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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.
_ This is for Kristin.
I remember the first time I heard John 3: 16. I was 12. I was at Methodist Church camp and a counselor explained to me it was THE scripture: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
I remember the emotional and intellectual reaction I immediately had, God didn’t need to do that, as my well meaning camp counselor explained that Jesus died on a cross so that I could go to heaven. I remember wondering why God would need to kill someone else on my behalf. I wanted desperately to have a deeper relationship with God, because I truly loved God. John 3:16 was supposed to make everything clear to me, it was supposed to throw me fully into God’s arms, it was supposed to mark me as one of God’s saved. Instead the detailed explanation my camp counselor offered of dripping blood, crushed bones, and collapsing lungs repelled me.
It has been a long and winding journey since that summer afternoon in a musty chapel at Finley Lake. I am proud of my 12-year-old self for knowing God didn’t need any blood to love me. And I am deeply indebted to the many theologians, biblical historians, and others who along the journey offered me an antidote for John 3:16.
Let me attempt to lay out the theology behind John 3:16*. Simply, it’s about atonement. And just what is that? According to some, it is the reconciliation of God and humans brought about by the life and death of Jesus. It implies that Jesus’ sole purpose was to save humanity. This is why Jesus is referred to by some as a savior.
Those who tag John 3:16 on bridges and overpasses have been specifically taught substitutionary atonement or sacrificial atonement. And how is that different from the above definition of atonement? It asserts that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinful humanity. He was punished for our sins, in our place.
Are you ready for this? Because it’s sick! This dominant theological view implies that God was hungry for revenge, because humanity had failed God over and over again. God could only forgive humanity—make things right between us and God—through a punishment so severe it ended in a gory, blood soaked death on an instrument of torture, the cross. Does this turn your stomach like mine? This violent view asserts that God and humanity could never be in relationship with one another unless God got blood, plain and simple.
I flatly reject John 3:16. I vehemently oppose this concept of God. It is not true that God could only love me if beloved Jesus died a brutal death. I believe John 3:16 glorifies violence and casts God as a child abuser. I’ve marked John 3:16 out in my bible.
Instead, I have been made at-one-with-God because God’s endless grace has called out to me my entire life, like a mother calling their child inside for dinner at the end of the day. I have been made at-one-with-God because it was God who knit me together in my mother’s womb and this God has never left me. My God, the God Jesus calls out to as Abba (Aramaic for daddy) is as tender as my father was each evening as I crawled onto his lap as a child. My God does not hold a belt, waiting to whip me for my day’s transgressions. Nor does God hold a belt that he used to whip someone else for my transgressions. No, God loves me regardless and I am free to wrap myself in God’s divine embrace always.
So why the cross? Why was Jesus crucified? That’s for another blog. Stay tuned. And yes, you have permission to cross John 3:16 out of your Bible. You belong in the Christian community even if you think that God abhors violence instead of requiring it. Maybe you belong in the Christian community because you think that God abhors violence instead of requiring it. All that blood on the cross was sickening and had nothing to do with you. I promise you, you belong.
*I am not and do not want to be a professional theologian. If you need more information about theories of atonement or the historical emergence of atonement theology in the western church—contact me! I would be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
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.