Friday, April 10, 2009

The Divine Charity from the Cross

Good Friday 2009
Perhaps the most meaningful assignment of my undergraduate studies was to translate the Book of Ruth from Hebrew to English. Not being naturally good at foreign languages, it was a daunting task. Yet, in the process I experienced some of the most mystical and transcendental moments of my life. I can vividly recall upon realizing the inner meaning of a phrase like “So I am going to the go to the field and glean,” where the word laqat, glean, occurs twelve times in the chapter. This unusual repetition serves to highlight the fact that Ruth is no ordinary migrant worker. She comes under the protection of the Israelite practice, an indispensible law, of deliberately leaving some grain in the field so that it may be gleaned by the most vulnerable members of society: widows, orphans and sojourners. I would run into my roommate’s room, wake him out of a dead sleep, shouting, “Charlie, Charlie, do you know what this text is trying to say in Hebrew? It is so incredible! So Exciting!” Charlie might mumble, “Sure, Chief, whatever you say….” roll over and fall back asleep. Leaving me to say a silent prayer of thanksgiving that Dr. John Gettier had given us this assignment to open my mind and imagination to the wonders that lie within the Hebrew text.

The story, as we all remember, involves a woman of Bethlehem and a widow living in Moab, and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah (from which the exalted Oprah is a corruption!), also widowed from Moab: Naomi’s husband and two sons have died in a famine. With all the husbands dead and gone, there is no one to provide for them, so Naomi sends the girls back to their home as she intends to return to Israel having heard that in the midst of the current famine, YHWH the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “had visited his people to give them bread.” Sounds like the beginning of a new Manna Season! Naomi knows full well she has no one to provide for her, no family to marry Orpah and Ruth, and that Moabites might not fair well at all as resident aliens in Judah. Orpah goes home, but Ruth takes the chance to go with Naomi- to support her mother-in-law. Back in Bethlehem Judah Ruth goes to work gleaning barley in the field of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s dead husband. Boaz becomes her protector, thus providing sustenance and protection for Naomi and Ruth. Eventually, with some cunning advice from Naomi, Ruth marries Boaz.

Ruth is one of those people living off the gleanings of the field we heard about on Palm Sunday. She sacrifices a safe life at home in Moab to take care of her mother-in-law Naomi, and thus becomes the great great great great great grandmother of Jesus through the line of David, all because she trusts God’s Divine Charity. She exemplifies a life of sacrifice for others combined with trust in the ways of God.

Fast forward to the Day of Preparation before the Passover many years later. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand that God’s new revelation and Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill, “whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Him, and pays ungrudgingly the price of generous love.” Underhill, The School of Charity, p. 26.

John’s passion has numerous unique details: Jesus sends Judas out from the last supper; Jesus is not identified by Judas’ kiss but steps forward announcing, “I am he;” Jesus is not silent before Pilate, but speaks to him; Jesus carries his own cross and does not stumble or fall.

But is there any more tender and yet powerful moment than when Jesus, already nailed to the cross, looks down on his mother and the disciple he loved standing beside her. He seems to connect her plight with that of Naomi – there is no one to care for her. “Woman, behold your son; Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’” In effect, the disciple whom Jesus loved becomes Ruth to Mary’s Naomi.

Can we even begin to comprehend this moment, while hanging from the cross Jesus’ full attention is still on helping others. He looks down from the cross, assuring their future care to one another in the hour when he might seem to be the one in deeper need. This is God’s Divine Charity still showing us what it means to be a disciple of his. This is God’s Giving Love generous to the very end.

Then with no cries of dereliction, no cries of abandonment, Jesus simply declares, “It is finished. Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Or, as we used to say, he handed over his spirit.

His spirit is the Spirit of God’s Divine Charity. It is the Spirit that hovers over the waters of creation. It is the Spirit that descends upon Jesus like a dove accompanying the voice, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus has nothing left to give away, he gives away the Spirit of God.

To whom does Jesus hand over his Spirit? The text, of course, is not specific about this. But we do know that Mary and the beloved disciple are there at the foot of the cross. Is it too much to imagine that Jesus hands over his Spirit to the beloved disciple?

There has been much speculation as to the identity of the beloved disciple. Some saying it is John, and at least one scholar makes the imaginative suggestion that it is the Samaritan Woman at the well – that first witness to the Christ.

But wouldn’t it be just like the Fourth Gospel to intentionally leave that identity a mystery – leaving open the very real possibility that the beloved disciple is anyone who hears this story and believes. That is, the beloved disciple is you and me.

Begging the question first glimpsed last evening at the foot washing: are we ready to receive the Spirit of God’s Divine Charity? Can we care for one another as Ruth cares for Naomi? As Boaz cares for Ruth? As the beloved disciple cares for the Mother of God, Mary Theotokos?

John’s Jesus seeks to comfort us from the cross. He seeks to call us to accept God’s love so we might share it with others – all others. It is what makes Good Friday good after all! He hands over his Spirit so that it may continue to live through all who accept the gift of becoming His Beloved Disciple. As we take the bread of His Body, as we look into the Chalice filled with His own blood, may we become those people who say, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the living Christ who is coming into the world. Entreat me not to leave you, to turn back from following after you. For where you go Lord, I will go. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. I will continue your life of Divine Charity in all that I do and all that I say.” Amen.

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