When our children were small, they spent a lot of time in car seats while we drove around the Boston area, visiting friends and running errands. My daughter, Franny, had a habit, when she was tired, of asking questions as we drove. Big questions. We would be half-way home from Jamaica Plain, 9 pm at night, and hear a 3 year old’s voice from the back seat: “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why are there clouds?” “Why is up, up?” “Why are we Christians?”
We would do the best we could to answer her questions, but weren’t sure how to pitch our answers to a 3 year old. And the next week, she’d ask the same questions again.
From the back seat, tired from the changes and chances of life, we lob our questions to God. “Why did Jesus die?” And how does God answer us? Well, we have four gospel accounts, each one rich in story but not univocal in response. And even within one gospel, the answer is not simple.
This Palm Sunday, we hear Mark’s account. What does Mark say about why Jesus died?
His story shows that Jesus died because of the failings of his closest followers.
After lots of requests to stay awake all night, they keep falling asleep. Jesus’s friend Judas betrays him to the authorities. Peter denies knowing him. And we hear of a mysterious young disciple who was so intent on abandoning Jesus that he ran away naked.
But this isn’t the only reason Jesus died, according to Mark. He also died because of the selfishness and violence of his enemies. Jesus is a threat to their power, and they choose to protect themselves instead of seeking justice. Mark shows us a trial that is a complete mockery of justice. First witnesses are sought. When none are found, false testimony is entertained. Then Jesus is made to answer the false accusations. Then they give up and declare they don’t need any testimony!
But the plot continues to thicken. Mark adds another layer: Jesus also died because of his own self-giving love. He comes to Jerusalem for Passover of own free will, knowing the risks. And when on trial, he keeps silent when questioned.
These are just three of the reasons woven into Mark’s telling of this story so central to our faith. Mark’s story is complex. He doesn’t tie up salvation history neatly. And I am glad.
This year, I celebrate this complex story with its myriad answers to the question “Why?” I find Mark’s untidiness and complexity comforting. Life is messy and things happen for all sorts of reasons and sometimes no reason at all, other than gravity or entropy or bad luck.
Just in this week that is ending, I have had lots of conversations with people who were wracked over questions about their responsibility in complex situations or tempted to reduce something or someone to one explanation, one label, one motivation. “What does it mean? Why did it happen? What is the answer? What is the one thing God is doing?”
We humans find life in these times and on this planet and as beings created in God’s image with memory, reason, and free will almost unbearably complex. We are impatient with ambiguity or complexity. We want everything clarified and simplified, and now!
This week I downloard a new app called “Decide now!” It’s brilliant. It’s basically a little Wheel of Fortune. Press the green button and the wheel spins. When the spinning stops, the app tells you that answer to a question: What should I do for the next 15 min? What should I major in? What kind of food should I eat for dinner? Oh, that the big questions in life could be answered with a simple app!
It is so tempting to look for the Cliff Notes approach to life. But as it turns out, the scriptures give us not an engineering equation but a paschal mystery. The scriptures give us God becoming human, and thereby entering our messy and complex realm in order to redeem it.
This week we will walk together through what we call “the paschal mystery.” We believe that this is the story of God’s love for us, as revealed in the Last Supper, the foot-washing, Jesus’s trial and death, and this resurrection.
Let it be a mystery. Do not rush to comprehend it. Let yourself undergo it. Listen as God invites you to not rush to comprehend yourself.
Paschal mystery usually feels like a paschal mess.
“Mark’s passion story is less an argument to be understood, and more a theological poem to ponder,” (Lance Pape). Salvation is not a theory but a liturgy, as James Allison writes (Undergoing God). It’s something Jesus did: it is a work for the people.
Many of my colleagues have been writing lots of sermons this week. They are planning to preach on Maundy Thursday, on Good Friday, at the Easter Vigil, and on Easter Day. Me? No. You won’t hear me preach until Easter Day. I want to let the story be; I want to sit alongside you and take it in, ponder it, undergo it. Together we will bring it alive with bread and oil and blessed water and darkness and song and silence and bells and dancing. On Easter Sunday, I’ll tell you something of what I believe about it and why I cling to this story like my life depended on it. In fact, I believe my life depends on it. But for now, I invite you to share the paschal mess — the good news that God knows what it’s like to be betrayed, to be convicted by an unjust court, to suffer, and to die.
Like a child in the backseat of a car, just keep asking the questions and enjoying the ride home.
The Rev. Amy McCreath