9 Mar 2008
“So Jesus no longer walked about in public among the Jews, but He left for the region near the desert, to a town called Ephraim, and there He remained with His disciples.” (John 11:54) (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo
A friend of a friend of mine had been down in the Yucatan region on a beach vacation and then also took a one day bus trip to some of the massive stone ruins of that ancient Mayan culture. These old ruins have become very profitable for the local population. They’re drawing the tourists and their money away from the beach resorts and farther out into where a very poor population can desperately use the extra income. These poor people are the native inhabitants of the area. They are, in fact, the descendents of the ancient Mayans who had long ago built these once impressive stone temples.
An anthropologist by the name of Dr. McAnany was addressing a professional conference on the topic of these very people, and it was in the news just a while back. She was telling her audience of her recent field work on one such Mayan ruin. She recalled a field trip of local school children who had come by to see how the anthropologists worked. The children were able to walk around and watch the scientists and to ask them questions. Dr. McAnany told of a young girl who came up to her at the site. “She has this beautiful little Maya face,” the anthropologist told her audience, and then this little girl asked the scientist, “What happened to all the Maya? Why did they all die out?” Here was a little Mayan girl asking where all the Maya had gone. She had lost her sense of identity. She wasn’t able to connect herself and her life with the ancestors who had built the ruins she was walking through. They hadn’t gone anywhere. They hadn’t died out. She had just forgotten them and that she was them.
Today is Passion Sunday in our church. It’s a reminder that we too can forget who we are. The images of Jesus and His companions have been covered with the shrouds you see throughout our sanctuary. This is intended to visually reinforce the message we read in today’s Gospel. Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. Some of the witnesses of this grandest of miracles finally begin to believe in Jesus, but others become even more afraid of Him. They witness the power of Jesus and His growing acclaim, and they realize that they can no longer wait for Him to fall or fail. Jesus’ enemies begin out-right to make plans to kill Him. There’s an urgency to their actions. They sense that if they do not act soon they will not be able to act at all, that Jesus will have grown beyond their control. Jesus learns of their intent and goes into hiding with His disciples. The message of Jesus being forced into the desert is the reason for the shrouds. He can be seen no longer in public, and now in church He can no longer be seen in the sanctuary.
Passion Sunday’s message and imagery always strike me as relevant in our world. In so many ways it seems like Jesus has been pushed out of the picture, that we don’t want to remember Him or His place in our lives. There are all kinds of examples floating around the internet posted by people who are upset by real and supposed threats to the public and formal expression of religion in America. But I just finished a book on language, and that’s kind of where my thoughts have been recently, and anyways I’m impressed by ordinary, unrehearsed examples because when people don’t know they’re being watched that’s when they’re at their most honest.
One of those unrehearsed examples is how we curse, and one of the historical roots of swearing in the English language is religion. Hell, damnation, the name God, Christ, Jesus Christ, all of these can be used profanely. But whereas American audiences would once gasp and always remember the ending of Gone with the Wind when Rhett Butler says, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give …,”now this same word is said by cartoon characters before even 7PM rolls around. Every one of us says in exasperation, “God” as if it meant nothing. Some of us throw out “Jesus Christ” like He’s the guy next door, and yet next week when Mary Ellen reads the Lesson and says “at the name of Jesus Christ every knee will bend,” we will actually pause and kneel in reverence to the name. Who anymore says “May God strike me dead if I’m lying,” and takes it seriously? How did the four-letter-word for damnation ever become a compliment? On television a stunning woman walks into the shot and the male character will say that word and it means “Wow!” Damnation is everything terrible that can be thrown at a person for eternity. Would you say of a beautiful woman, “Cancer,” “AIDS,” “tax audit”? Nobody would because these have negative connotations, but the four-letter-word for damnation has become meaningless and unthreatening. These are all subtle signs that God is disappearing, and I know this because I hear this language all the time.
Just like that little Mayan girl who couldn’t see that she was the living, breathing continuance of the very people who built the ruins she was studying, we sometimes distance ourselves from the people of the Bible as if they were completely different than we are. We have choices to make that can bring Jesus into our world or can keep Him hidden just like they did. Children, for example, simply do not know the story the church will be telling these next two weeks. We can keep it like that or bring them here. Young families are constantly busy. We can keep to our hectic schedules and hope Jesus understands or we can choose to make time for Christ at moments like His Last Supper and treat the day of His death completely differently. And everyone should know the practical reality that when we choose not to worship it makes it easier for the next person to stay away too, but that when our cars are parked at church it is an unavoidable reminder to those who drive by that faith matters.
Everyone us makes choices that will either keep Jesus hidden away or will make Him real in some way to us, someone else or even society at large. On this Passion Sunday as we look at the starkness of a church without Christ as a reminder of what once happened, let us remember that the same happens today in our world all the time all around us. We can be them. So let us pray that we do whatever we can to keep Jesus in our lives and in our world. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)