Well, I think it’s significant for a couple of reasons.

The first?  It’s further evidence that any attempt to say that the scriptures are inerrant or infallible is a fool’s errand.  They are internally inconsistent in a number of ways, and the magical “innerancy/infallbile” cults are literally ruining the beauty and complexity of the religion not only for the rest of the faithful, but also for the unfaithful who can’t even begin to look at a faith they find so ridiculous on the face.

The second?  There’s no such thing as a “Christian Seder,” and we really shouldn’t be celebrating them.  It is absolutely fine to attend a Jewish Seder as a guest and enjoy the hospitality of our Jewish sisters and brothers, but to usurp a sacred festival for our own use is something Christians just shouldn’t do.  So many Christians think they can Christianize a Seder based off of the Last Supper account…but we can’t. And shouldn’t. It’s not ours.

A third reason?  The connection between Jesus and the Passover lamb is important for the faith, but only in analogy and not in actuality.  We even sing that Jesus is the “lamb who was slain,” but when we do so we sing it as a point of theological reference, not necessity.

What I mean is: Jesus was not sacrificed for humanity.  Jesus was certainly killed by humanity, but what that means is complex, not simple.  It’s not an exchange of blood for blood. God is not bloodthirsty. And when we make Jesus the Passover lamb, and only that, instead of just use it as an important tool of imagery that would have connected with the ancient people, we make God a bloodthirsty deity who demands sacrifice.

According to the prophet Micah that’s not what God desires, right? (Micah 6:8)  So why do we continue to make Jesus exactly what God does not desire?

A critique on all this comes from theological corners concerned with our sacramental theology.  “Didn’t Jesus change the Passover meal to be about him?” some sacramentalists would ask.

I mean, maybe.

But the sacrament of Holy Communion, while heavy on Passover imagery, remains just as heavy utilizing Sabbath meal imagery.  Jesus may be seen and spoken of as the Paschal lamb, but the bread of life is not sacrificed every Sunday in a Christian church.

Praise is sacrificed.  This is why it’s probably the best practice to not break the bread at the altar during the Words of Institution…it sends the wrong signal.

Note: this last critique is heavy on the insider imagery…I digress…

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it appears that Jesus may have been celebrating the Passover.  In John, where Jesus pretty clearly dies on a Thursday, it appears he was not.

So what day did Jesus die?

I don’t know.  No one knows.

Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Passover?  I don’t know…but I don’t think so.  No one knows.

The Gospels don’t agree on it all.  And those first scholars who put the Gospels together surely saw that it was not internally consistent, and it didn’t really bother them…so it probably shouldn’t bother us either, right?

But if Jesus did die before the Passover meal on a Thursday, then it lines up with this year’s Jewish calendar in such a way that’s it’s pretty poetic, pretty interesting, and, I think, pretty beautiful.

Rituals for Surviving Shelter-in-Place

many-candles1Religion, as a whole, knows something very human about us: we desire ritual.

This is true even if you don’t find yourself religious, and even if you find yourself a-religious.

We thrive off of ways to mark the days and the seasons of the Earth, as well as the particular seasons of our lives.

Rituals are a way of reminding humans not only what time it is, but also this deep truth: nothing lasts forever.  Not the good, and not the bad.

Nothing lasts forever.

Our ancestors used to, in the fallow months, take the wheels from their carts, haul them inside, and adorn them with candles.  Every day they’d light a candle, adding to growing, glowing wax, marking the time until work could begin again.  This pre-Christian practice was eventually seized by the church, and this eventually turned into our Advent wreaths that light the path toward Christmas.

Likewise, in Lent, humans have found ways to mark the time before the abundance of Spring.  These practices usually involved some sort of abstinence as a way of drawing attention to the longing deep within us for new life, for newness, for freshness and freedom.

For those of us now stuck at home during this pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in over a Century, a way to survive it with our souls intact might involve this sort of patient practice…especially as we have a habit of losing our patience, and so must cultivate new habits.

One habit a family might adopt would be to find eight candles.  They can be votives to be replaced in individual holders, or eight candles of more substantial measure, able to last through the weeks without changing.

