Second meditation for Good Friday, April 22, 2011. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Boston, MA
|Isaiah 52:13-53:12||John 18:1-19:42|
“…Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25b-27).
I want to tell you right up front that I find this gesture deeply moving. Jesus is suffering unimaginable pain; he is dying; and yet his dying words are completely consonant with the life that he lived: he wants to build relationship. Even as he dies, he reaches out to these two people that he loves so much, his mother and the beloved disciple, and he offers them to each other, inviting them into a fuller, more intimate, and more conscious connection. Jesus spent his whole life generating lively connections among everyone he met, challenging relationships that were built on domination, exclusion, and rejection, and creating ever-widening circles of love in which no one was left out.
We might interpret this scene at the cross simply within the context of personal relationships: here is Jesus showing us how much we need each other, how much we matter to each other. To quote the King James Bible: “Woman, behold thy son… Behold thy mother.” Behold, there is so much love that human beings can give each other! Give it, Jesus says to us. You belong to each other! Let your care for each other be expressed and cherished and known!
Yet I hear in these words much more than Jesus’ longing to connect one human being with another. I also hear his longing to connect human beings with the rest of the created world, his longing to heal the deep split between humanity and our brother and sister beings. The one we call Christ is the one through whom all things were made, in whom everything is knit together, and toward whom all things on heaven and earth converge. As we read in Colossians, “…In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). As he hangs on the cross, Jesus not only reconciles human beings with each other; he reconciles everything in heaven and on earth, including humanity with the rest of the creation.
This is may be a deeply biblical insight, but it is a very different spirituality than the one with which many of us grew up. I grew up believing that “spirituality” was completely disembodied and ethereal. The God I grew up with had no body. Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body — both one’s own body and the “body” of the natural world. The natural world and its diversity of buzzing, blooming, finned, and feathered creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, only the backdrop to what was really important: human beings. As a matter of fact, since the time of the Reformation, Western Christianity has had very little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, is of any real interest to God.
So what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding — an understanding that has never been forgotten by the indigenous peoples of the land — to know that Christ on the cross is reconciling all things, restoring all things, and revealing again the deep truth that the earth is holy. Its creatures are holy. The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God. The created world is “very good,” as God proclaims in Genesis [bbllink]Genesis 1:31[/bbllink], and the first task of human beings is to tend and protect it.
We human beings are on a long journey back to understanding our God-given connection with the earth. That’s our greatest task and calling at this point in human history: to find our way to union with God and all God’s creation, to learn to reclaim our partnership not just with our human fellows but also with all living creatures. Heaven knows that we humans do not live in right relationship with our brother and sister beings who are four-legged, feathered, or finned, nor with the larger eco-systems of trees and soil and waters on which both they and we depend.
Our estrangement from the natural world is clear in the ecological crisis that is upon us, and when we set this crisis in the light of the cross, we understand it as a moment of judgment, a moment of reckoning. Our society’s way of living – what the bishops of the Episcopal Church decry in a recent pastoral letter as “unparalleled corporate greed and irresponsibility, predatory lending practices, and rampant consumerism” 1– is a direct contradiction to the way of Jesus. We all know that we’re living in an unsustainable way. Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable. Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the myriad species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable. We are living beyond our ecological means.
Like it or not, we are the generation of the cusp, the generation that bridges the familiar and lovely old world of a stable climate, clean air, and temperate weather, of animals and birds that know when to migrate, where to nest, and what to eat, of farmers that know when and where to plant, of fishermen that find a catch — and this raw new world of sudden spikes in heat and cold, of wild winds and punishing droughts, of torrential rains and brutal heat.
As Bill McKibben writes in his latest book, global warming is “…our reality. We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” 2 And there is no going back. Human beings have irrevocably altered the earth into which you and I were born. As McKibben puts it, “The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has….” 3 Our task now is not to stop global warming, because that is impossible. Our task is to “keep it from getting any worse than it has to get,” 4 and to find ways to live more “lightly, carefully, and gracefully” 5 in this new world.
What is the way forward? To kneel at the cross in a spirit of profound repentance. To express not only our love and grief, but also our guilt. To confess the ways that we ourselves benefit from the destruction of the earth, and to admit our own patterns of consumption and waste. And to listen afresh to these words of love: “Woman, behold thy son… Behold thy mother.” Jesus is showing us how to move forward: connect with each other. Choose each other. Claim each other as kin. Turn with love not only to your fellow human beings, but also to the other creatures of the natural world.
