Good Friday 2016

It’s Good Friday again, and here I am (in my mind at least) in the lower chapel at St. Peter’s Church (Catholic) in Dorchester, MA (henceforth referred to as St. Peter’s Under.  For a kid going to Catholic schools, the Easter Weekend was great – in addition to a full week of Spring Break at some other time in the Spring, Catholic schools shut down for Good Friday and Easter Monday. A four day weekend just as the weather was getting great, and Red Sox baseball was starting up. And then there was the candy!  I think many of my classmates were focused on Easter Sunday for the candy swag, and I have to admit that candy did play its part in my own celebration, but even in grade school, I had a certain fondness for, even fascination with, Good Friday.  I was then, and still remain, a weird kid.  My favorite sacraments (Catholics have favorite sacraments) as a kid were the darker sacraments – Confession and Extreme Unction (later renamed Annointing of the Sick, but to me it’s still Extreme Unction). There are five other sacraments – but as they are not directly pertinent, I’ll leave them be for now.  So, Confession and Extreme Unction were the sacraments that touched me most deeply, and only confession touched me personally (and regularly – every Saturday) – I never had Extreme Unction performed over me.  When I was a kid, Confession was held in St. Peter’s Under.  The upper chapel, where the high masses were held, had wood paneling, a lovely choir loft, high ceilings and was full of light, both from the large (about 10’ high)stained glass windows, but also from the great chandeliers that hung from above – chandeliers that looked like rockets.  St. Peter’s Under had much less light – it was slightly below ground, had smaller windows which got less sun, and had round light fixtures with fewer bulbs, which always seemed to be of a lower wattage. In that dim space, which always seemed warm in winter (steam heat in a more confined space) and cooler in summer (no AC, only fans, and the coolness radiating from the partly subterranean stone walls), I found a comfortable spiritual space.  The stone walls of the lower chapel, their greyness softened in that subdued light, I always found comforting. If the church was holy mother, this was surely her womb.

In the Catholic Church, Good Friday is the only day in the year when no mass is said.  Instead, there is a service of readings (the Passion narrative) read responsively, by the priest (playing the role of Jesus), with help from other priests, or men in the parish as the disciples and Pontius Pilate, and the congregation as the crowd – our big lines were “Give us Barabbas” and “Crucify him,” which we said twice, the second time louder [the stage directions said so]. Though the priest got to play Jesus, and was ostensibly the focus, I felt more aware in that service of the church as community. In the actual playing out of roles, there was (and is now as I reflect) an amazing dissonance going on in my mind.  For our role as congregants was to shout out words of dismissal and hate directed at the very person the narrative said we were supposed to love and even worship. That moment, as part of the “mob,” resonated deeply then, and even now does so.  For I recall that in 5th grade, Sr. Joseph Robert asking us as a class, in our preparations for Easter, to reflect on this very scene, and on how even St. Peter had denied his beloved friend in that dark period after Jesus’ arrest.  She asked the class, “Boys and girls, would you deny Jesus?”  We all said, “No, sister.”  We had no written script, but we all knew that was the right thing to say – it was in our communal script as much as “Crucify him” would be only a few days later.  I remember, though, thinking through this quite a bit.  In a situation where the state, and the multitude of people were calling out condemnation, would I, an 11 year old boy stand up and say “No. This is wrong?” And I had to admit to myself, quietly to myself, that given all that public pressure I likely would have folded, and submitted to public pressure. My “no” spoken aloud in the classroom rang false somehow, even as the “crucify him” did in the church, but in the passion play at church, we knew we were playing a role, and not being ourselves.

But Good Friday also meant something else, something strangely comforting, in a way, reflecting a different sort of dissonance going on within.  For here we sat, in a parish church, members of a parish, which itself was part of an archdiocese, and part of an international church beyond.  And that church was anchored by one cardinal idea – “He is not dead, but risen.”  Easter’s supposed to be about the triumph of love and the triumph over death. I’ve even been told by Catholic friends that without the guarantee of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, Christianity is mere folly. But in that dim, liminal space of St. Peter’s Under, there we were, taking time from a busy day (those who worked, took time off – as the service was held at 3p; and those of us who had the day off from school could be spending the time playing baseball) to focus on the darkness of loneliness and loss, and to be immersed in it.  And the grey tomblike space of St. Peter’s Under was perfect for such an immersion.