Name the candles, one for each week.  They can be named for a virtue that you hope to practice in a particular week as we wait for the first wave of this pandemic to pass.  Or they might be named for longing or hope that is embedded in your heart in these days.  A sarcastic practitioner may even name them after a cruse word…which, to be honest, is sometimes cathartic, too!  Perhaps each candle has a couple of names, depending on the mood, and depending on the need.

A possible cadence for a Christian family might be:

Perseverance (March 23-March 29)
Conviction (March 30-April 4)
Remembrance (April 5 [Holy Week]-April 11)
New Life Hope (April 12 [Easter]-April 18)
Love of Neighbor (April 19-April 25)
Love of Self (April 26-May 2)
Devotion (May 3-May 9)
Celebration (May 10-Pentecost)

And each week, light a candle in the morning before breakfast, and at night during dinner, or just after.  And as you light it, remind yourself that the growing fire indicates the approaching abatement of this liminal time.

You can accompany each week with a particular reading to hold in front of you.  A possible schedule of readings for the above candles might be:

Week 1: 1 Peter 5:8-10

Week 2: Psalm 69:13-15

Week 3: The Passion from the Gospel of John

Week 4: The Resurrection from the Gospel of John

Week 5: John 20:19-29

Week 6: John 21:1-14

Week 7: Isaiah 43:1-3

Week 8: Acts 2:1-11

For a less traditional grouping of readings, especially for those who may not find their home in the Christian community, or even a church at all, the candles could retain their same theme (as I think they’re universal human themes), but the readings might look something like this:

Week 1: “be easy: take your time. you are coming home. to yourself.” -Nayyirah Waheed, _Nejma_

Week 2: “‘Change and decay–in all around I see,’ we cheerfully sang in my days as a choirboy. Another stanza should have taught us this lesson: it is not only beauty and life that disappear in the cycle of time. Pain too passes, along with heartbreak, fear, and sickness. In a world doomed to fragility, death itself shall someday die.” -Robert Griffin, _In the Kingdom of the Lonely God_

Week 3: “My dear children, perhaps you will not understand what I’m going to say to you now, for I often speak very incomprehensibly, but, I’m sure, you will remember that there’s nothing higher, stronger, more wholesome, and more useful in life than some good memory, especially when it goes back to the days of your childhood, to the days of your life at home. You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all.  If a person carries many such memories into life with them, they are saved for the rest of their days. Even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky, _The Brothers Karamazov_

Week 4: “Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” -Walt Whitman, _Leaves of Grass_

Week 5: “To love is good; love being difficult. For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” -Rainer Maria Rilke, _Letters to a Young Poet_

Week 6: “Neal: You’re no saint. You got a free cab, you got a free room and someone who will listen to your boring stories. I mean, didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking, eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like hey, maybe this guy is not enjoying it? You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that, that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally. Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith. He’s got some amusing anecdotes for ya. Oh, and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it. I-I could tolerate any, any insurance seminar, for days. I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, “How can ya stand it?” And I’d say, “‘Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.” You know what they’d say? They’d say, “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy.” It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest. You know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except that I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back, you would. And by the way, you know, when, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!

Del: You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right. I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you, but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me. I’m not changing. I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.” -from “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”

Week 7: “Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,

Listen to the DON’TS

Listen to the SHOULDN’TS

The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS

Listen to the NEVER HAVES

Then listen close to me—

Anything can happen, child,

ANYTHING can be.” -Shel Silverstein, “Listen to the Mustn’ts” from _Where the Sidewalk Ends_

Week 8: “We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.” -Maya Angelou, “A Brave and Startling Truth”

Of course, the imaginative practitioner could incorporate all of these readings, and add to them as desired.

Mark the days, Beloved.  They may not fly, but at least they won’t crawl.

 

 

 

 

When I Think About My Children on Ash Wednesday

636239814887137802-Ash-Wed-5I know I write and talk a lot about my children.  They have totally changed everything about my life, and even much about me.

Like, just now, my younger son, who attends preschool at the church I currently serve, popped his head into my office and said, “I love you, Daddy!”  It’s totally changed my work day.

He does this every day, mind you.  It’s one of the things I wait for in the morning.  “I love you, too,” I respond.  He always waits around until I say it, letting his class go on down the hall.  After he hears it he’ll run to catch up with them.

