Though much is taken, much abides

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I was running when my watch buzzed with a message from my brother, “Y’all seeing the fire at Notre Dame?”. At first I thought of the Fighting Irish. But the link, which I did not stop my pace to read, was from the BBC in Europe. So the other Notre Dame. I’ve been heart-sore lately.Good exercise on a day when the world was contemplating renouncing the despair of winter for the hopeful enthusiasm of spring was meant to be a brief panacea. I tried to put the fire out of mind (hoping it was minor) and focus on the daffodils.

Running through the well-kept houses and lawns of wealthy Winchester, I reminded myself how amazing our civilization is. It is so much easier to destroy than build. But there is so much more built than not. What a great weight of effort lay behind every vista. And to the pounding rhythm of my slow pace, the words came back to me: Though much is taken, much abides

I find myself greatly consoled by remembered poetry. You’d think that this would mean I spend more time reading and memorizing poetry, but humans are not so sensible. We do not always invest in the things that offer us the greatest returns. We do not avoid the things that bring us harm. But this poem is not one I’ve read. It is, instead, a poem that a friend has memorized. I remember one bright night, when we were all younger than we are now, when we went together to see a play – a musical. We all agreed that it was quite possibly the worst performance any of us had ever seen. But walking back together through the streets of Boston, through swirling mist and halogen light, he recited all of Ulysses to the city sky. I’ve likely heard him say this poem 20 times in our years of friendship. So it is unsurprising for me to hear it in his voice. My friend’s voice assures me, much abides.

When I returned from my run and saw the pictures of the flames, I thought nothing could survive. What was built over centuries and endured for longer centuries would be wiped out in the slow course of my 5k jog. I was comforted only by the memory of that poetry. “Much abides” I reminded myself. And indeed, from the implausible wall of flames much more was recovered – largely because of human planning, care and expertise – than I dared hope for. The windows remain. The bees remain. The gothic walls and buttresses were designed independent of the roof, so the one could fall while the others held. I read an amazing response (which I cannot now find) by a medievalist who long studied the cathedral at Reims. The scholar talked with great hope about how the Medieval architects had learned so much (from hard experience) about how cathedrals burned that they had built new ones to withstand conflagration. The churches were designed to burn, but yet abide. And looking at what remains in the rubble in Paris, that seems true. How clever we are, we humans, when we put our minds to resilience and preservation. How foresightful we can be, and have been. Much abides.

Today, as I write, it is Holy Saturday. Last night, I went to Good Friday services – my favorite of the year. There’s no sugar coating harsh truths on Friday night. We put ourselves in the place of the false accusers, the cowardly arresters, the sleepy and scared friends who fail at the first test. We speak of beatings and mockery and spears and nails in the flesh. We listen to a dying man make fun of another dying man. There’s no place on Good Friday for looking away or softening. I think it’s no coincidence that rarely are children present that night. (Although I was very, very glad that my youngest son joined me, for the first time. I’m not sure my children will be able to understand my faith if they never worship with me on Good Friday.) On this Friday night – and on the long Saturday that follows – we live in a reality where God himself has died and we cannot see how anything can ever be okay again. Hope is lost, and all that remains is cleaning up and moving on.

Of course, there’s always the rest of that story. I usually practice my Easter hymns on Good Friday (which feels like cheating, but practice you must!) Beyond hope, hope arrives. There is redemption for the failed and weak. There is forgiveness. Although there is also real loss – Judas is never forgiven. I sometimes wonder if he would have been, if he’d chosen repentance over despair.

As we look to rebuild Notre Dame, and the black southern churches destroyed by a hateful arsonist, I am reminded of another phrase caught in my mind lately, from Isaiah:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:12

As I looked for the right words to close my thoughts, my pastor posted a poem by her favorite poet, whose title caught my eye. I leave you friends, with a new poem. May it be a consolation. For much abides.

What Abides, What Returns

Holy Saturday

Holy Week – the week leading up to Easter – is full of named days and church services. It starts with Palm Sunday, with loud Hosannas and praises and donkey-riding-reeactments. Then there’s Maundy Thursday – the day we celebrate the Last Supper. This is followed by the ironically named Good Friday, the day on which Jesus died. Then everyone comes out in their finery to celebrate the resurrection on Sunday, even those who only come to church once or twice a year.

The pastor prepares for Easter
The pastor prepares for Easter

If you know a church musician or a pastor, this week is something of a marathon. There’s usually a huge push… Palm Sunday has big spectacle, then there’s a service on Thursday (with communion), on Friday (in the dark and quiet), and on Sunday with the biggest party of the year in the sanctuary. For many, there’s also a Sunrise Service in the wee sma’s of Easter morning. If you’re a pastor, that’s five big sermons (or meditations, or whatever) in 7 days. If you’re an organist or pianist, not only is it a lot of music you have to put together but it’s some of your hardest and most important of the whole year. Most of the liturgical professionals I know are completely wiped out after this week.