In a way, though, as we mourned the death of Jesus, and we each mourned the losses of our own lives, there was an awareness of being in community.  The Good Friday crowd was often a small group, no more than a few dozen, not the several hundred of a Sunday service – St. Peter’s was the largest parish in Dorchester, the largest section of Boston. Small as it was, it was still community and not isolation. In all our brokenness, with the deep holes in all of our hearts, here we were, a patchwork whole, holy and wholly together in that place.

I first decided to become a Unitarian in Syracuse, NY, at May Memorial Unitarian Society on Easter Sunday, 1992 (April 19 that year). Part of it had to do with the fact that 1992 had been a rather tough winter, and that we had seen little (maybe no) sun since November.  That day started cloudy, but the sun eventually came out – in fact, it came out while I was sitting in the sanctuary. For this to have full effect, you need to know something of the sanctuary at May Memorial.  The sanctuary has tall dark wooden walls and a ceiling that slopes gently on four sides to almost join in the center, where rises a small cupola with four small windows.  Along the two sides of the sanctuary there are small windows (about 1’ high by 2’ wide) that serve as something of a clerestory at the top of those walls.  The windows are too high and small to get a view of nature without, but can, when the sun comes out and hits them and the cupola just right, admit enough light to fill the sanctuary, normally dark, with light.  Before I go on, please check out the following clip from Blues Brothers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lX5tfRdkoY0 – when I told this story a few years ago to someone at my current church, he reminded me of this cinematic moment.  It wasn’t like that, but if Belushi’s illumination helps, so be it.  The only other place I felt a similar jubilation (or might have, had it been sunny) was in Houston, at the Rothko Chapel – see http://www.npr.org/2011/03/01/134160717/meditation-and-modern-art-meet-in-rothko-chapel for some images.

It had been that moment of illumination that appealed to my image loving side. I looked on it as a kinder, gentler, Damascus experience – no getting knocked off horses or going blind.  But it wasn’t just the visuals that got me.  There had to be something more, and there was.  The sermon that day, delivered by Nicholas Cardell, Jr., was entitled “What if they found the body?”  For those who don’t know the story, when Mary Magdalene and other women go to perform rites for Jesus entombed they encounter a young man and no body, and the young man tells them “The one you seek is not here.  He is risen.” That is a key moment in traditional Christianity, as it is the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a living part of the triune God, which separates Christianity from other traditions.  It is this very event which, for many, validates the Christian message.  As Rev. Cardell recast the story, the fears of Jesus’ followers were realized – their friend, Jesus, was dead.  The body remained in the tomb.  In that narrative, Rev. Cardell wondered — would the teachings of Jesus still hold value?  He argued that they would, just as any teachings of the Buddha, or Muhammad or any of the saints did not become invalid simply because the messengers were mortal.  That message, more than the light, brought me to the Unitarian fold, and that message lovingly shared and masterfully told retains its truth long after Rev. Cardell’s own passing.

So let’s return to St. Peter’s Under, for there it’s there, in the truth of the darkness, and of the broken holiness, that I dwell on Good Friday and have a good cry.  Those tears are not of despair and sorrow though the existential hole within is always here.  For through the sadness, the grief, even the anger, of feeling cut off and alone, I can still see those around me, others going through an experience similar to mine. We share the sadness of a team that has lost its leader, but in that shared loneliness, there is an awareness of community remaining.

This particular Good Friday that tomblike, womblike quality of St. Peter’s has special significance. For this year, I’ve been part of the search process for a new settled minister at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. And much of my reflexion during this transition period has been of loss of our previous minister, a two year period of disequilibrium, and of hopes of finding a new settled minister (at this point, the process continues). Since the start of this year I have been absent from services at church – during the main part of the search proper I chose to stay away – and that enforced absence has proven tougher than I thought; it’s been my 40 days in the desert, a Lent like no other.  During this time, though, there has always been the promise of community.  And I imagine that, this Easter, when I rejoin my beloved community, I will feel again that sense of jubilant illumination.  The weather forecast, at this point, is for clouds and rain on Easter, but within our sanctuary that cloudiness without won’t keep me from feeling the warmth of community and fire of commitment as I look on all those sunny faces.

May your own Good Friday and Easter time be spiritually nourishing and give you the strength to feel love and be love, and to build a freer and more just world.


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