We wait for love.

One of the most moving and meaningful things as a pastor is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we get to do some public art: the public act of remembrance that you place on the foreheads of everyone who comes, from the oldest to the youngest, that we are dust.

That time is fleeting.

That the world buries us one minute, one hurtful act, one sinful offering at a time (much of which we participate in), and there is very little that we can do to stop it, so we should wait around to feel love whenever we can get it.

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was walking through the neighborhood in Chicago when a well-known gadfly said incredulously to me in my formal collar, “Gonna peddle some superstition today, eh Father?”

I ignored him.  But as I thought about it, I realized that if I was going to speak to him on one day, Ash Wednesday would be that day, because Ash Wednesday is the day where religion offers something that speaks to everyone, regardless of what they do, or do not, believe: you will die.

Dying is the leading cause of death.

The knowledge of our mortality is too much to bear sometimes, though. And as I mark my own babies with that cross, I always choke a bit. It is too much for them to bear, too.

And yet, with their bodies, they do.  Because cells grow cancer. Because heart disease and car accidents and suicide don’t seem to care about your age.  And my babies are made of cells, and ride in cars, and live, and it happens. To all of us.

But instead of being depressing, Ash Wednesday is like the day when we all communally hug the cactus of our mortality, hug the cactus that we do wrong and harm in this world, even when we do want to (but also, sometimes, we do want to) and remind ourselves that we are not gods.

We are not God.

And once we get that fact out of the way, somehow we start to truly live.  Like the cancer patient in remission who realizes that life is better spent on love than arguing.  Like the near-death experience that increases are thirst for life rather than makes us more fearful.  Like the person living with depression who, because the meds are finally working, smiles and laughs and realizes that they are worth it, by God.

When I think about my boys, my babies, my children on Ash Wednesday, I am full of hope.

I hope that they will embrace life, and death, and all of it with a gusto, with a big bear hug, as confident as they wear that cross, that sign of hope for Christians, on their brow.  I hope it reminds them to love really freely, and really intensely, and to wait for love, and stick around for it.  I hope it reminds them that they don’t have to do it all, they don’t have to be perfect, that nothing is unforgivable, and that they can admit that sometimes life is too much to carry alone, and that they aren’t alone even when it feels like that.

And, sure, my eyes will tear up, and I’ll choke a bit, but not because I will think of their death, but because I will think of how they can, they will, with their lives, and their love, overcome all that tries to bury them in this life, by God.

 

Belonging and Becoming and the Problem of Sunday Morning

24well_askwell-tmagArticleI got an email yesterday.

“Tim, I read your blog, and used to more when I was in Chicago.  My daughter and her fiance are now living there, and I’m wondering if you can recommend any progressive churches that they might be welcome to join.

Her fiance is Hindu, and isn’t interested in converting. Where can they go?”

Last night someone popped in my office from an event being held here as I was burning the evening oil,

“Hey,” they said, “could I come to this church even if I don’t know what I think about God or Jesus?  Like, would I be able to be a part of it even if I’m not sure about the whole thing?”

There are two poles at play here, folks: people, especially those under 30, aren’t interested in religion as it has historically been practiced.  They are, though, interested in spirituality, connection, ritual, change, and belonging.

So what’s a church supposed to do?

Vox has a recent article out noting that places like Crossfit and Soulcycle are replacing churches in the lives of many.  Notice those names, by the way…I don’t think it’s an accident that they use the symbols of traditional religion and squeeze them in such a way that they speak something new.  The article is a spin out of a new study done by Harvard Divinity on where people are gaining their spiritual groove in the age of declining denominations.

Your fitness instructor becomes your pastor, whether they’re qualified or not.  The bike becomes your pew, the strobe becomes your candles, and your sweaty shirt smell is now the incense rising as an offering to the God keeping your breath from running out.  I say this with no mockery, by the way.  All of that ritual act is absolutely what is happening, and the problem for the church is that it is speaking clearer and better than what’s usually happening on Sunday morning in most churches.

Some might read the above paragraph and say, “Well, the church needs to speak clearer, then!”

But, I’m finding that it’s kind of like speaking sister languages, actually: they sound the same, have the same root words, and you can understand some of what the other is saying…but the translation isn’t the problem.

