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The swirling magnificence of the icons, the ornately decorated sepulcher, prayers recited in a foreign language, and the soaring, magnificent chants of the choir transported me to a wholly other place.
A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to attend a Greek Orthodox Good Friday service. Raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, this particular service holds great meaning for my friend; I was honored by the invitation. On the way there she apologized: the church she had chosen (St. John the Baptist) for proximity and beauty, also only spoke Greek.
The beauty of the church was overwhelming for a Protestant who was reared to think stain glass windows were ornate. The swirling magnificence of the icons, the ornately decorated sepulcher, prayers recited in a foreign language, and the soaring, magnificent chants of the choir transported me to a wholly other place. Yes, I knew well the story they were remembering that night. Yes, like them, I called myself a Christian. Yet their religious practice was as different to me as if I had entered a mosque, synagogue, or Hindu temple.
I am not the only one who understands my religious practice at utterly different from the Orthodox Church. When my friend dutifully checked in with her mother earlier to tell her she would be attending the Good Friday service, she mentioned I was going with her. “Who is going with you?” her mother asked. “My Protestant friend, Abby.” Later in the conversation her mother asked, “So just what religion is Abby?” Her mother had no idea that a Protestant was a Christian.
I have a master’s degree in religion. I could bore you with all of the theological and historical differences between the Western Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. I could even use really big words like theotokos (although I would have to google it to make sure I was using it correctly.) But I will spare you. Instead I want to share the very simple observations I had as a Jesus follower sitting (well mostly standing) in a pew beside other Jesus followers on a holy night. Because I could not understand their language, I was forced to notice things I would not have otherwise. A beautiful world opened up before me through my other, often ignored, senses.
1) Those Greeks love images! It seems like too often the only image we love in the Western Church is the cross, either empty or dripping with blood. If you were forced to choose three images (Greeks also love the number three) that you would paint center stage in your place of worship, what would they be? I would choose Jacob wrestling with the angel, the woman at the well talking with Jesus, and the father of the Prodigal Son running out to greet him.
2) Greeks love mystery! It seems sprinkled into every aspect of worship. There are secret doors, and rituals that acknowledge the unknowable, and very little explanation (or exegetical sermons) of the mysterious stories we have received. No one spoke on and on about how crazy it was that Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, there seemed an overarching acceptance that the story was unknowable and mysterious. Shouldn’t we make more room for mystery in the Western Church? Perhaps next time I preach on the feeding of the 5,000 I will singularly tell the story as truth, period, and not try and make any sense of the radically mysterious event that was recorded so long ago.
3) Greeks are talkers! The service was quite long and the congregation, it seems knowing this, did not show up at a set time. Instead, people came when they could. And when they would arrive, even though a formal, ritualized service was taking place before them, they would greet friends and family in pews, chat, kiss, mill, and lead children upfront to the sepulcher. The WASP in me was getting a little nervous by such informality in the midst of formality! At another moment in the service a bunch of youth disappeared behind a secret door and reappeared robbed in formal “religious-greek-wear.” In was clear that another boy who was developmentally disabled wanted to be a part of the group. He got a priests attention (right in the middle of the service!). The priest gently led the boy behind the secret door and he reappeared, dressed to match the group. I watched the boy and priest the rest of the service with great interest. The boy’s pride was evident and the priest’s compassion even more evident as he kindly responded to the boy’s off and on questions. I learned there is room in formality for compassion and informality, even chatter. How can the Western Church’s formal worship make more room for life (like kissing your family and children)?
4) Greeks love all their senses! Have you ever smelled myrrh? It’s as divine and holy as the lilies of the valley blooming in my garden right now. The fragrance of those small flowers signals a sensory memory for me: spring is here. For those from the Eastern Church myrrh signals as powerful sensory memory: Good Friday. Traditionally the dead were washed in the ancient world with myrrh. This part of the story is remembered not through words or scriptural reading, but through the actual smell. A priest walks up and down the aisles spraying the worshippers (with a very ornate and ancient version of a spritz bottle) with myrrh. Why do we non-Catholics in the Western church ignore all the senses?
We all have so much to learn from one another. The Greek Orthodox could learn a bit about the ordination of women from me and even about how to include people who aren’t Greek into their religious practices with a bit more hospitality. Yet on this morning, as the smell of lilies of the valley waft into my house, and I listen to the chants of the Greek Orthodox church on my computer, I don’t feel like teaching them anything. Instead, I am grateful they helped me pay attention to my other religious senses.
It’s Holy Week. It is also the week that the Supreme Court begins hearings on gay marriage. I have a lot on my mind: if my daughter’s sweet purple Easter dress will be warm enough, how anyone can think that two people in love should not have the same legal rights as my husband and me, how I can make the story of the passion come alive around a camp fire on Friday evening, if it would be appropriate to print a large pink equal sign and hang it on the cross for Easter, what I can say that will be new on Sunday morning after 12 years of preaching, and did Jesus really have to die on the cross?
These questions seem unrelated perhaps, but in my mind this week they are weaving quite a brilliant, if not loud and gaudy, tapestry. Holy Week began for me with a bang on Palm Sunday. Too many times I have left Palm Sunday with my head hung low, waiting for the gruesome and violent story of Jesus’ death to unfold. In the past, the cliché of Palm Sunday—the crowds who cheered, “Hosanna in the Highest” were the same crowds who would later gather to chant “Crucify him!”—has dictated my experience of Holy Week.
