Toward Jerusalem

  • March 30, 2011
Christ we set our face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). We must enter into the twin questions of death and sin.

We’re surrounded by them all the time. Lent asks us to turn to them, not by way of giving up, nor to fight or overcome them, but simply to be with Christ who set His face towards both.  

Every day we face death, often unaware. This unawareness is a gift, because we mostly aren’t ready to face the vastness; God doesn’t ask us to stand always at the edge of the abyss. Rather, He showers us with life, in the flesh, and encourages us to grow strong in this. Still, we receive the gift of life amidst death.  

And death brings limit. The life we know doesn’t go on forever without end; the candle will be blown out. At times it’s comforting: there’s an end, a way out. Indeed our society, which has long preferred to pretend death doesn’t exist, is starting to turn to it as an ally, an antidote even. The Quebec College of Physicians has spoken of death as “part of the appropriate care in certain particular circumstances.” Death becomes a medical intervention, an acceptable remedy for some ills, one of the tools in our toolbox to escape suffering. What do we do when our world flounders like this, misunderstanding one of the fundamental realities of existence? Today, coming to the deepest Lenten days, we turn towards death, not to escape life but to be with Life Himself, our Christ, who set His face towards it.

Every day, too, we face sin, often without recognizing it. We face the capacity of humans — our selves and others, people we know and people we’ve never met — to refuse life, love, God; to turn away from truth into deception; from reality into nothingness. In Lent we turn to this plight, too; not to despair or condemn ourselves, but to be with Christ who set His face towards it.

Only by accompanying Christ here can we discover the gift now hidden within death, even within the ugliness of sin.

When Lent began, we were invited into the desert; the place of emptiness, temptation, struggle. Each of us knows what that means for ourselves. Now deeper in Lent, we set our faces towards Jerusalem. For Jesus it was the centre, the place of conflict; of temptation, surrender, defeat — above all, of loneliness, misunderstood and betrayed by His people, abandoned even by His Father. In Holy Week, we don’t simply remember Christ’s passion, but enter it with Him. Today we might ask: What is my Jerusalem? What do I need to set my face towards, to be with Christ?

To be with Christ on Holy Thursday as He unveils the human capacity for betrayal. Naming His betrayer during the Last Supper, He shows how we humans can separate ourselves from love, choosing to break the bond between ourselves and God. He shows us this on the same night that He reveals the communion between God and us, the communion of loving and being loved, the divine life into which we are invited and welcomed. And He reveals that this communion is shared through radical, personal service, as He washes the disciples’ feet.

To be with Christ on Good Friday, in complete loss and abandonment. To have the courage to stay in this emptiness, through the night and into Holy Saturday. Not to run away or fill it with noise, as we do so habitually that we don’t even realize that’s why we’re running around. Rather, to let ourselves be held by it, as Christ allowed Himself to be held by the cross and the tomb. In this stillness, Christ harrows hell to free its captives. We wait in our loneliness so that He might transform it as He transformed hell itself.

And so, finally, to come to the garden, as Mary Magdalene did before dawn on Easter morning. She came there to face sin, death and ultimately emptiness — the unbearable emptiness of Christ’s tomb, bereft even of the dead body, the last shred of connection with the wild hope she’d embraced. This is where we’re taken when we accept the desert, the road to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the cross and the tomb. We’re led to the silent, empty, unlighted garden and the final questions. These questions aren’t theoretical but practical. We answer them every day in the way we live, the way we serve or don’t serve, betray or don’t betray, fail to love or learn to love. Holy Week can help us to live well these final questions, standing by Christ’s empty tomb:  

Did He, or didn’t He? Did He conquer sin and death? Did He rise from the dead and offer life to us? When He speaks our name, as He spoke Mary’s, will we turn and recognize Him?