They’re similar, but different.

And so the question for the church isn’t how to speak louder or clearer, but the question is actually: are you willing to learn a new language?

The Vox article notes that people want two things these days: belonging and becoming.

The church has historically said that the belonging portion of Christian activity has to do with belief subscription and faith affirmation.  Well, at its best it does.  At its worst it has to do with transferring your membership and giving an offering…

And becoming?  Layers upon layers of issues have stacked up on this particular point for the church.  Doctrines like “original sin” and rituals like “the sinner’s prayer” have all emphasized how bad you are, and how reliant on God you are to become anything different or new.  The actual affects of such repentance and forgiveness cycles are hard to see, though.

The effects of Soulcyle though?  Look in the mirror.

The problem with Sunday morning isn’t that people aren’t interested in the topic.  They certainly are!

The problem with Sunday morning is that people aren’t interested in the medium.  They don’t trust the outcome because they can’t see the results.  They don’t feel like they belong, at least not in a way in which their whole selves can be present.

So, what’s the church going to do?

My Annual Reminder: Confirmation isn’t Graduation

matte-product-navy-325Different churches have different schedules for Confirmation.  Some have a three-year class, spanning 6th-8th grade.  Some invite 9th graders to confirm their faith.  Some, like the church of my childhood, put it all into one year for 6th graders.

Regardless of when it happens, it’s important to remember why we have Confirmation at all.  So pull up your (electronic) chair…

Confirmation is the part of the baptismal rite where people (youth or adults) take on the promises of baptism for themselves if they were baptized as a child.  It is, in practice, the reversal of the ancient rite.

In the ancient rite the Catechumenate would study for a year with someone from the church, learning the “stuff of faith” …for lack of a better term.  This came to include the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the 10 Commandments, among other things.  This person they studied with, sometimes called a sponsor (you’ll recognize the term “Godparent” here…and not an honorary position you give to your brother because he’ll be offended if you don’t, but with real responsibilities), then presented them to the priest, or whomever was doing the baptizing, as ready to be submersed in the ancient waters, fit to join the community of Christ.

They were fit, mind you, not because they had “accepted Jesus into their heart.”  In the first church that sort of theological and biological gymnastics would be non-sensical. For me it still is non-sensical in most ways.

No.  They were fit because, having been moved by the Word of God as they met with the assembly, they saw that this community was living and acting in a way that changed them, and the world, for better.  Walking the pathway of Jesus was better than those other paths out there.

Part of the rite was a remission of sin.  In baptism God washes the baptized clean of any eternal ramification of sin.

But only part of the meaning of the rite was that.

The overwhelming balance of the symbol of the rite was acceptance into the community of Christ through the promises of God.

Now, in medieval times baptism became a one-trick pony: forgiveness of sin.  This was largely because, in the Christian world, baptism was basically a given.  You were born and then baptized. Christendom reigned and sought to keep control in the Western world, and what better way to keep control than to tell you that you are lacking something (righteousness) that only the church can give you?

But that’s not the fullness of the ancient symbol.  For more on this check out Ben Dueholm’s upcoming book _Sacred Signposts_.  He does a masterful job explaining this movement in his chapter on baptism…

Back to the topic at hand.

So the norm in the Catholic/Mainline world became to baptize first and teach later.  Which is absolutely fine, by the way, especially if the focus is on the promises of God and not the worthiness of the person.  Studying the “stuff of faith” does not make one holy, anyway.

Confirmation, then, is the fruit of this reversal in strategy.  We normally baptize first and teach later and then confirm the faith of the person who was baptized in their early years.

But here’s the thing: the teaching, while formally called Catechism, does not end at baptism for the ancient person.  It just starts to get put into intentional practice. And so it also means that it does not end at Confirmation, either.

It has only just begun.

Which means that, when you order graduation gowns for your Confirmands, have elaborate banquets for them, throw elaborate parties where cards full of money and whatnot are all part of the deal, you (the church) are effectively giving off a very different signal than what the rite actually means.

Confirmation is part of the growth of the Christian.  It is not the culmination.

Which is also why strict book curriculum, filling out worksheets, and tricky tests all give off the wrong impression, too.

