lenten journal: figs and feasts

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We mark the days of Holy Week as though Jesus was on a schedule that culminated in his execution on Good Friday. We give ourselves one or two things to think about each day and then move on to the next.

John wrote that if he had written down everything that happened in Jesus’ life the world would not have been able to contain the books. Though John’s sense of the world was much smaller than ours, it still seems a rather outlandish statement about someone who was killed at thirty-three.

I was in Memphis in February with a group from our church on our annual Civil Rights History Tour. As we came out of the National Civil Rights Museum housed in what once was the Lorraine Motel, I remarked to Ginger that I wondered what our nation might have been like had King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy all lived to be old men. King was already moving to an emphatic denouncement of the Vietnam War. Kennedy shared much of King’s vision for equality and inclusion. Malcolm was going through his own changes and had so much to say.

But all we have are what they did in their short lives and what they wrote and said.

The world loses when people’s lives are cut short. I can think of several friends who lost not just loved ones but those they loved the most. Their lives were drastically changed. Their story has never been the same. Part of the impact of the pandemic will be many of us will have to learn this truth over and over.

Jesus didn’t come to teach us how to burn out, or to see how quickly we could get ourselves killed. Sometimes the way we read the story of Jesus’ life makes it sound like he was the embodiment of Edna St. Vincent Milay’s poem “First Fig.”

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.

What if Jesus had had a chance to grow old? What more would we have learned about what it means to be fully human?

It is hard to believe that the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount and healed people with a word or a touch had done and said everything he had to do or say in his early thirties. What sermons did we miss because the Romans wanted him dead?

I remember someone talking aboutDietrich Bonhoeffer and saying that people of varying theological perspectives ally with him because he died before he had a chance to say everything he had to say. I don’t know that any of us get to say everything, but I wonder if we couldn’t say the same thing about Jesus.

On this Holy Monday, as we call it liturgically, the story we tell about Jesus is that he cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit. Some traditions read the story of Jesus “cleansing the Temple” (talk about your polite euphemisms) on this day as well. We might do better to lean into the blues and call it Stormy Monday, but we never really get to know what Jesus had on his mind.

What would we have learned about Jesus, and about ourselves, had he lived long enough to bury more friends than just Lazarus, to visit Jerusalem for more than a Passover or three, to share more experiences with his disciples than a handful of seasons on the Sea of Galilee?

Stanley Kunitz is a poet who lived a long time. Late in his life, he wrote a poem called “The Layers,” part of which says,

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

As we work our way through our schedule to the Last Supper, I wonder what our lives and our faith would be like had we gotten to share in a larger feast of losses with Jesus.

Peace,
Milton

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1 COMMENT

  1. “I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon
    and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites . . . ” (I hear the ache in my innards!)

    “The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” King Lear, a different kind of King.
    Milton, Your remarkable gifts of speaking wisdom, and writing wisely, have been hammered out on the anvil of your own experience. You speak with authority, and not like attorneys.

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