On Tuesday The New York Times reported the story of a man who was snorkeling in the blue waters of the South Pacific, photographing a humpback whale and her calf swimming less than 50 yards away. “As [the man] waited for the right moment, the playful calf swam right up to him, so close that he had to lower his camera. That’s when he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. Turning around, [Bryant Austin] found himself looking straight into the eye of the mother whale, her body bigger than a school bus. The tap had come from her pectoral fin, weighing more than a ton. To Mr. Austin, her gesture was an unmistakable warning that he had gotten too close to the calf. And yet, the mother whale had extended her fin with such precision and grace — to touch the photographer without hurting him –that Mr. Austin was in awe of her ‘delicate restraint.’ Looking into the whale’s eye, lit by sunlight through the water, Austin felt he was getting a glimpse of calmness and intelligence, of the animal’s consciousness. The moment changed Mr. Austin’s life.” He went on to devote himself to making life-size portraits of whales, so that other people might perceive the grandeur of these enormous creatures, and might sense what he saw when he looked into that mother whale’s eye. 6
What a marvel it is to break out of our usual state of alienation from the earth and its creatures, and to begin to perceive how connected we are with the other beings all around us. In our fear and despair, it is so easy to feel that we are alone, and that if human beings have irrevocably damaged the creation, then we might as well give up the struggle to create a more just and sustainable future. But then our consciousness breaks open. We meet the gaze of a robin, or a fox, or a frog, we gaze at a tree, we feel the wind on our cheek, and we hear Jesus speak within us, “Behold thy son… Behold thy mother.”
When our inward sight is restored, and our eyes are opened to behold Christ in all his redeeming work, the earth comes alive again and Christ shows up in every sound we hear, in every handful of dirt that we hold, in every bird that we see. The God who created all things also redeems all things and fills all things. Through the crucified and risen Christ, divine love has woven together the human and natural worlds into one inter-related whole. We participate in that mystery, whether we know it or not. Awaken to it, take our place within it, and maybe we will find the strength we need to live more lightly on the earth and to exercise the same delicate restraint regarding our fellow creatures that the mother whale showed to that awe-struck photographer. The only way forward is together.
What would change if we began each day in the way that St. Patrick began his, consciously arising “through the strength of heaven: light of sun, radiance of moon, splendor of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth, firmness of rock”? What would become possible if we asked our brother-sister beings for support? Most of us have never tried it, and I wonder if this might be how the Holy Spirit is now calling us to pray.
So I invite us to take some time in silence and to let the breath bring us images of the living beings that surround us — maybe a red-tailed hawk or a magnolia tree, maybe a frog or prairie dog, a wolverine or walrus, bumblebee or bat. Let images of our brother-sister beings come to you, especially those that are threatened or in danger. Can you sense their support? How different these creatures are from us, how particular and strange, and yet how much they can help us as we take our place in the family of things.
If you prefer, I invite you simply to bring awareness to your body, which in itself is already linked to everything else. Breathe in, and oxygen released by plants and trees flows into our body. Breathe out, and we exhale carbon dioxide that plants in turn absorb. Most of our body’s weight comes from water, just as the surface of the planet is mostly made of water. The salinity of our blood matches the salinity of the sea, as if we carry an ocean inside. Not only that — the carbon and other elements that make up our bodies are the same elements that composed the dinosaurs who roamed the earth sixty-five million years ago, and that will compose whatever beings inhabit the earth sixty-five million years from now. Our body connects us to green-growing plants, to the earth and its creatures, to the oceans, and to every being that preceded us and every being that will follow. Our body even links us to the stars, for everything that makes up our body ultimately comes from stars. Our bodies can become radiant with Christ’s presence.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Rejoice. We are not alone.
Behold thy son. Behold thy mother.
1. “A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church” meeting in Hendersonville, North Carolina, March 13-18, 2009 to the Church and our partners in mission throughout the world.
2. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket. Italics in original.
3. McKibben, Eaarth, p. 2.
4. McKibben interview, op. cit.
5. McKibben, Eaarth, p. 151.
6. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “Whales’ Grandeur and Grace, Up Close,” The New York Times, April 18, 2011. For a fine article on whales, visit “Watching Whales Watching Us” (The New York Times, July 8, 2009).