If anything the test should be the same every year!  It should ask them to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the 10 Commandments, and maybe give a bit of explanation about it.

But by and large, Confirmation should be about formation into the faith, not primarily information about the faith.  After all, those first Christians were forming themselves to one another in that year of study…hence why you did it with someone else in the church, and not on your own!

It wasn’t about inviting Jesus into your heart, it was about inviting the community into your life and being invited into the life of community!

I am frustrated that we have to explain this at all.

Back to the original point: the more you make Confirmation look like graduation, with academic robes, elaborate banquets, etc, the more you invite the Confirmand to imagine their work is complete…when it is only, really, beginning.

And, sure, we can explain that to them in all sorts of ways.  But if we keep up this tradition that basically mirrors the graduations that many of them will be participating in just a few weeks after, what with elaborate ceremonies and walking across stages and all, then we’ll be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

So, my advice as a pastor in the church: slowly phase out these subliminal messages and practices.  Slowly phase in new messages and practices.  Change the narrative to the more ancient one, and I bet we’ll find new life here.  Make it a milestone of the faith, not the culmination.

Confirmation is not graduation.  Let’s all stop giving off that impression.

What Valentine’s Day Can Learn from Ash Wednesday

vintage_blindfolded_cupid_valentines_tarot_card-r69e9e0fbe135412f893d556e955012e3_vgbaq_8byvr_324February 14th is Ash Wednesday this year.

We should all go out to eat on Valentines Day with ashes on our foreheads.

I mean, whether you’re a Christian or not, you should go ahead and do it.  Because Ash Wednesday is a day that speaks a deep truth about humanity that we all try to avoid: we’re mortal and flawed.

So no matter what kind of foundation you gussy yourself up with before that first date, and no matter what kind of aftershave you apply to make that skin smell just so-so fine, you can’t change the fact that we all share the same mortal boat.

And I don’t say this so that you will despair.  I say it just out of honest truth.

Because here’s the thing: if you give your heart to something, you will lie to yourself.  You will say, “This. I give it to this because it is worth my heart.”  But the subtext that we too often have in such an action is some sort of delusion that the things worth our hearts are perfect or incorruptible or have earned it by some sort of morally superior truthfulness or…

Look, give your heart away to worthy things, but often times what makes them worthy is that you give your heart to them in the first place.

When I speak to couples about love and companionship and sometimes even marriage, I have to work hard to cut through the syrup and sentiment to arrive at something real at the bottom of it all: love is often, in the end, a choice.

Sure, it starts out as butterflies and pie in the sky, but once that wears away you will see what Ash Wednesday shows us: the flaw, the scar, the thing that was covered under foundation and aftershave, years of perfecting a story that omits a chapter, and hours of therapy.

But it is there, that flaw is there, and that is OK.

Do you hear me?  That is OK.

Because you cannot give your heart to something perfect; there is no such animal…at least not one immediately available.  You certainly are not perfect.

What Ash Wednesday can remind us, though, is that no flaw is fatal.  It’s why Christians mark the forehead in not just any shape, but the shape of the cross, a paradoxical sign that is the embodiment of saying, “Dead things can live again…even those dead parts of you.”

And sometimes, Beloved, all it takes is a little love to make the dead places in us rise from the grave.  Scars fade. Flaws smooth.

Just because something is dead in this life does not mean it will always be dead.

And nothing is ever perfect, mind you.  Even Jesus’ own resurrection came with scars from the hurt and the pain of the fight two nights before.

But that body walked again, by God.

This year we have this fun juxtaposition: Cupid and Christ.  Cupid blindly shoots and we romantically think we fall in love.

Christ, though…well, Christ’s love isn’t blind.  God’s love isn’t blind to all our hurt and pain and wrongs and ego and all that mess.  Christ’s love is visionary, illuminating all those shadowy parts of ourselves, exposing them for what they are: flawed but not fatal.

And that person you fall in love with?  Perhaps we should stop imagining Cupid shooting blindly and start embracing a Divine love that sees all and still finds a way to keep the arms open, the welcome present, the love intact.

Not that you have to fall in love with someone to be whole.  And even more so, sometimes the love we thought would last does not…cannot.  Sometimes our flaws do push us apart in the end. Which is when we need to lean even more into the story of Ash Wednesday and a Christ whose love is visionary and completing (rather than competing).