Yet this year, with the Supreme Court hearings around the corner, hope seemed to permeate my thoughts as my Facebook account was flooded with pink equal signs. Two days before Palm Sunday a friend posted this powerful, short video from the Anti-Defamation League:
My Palm Sunday sermon and my experience of Holy Week has been shaped by this video. After watching, I was overwhelmed with a hope that broadened my own imagination. I wondered what the world would be like if Jesus, like Anne Frank, MLK, Harvey Milk, and others, didn’t succumb to an early, violent death. I wondered if the sort of pink hope that is catching like wild fire on Facebook is the same sort of hope that greeted Jesus on the road to Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday. I wondered for the first time if Holy Week is at its core about hope, an expansive imaginative hope, rather than the violent Roman Empire that crucified people regularly in the ancient world. I wondered like an innocent college student the world hasn’t beaten down yet if I, along with others, embraced this wild hope if the world could truly be a different place.
And then I remembered the Lord of the Dance. I remembered that God’s imagination is much greater than any color we humans can paint on our Facebook accounts. I remembered that the story of Holy Week ends with a stone rolled away, linen clothes folded neatly and set aside, women scared and running, doubting men, and Jesus, raised, wounds still present, but hungry enough to fry up some fish on the lakeshore. We are the ones who have left hope out of the story, not God.
I have begun to re-imagine the entire story of Holy Week through the lens of an expectant, outrageously hopeful disciple, who stubbornly will not give up my imaginative hope. Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, I will not give up hope for equal marriage. Regardless what doom comes knocking on my door or the doors of my neighbors, I will not give up hope for love and life. Regardless if violence permeates our communities in such a way that children practice lock down drills in their elementary schools, I will not give up hope for a world without guns. Regardless come Friday, when I hear again the story of the state sanctioned death of Jesus, I will not give up hope for a different ending to the story.
I will not celebrate on this coming Friday the gruesome death of Jesus, but I will not hang my head. I will hold onto the imaginative hope that permeates Jesus life, death, and resurrection.
*Be warned, I am about to admit to complete, irrational, unreasonable belief.*
I am a mostly rational person when it comes to faith. But there are a few things that I believe that are irrational—at least from a 21st century scientific perspective. The biggest: I believe in the resurrection hook, line, and sinker. The virgin birth—totally
not convinced. I think Mary and Joseph had sex. Good for them! Jesus walking on
water? Powerful metaphor. But the resurrection, I believe in literally, to my very core. Perhaps this is just faith. Perhaps this is just hopeful thinking. I’m not sure.
I am a questioning believer and an adamant follower of Jesus. I’m not big on
doctrine, but I’m an ordained minister—go figure? I’m the first person to admit
I think the Bible is riddled with mistakes and even some blatant mistruths, that
prayer is complicated and mostly only changes my internal attitudes, and the
doctrine of substitutionary atonement (read my former blogs) is hog wash. Don’t
worry; I can’t be kicked out of the church for saying these things. I’ve already
broken my ties with any denomination.
But the resurrection? The belief that Jesus was dead and three days later walked out of the grave, appeared to the women, stuck out his bloody hands to Thomas to reassure him, and then ate fish beside the sea shore with the other disciples who had fled and gone back to business as usual. Yes, I believe it all. And because I believe this, I believe also that Jesus wasn’t just that guy, but the guy, the human form of God.
A faithful companion along the journey commented: “Sorry, Abby, I can’t worship a
zombie.” I respect that and even find the comment comically accurate. So why do
I believe in the resurrection? I don’t have an answer. At least not a good
answer. I can only offer the following:
I believe in God and for this reason, I believe in hope, even when realistic people
tell me to be hopeless. I gave up believing that God could rescue starving
orphans, Haitians from earth quakes, a mother with debilitating depression,
victims of violence, struggling families, a child with every learning disability
known (my list could continue). So if I believe in a powerless God and every day
I encounter the utter brokenness of this world, then what’s the point? I am left
with no choice than to believe in a God who does something!
I believe in a God who loves.
I believe in a God whose love is more powerful, more healing, and more creative than anything we broken humans can imagine.
I believe in a God who invites us into a dance of co-creating love.
I believe in a God whose love is active in this world through this dance of co-creation.
I believe in a God who grants hope to the hopeless. Real hope.
What does this have to do with the resurrection? The resurrection is the ultimate
expression of God’s co-creating love.
God did not possess the sort of military power that could defeat the systematically
violent Roman Empire. Hence Jesus died a brutal death on the cross. But God did
possess the power of co-creating love that sprang Jesus from the grave.
Together, Jesus and God defeated suffering and death with this co-creating love.
The resurrection, the defeat of the grave, continues to offer today the final
This final word gives me hope for the starving orphan, the depressed mother, the
individual facing PTSD after a childhood filled with violence, the cancer
patient, the Haitian rebuilding his community. The resurrection calls me to
dance with love on my darkest days, when I am sure there is only suffering to be
found in the world. The resurrection calls me to co-create in this world,
instead of sitting and weeping. The resurrection calls me to roll up my sleeves,
to pull out my check book, to fall to my knees, to utter a prayer, to hold on.
The resurrection is God’s final proof that love is more powerful than anything
else, even evil, even death.
I know that what I believe can be questioned. I know my systematic theologian
husband can poke holes in my argument. I don’t care. It’s what I believe. It’s
the experience of one broken disciple, following Jesus, placing one foot in
front of the other on the journey, and feeling powerlessness yield to an even
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.