The Good Friday service is my favorite of the year. In our church, it’s the same down to the word, year after year. The only thing that changes is the name of the president and the UN Secretary General. We read through six scripture sets, extinguishing a light after each is read until the sanctuary is in total darkness. (Or rather, lit only by the extremely bright light that illuminates our parking lot. The year that it cycled on and off during the service was memorable to me.) Between those readings is only music and your own thoughts and prayers.

I have gotten better at this, over time. The first few years, I could hardly sit still and think, looking over and again for stimulation or change – unused and uncomfortable with the silence of my mind. This year, I sat heavy in my pew and was surprised when the time came to read again.

The other surprise is that, in those few words read over and over, I can still hear new things. This year on Good Friday, I heard something I’ve never heard before. It was in the voice of those many people who ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Son of God? Are you the King of the Jews?” Before, I only heard the leading, lying question trying to get him to implicate himself in front of the Romans in order to remove a nuisance. But this time, I heard another thing.

They really wanted to know. Moreover, some of those asking really, really wanted him to answer yes. This was the moment so many of those followers had been waiting for. This man whom they had watched work miracles – who a short time before had met with Elijah and Moses – would declare himself! He would be a second Moses, liberating the people from the domination of the Romans! He would show not just the hungry multitudes but the halls of power who he really was and what he could really do.

And it wasn’t just those Pharisees and soldiers asking and half hoping to hear a yes, nor only his disciples. Jesus is sent to Herod, who is totally excited because he’d been hearing about this guy and really wanted to see it for himself. If Jesus had given Herod anything to hold on to, he wouldn’t have been sent back to Pilate to die. Even if Jesus had just told a good story or two, or a minor miracle, maybe he would’ve gone on to great things within the Roman Empire!

All these people wanted Jesus for all these different things: for entertainment, for political need expediency, for rebellion, for leadership. Many of these people who looked to Jesus for deliverance were good people, who were asking for needed things. None of them were looking for Jesus to, oh, conquer death and provide atonement for sin. It just wasn’t on the agenda. Overthrowing the Romans: plausible. Dying and coming back from the dead: not plausible. (In this my reading of the Greek and Roman classics has been edifying. Virgil talks about Prometheus (Tityus), and the vast torment of being immortal while your liver gets ripped out and eaten every day. In their immortality the very power of those ancient gods is limited because – do what they will – they cannot die.)

After a few hundred years of this happening every day, immortality might stop looking so good.
After a few hundred years of this happening every day, immortality might stop looking so good.

I have heard before how unexpected the path of Jesus was to his followers: how this was not the outcome they expected. This is not in the stories. You’d don’t lose all the way, and end up winning. You don’t quietly accept shame and ignominy. (I promise you now that silence is not how Odysseus or Aeneis or Xerxes would have dealt with being mocked and abused.) But I had never before heard that note in the voice of his accusers, betrayers and killers. They were hoping he would prove them wrong.

“Look at you now!” they yelled at him. “You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, if you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross!” Matthew 27:40

I had heard the mockery in it before. I had never before heard the half-hope that he would.

This is Holy Saturday. It deserves a cooler, more depressing name, like “Black Saturday” or “Golgotha Saturday” or “Despair Saturday” or “Holy crap he actually died, what do we do now?” Saturday. It’s the only full day that Jesus was actually dead. It always seemed to me like a day where were should just stop – like a day where we should rend our hair and mourn and walk around in a shocked trance.

Of course, I did nothing of the sort today. In fact, I had a lovely day that included a nice lie-in, breakfast in bed, a spring-flower walk, an Easter egg hunt in a local part (which was a dud), followed by an impromptu Easter egg hunt in my backyard with the neighbors (which was not) and a family movie. Great day, in fact.

But there in the back of my mind was the set-apartness of this day. If you go from Palm Sunday to Easter, or from Christmas to Easter, or from Easter to Easter… you miss the best part. On Easter, Jesus does something that humans could not do: to be raised from the dead. But on this Saturday, he was doing something the little “g” gods of mythology could not do: be human enough to die and be dead.

Tonight is dark with the grim settling reality for those who loved Jesus. That really happened. He really died. When we thought he would wage his mysterious eloquence against the powers of the world, he shut up and went silent and the fickle crowds abandoned him – including us, to our everlasting shame and horror. We sold him out. We fell asleep. We lied about knowing him. We shouted “crucify him” from the crowds and threatened a riot. We gambled for his clothes and put sour wine on a stick for him. We made fun of him. We did little to be proud of this week.

But tomorrow will come with the vast surprise of resurrection (as it has every year for almost 2000 now), and a confusion of pancakes and chocolate and bunnies and preludes and trumpets and ham dinners and nice dresses and really tired clergypeople with adrenaline highs. We will take the purple off our communion tables, welcome back whatever we gave up for Lent, and catch the baseball game in the afternoon.

But – hopefully – we will remember that the miracles we look for are not always the miracles we get. The miracles we get may be far bigger, far more profound, and far less predictable, and less comfortable, than we ever dreamed.