Because it is not a flaw to not be partnered. Sometimes it is a calling.

And it is not a flaw to be divorced. Sometimes it is a necessity.

But when it all feels like a flaw, keep in mind that the deep truth of everything is that it has an expiration date.  Feelings, life statuses, and even life itself.  Things will not always seem and be the way are today.

So embrace the truth of the situation: we are dust.  Glorious star dust, the stuff of the cosmos, wonderful and beautiful and sparkling, and yet, dust all the same.

So risk the date, fall in love, eyes wide open.  Or be single and loving it, giving your heart to many other worthwhile things.

But remember that things aren’t worthwhile because they are perfect; often they are worthwhile because you love them.

And how do I know?

Because you and I are not perfect, and yet we are loved by God.  And others.

And we’re worth it.

It Would Be a Mistake to Give Up Sharing the Peace in Church

kids-high-fivingThom Rainer posted an article on Saturday entitled “The Top 10 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Guests.”

It was a Twitter poll that he conducted.  The compiled answers drew some surprising, and not so surprising, responses.  I kind of love these polls because they’re largely a practice in the discipline of, “See?  Someone will hate something…”

The people are too pushy or too distant.  They’re not sincere enough (subjective anyone?).  Or the building is poorly laid out and poorly marked.

Actually, that last one is a real issue…

I mean, there is no way to please everyone.

But one of the surprising responses is what Rainer calls “The stand up and greet everyone time.”

Which is an un-fancy way of saying, “The sharing of the peace of Christ.”

And here is where we see what happens when practices lose their roots.

Because the practice of sharing the peace is not a “stand up and greet everyone time.”  It is not done to make friends, and it is not done to welcome guests or visitors.

It is not done to chat about your week, and it not done to make you feel uncomfortable.

The sharing of the peace is a rite as old as the first church where (and you can read about it in the books of 1 Peter, Romans, 2 Corinthians) the church is instructed to greet one another with a “holy kiss.”

In fact, ancient Roman authorities called Christians a “kissing cult” because of this practice.

Now, don’t expect a kiss from me on a Sunday morning unless you’re my grandmother’s age, my child, or my wife.  That being said, you could get lucky 😉

But back to the point at hand, this is a liturgical act.  It has deep meaning which we can see in many ways as being Christ breathing on the disciples in the hours after his resurrection where he gives them his peace.  You can see it as a redemption of the kiss of condemnation that Judas gives Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

And yes it involves touching.  We’re a touch-starved humanity these days.

And yes it is intimidating for introverts and too opportunistic for extroverts.  But community is as much about being stretched in our comfortability as it is being stretched in our restraint.

And yes it is time-consuming.  I’m not a big fan of extended periods of handshaking.  I’m usually a two to three person shaker/hugger/kisser, and then I’m all for moving on.

But, and let me be clear on this, I think it’s something that we can’t afford to do without.

Because in a world where you get shot at for wearing a hoodie in the wrong neighborhood, we need to learn how to approach people we don’t know in peace.  Because in a world where you won’t let your child play in the yard or talk to people they don’t know, we need a space where it is safe for us to interact in holy ways.

Because in a world where you might wonder if peace actually exists anywhere, what with the 24 hour news cycles of violence and the constant trumpeting of the next terrorist threat, there must be a place where we can embody the peace that Christ calls us to.

We need to be respectful.  We need to honor that some people can’t be touched for whatever reason, that safe touch is on the hand, that not everyone likes hugs.  We have to understand that.

But we can’t not share the peace just because it’s not comfortable.

And I don’t care if it is flu season.  Bow toward the person if you don’t want to make contact.  But realize that your hand may be the only hand that person touches that week.  If you don’t think that’s true, imagine the widow, or the homeless, or the person with a deformity that keeps people away, and then imagine you withdrawing your hand during a time where we greet one another with the peace of Christ.

You might be the embodiment of grace they need.

We’ll high-five at the bar but not at church?  We’ll high-five in the sports arena but not in the pew?

I’m sorry folks, but if sharing the peace of Christ will keep you away from church, I’m not sure you’re ready for community.

By God, share the peace.