In today’s culture, don’t we usually urge ourselves and each other to “Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life.(Choir joins in, clapping) It will help us every day, It will brighten all the way, if we keep on the sunny side of life.”
But…Today’s biblical text hears Jesus rebuking Peter as Satan, for denying the dark side. For not wanting to face the inevitability that Jesus would suffer for the radical way that he stood up against the evil empire of his day. Jesus says to Peter: “Don’t run from suffering; embrace it… or you will sell out your eternal Soul for the fears of your mere mortal ego… Get over yourself! If you want to follow me, I’ll show you how to face your inevitable suffering and sacrifice – fruitfully.”
This passage proceeds from the truth that we sons and daughters of humanity must undergo great suffering. Mahatma Gandhi said that “Suffering is the badge of the human race.” By a certain age, most of us have had to acknowledge that wounds of one kind or another are part of the fabric of life. So, rather than denying pain, which tends to increase its vice-hold on our bodies and brains, we can learn ways to go through it, that allow us to grow through it.
Religious historian Karen Armstrong, the instigator of the worldwide ‘Charter for Compassion’ authored a book that Trinity is studying this Lent “12 Steps To A Compassionate Life.” In it, she reminds us that conscious suffering “burns off ego” – that isolating shell of ‘me’ thinking that separates up from our true life with others in God.
If we let our defensive ego shield us from facing our human suffering, we don’t learn the spiritual skill of compassion – ‘feeling with’ – the distress of others. Armstrong writes about the role of religious drama, in teaching us how to face suffering, reminding us that “Aristotle believed that tragedy – tragic drama – educated the emotions and taught people to experience them appropriately.”
The Lenten story of Jesus’ Passion is our central religious drama – intended to educate our emotions and our attitudes. By ritually re-entering this drama, with body mind and Spirit, we Christians can strengthen our spiritual muscles, year by year. Walking with Jesus to the cross, we face into our dark times of pain, loss and suffering – in the comfort and courage of community. Like any form of exercise, its easier to do with other people, and only effective when regularly repeated.
Returning annually to Jesus’ Lenten drama, perhaps since impressionable early childhood, we re-experience the tragic climax of the cross and then feel that joyful resurrection ending. This practise deepens the path of our brain synapses that connect trials to resurrections and scary challenges to re-emerging joy. Well- schooled in our Easter Cycle, Jesus’ story becomes inscribed in our personal life scripts. So whenever suffering darkens our lives and our world – whenever our personal Lenten dramas may arise – we are trained to respond by looking directly into it for the meaning and learning, and then to move ahead, searching for the first glimpse of resurrection hope on our horizon.
Still, even knowing this, I’ve greeted wintry Lent with very different attitudes, in different years of my life. There have been years when Lent has come as such a relief – an invitation to release my inner darkness in a community of prayer and understanding. Years when I have loved to ‘wear my ashes’ alongside caring others.
When have you been glad to greet the emotional honesty of Lent? During a heart-wrending divorce? When a family member died? When the ravages of addiction invade your inner circle? When depression or rejection clouded the light in the eyes of a loved one? When concerns for this country and our children’s future and for aching Creation feel overwhelming, it is so good to go weep by the cross, openly and appropriately. It can feel so healing to just tremble in the true depths of Good Friday…knowing that the buoyancy of our Christian community on Easter Sunday, will keep us from drowning in our tears.
But I have also had years when the purple cloths came out and I just didn’t want to go there. Maybe I was just doing OK, thank you very much, and I didn’t want to risk tipping my emotional balance into sadness. Or maybe it was a genuinely sunny time in my life, and I didn’t want to visit pain when I didn’t have to – for fear it might infect my positive disposition. There have been years when I would really have preferred to skip lightly across the surface of this purple religious season, from pancakes to Palms to Easter eggs.
One of those years, I realized the joy of spiritual accompaniment – in Lent as in life. When I didn’t feel any need to ‘do Lent’ for myself, I discovered that there was this possibility of accompanying someone else’s suffering, (which, by the way is not infectious, if you are not avoiding your own suffering and shadows.) Indeed, accompanying someone on their walk to the cross with compassion, elicits our joy.
Accompanying someone whose life is playing in minor chords, can actually play a high note in our own. Each Cross we walk with for a time, awakens a bigger Soulful Self in us, more compassionately connected with others and less distracted by the fears and jealousies of our small lonely ego self. Such is the alchemy of suffering, ours and each other’s, that entering it with awareness and an attitude of hope, the purple Lenten curtains slip aside to reveal – a surprise!
Lent is our Christian religious season for practising how to walk together with our inevitable crosses – and theirs – following the Way of our Teacher, so that we are gradually being transformed into resurrection people. As the prophet Isaiah said, all of us, at times in our lives are “given the bread of adversity and water of affliction.” In observing Lent, we remember how Jesus, our Teacher, does not hide himself – or his suffering – from his followers. Indeed, whether we look left or right, he is always there for us, suffering like us, walking with us. We learn that we are not alone, and we can hear Jesus saying: “Don’t deny the darkness. Walk into it, aware, and learn compassion. This is the way – toward hope for the world.”
What is your response to the invitation to a Lenten journey this year? Are you up for it? Ready to face or even embrace some suffering – for the sake of your world? Our communities always need folks who are feeling good, to take part in the Lenten drama, helping others to make the Way together, to our next resurrection experience.
So enter the Lenten story, in your way, this year. Someone who needs to, will learn anew, how to trust that we will make it to this next resurrection day. Easter always comes. That’s the core of the cross drama, and the crux of the Christian attitude to living – on the sunrise side of life.