As I write, Fat Tuesday—Mardi Gras—dawns in Portland, the last day for merry-making before the rigors of Lent and its ashes will define the bitter reality of our mortality. Then, within the next weeks and especially during the final week, Lent promises to produce the divine antidote for that corrupted mortality.
For more than forty years this day announced to me, a pastor, the reality of the task that now hovered over me. It was, of course, meant to be joyful announcing of Good News of the matchless Cross, but for me it was the encumbrance of the uncertainty of how within that Good News a monstrous device purposed to be the most heinous Roman form of torture becomes the source of Good News. For me, answers did not come easily nor did preaching.
Lent inevitably produces a publishing furor with new books and guides by theologians, prominent and otherwise, intended to ease the burden. I’d just as inevitably find a promising one in a search for inspiration, and perhaps a bonus of sermon outlines, and just as inevitably, come Holy Week, year after year, the older and more experienced (and likely more moribund) I became, the less confident I seemed to be. Did those who heard my preaching detect that uncertainty? If so, they must have felt a void where they wished for a certain, crystal clear foundation for believing and confidence in the Cross.
It wasn’t really that I lacked confidence in the Cross as central to faith, the Church’s, my own, and the faith of people who listened for a word from God. I believed. Oh yes, I believed, but my faith always sought understanding, heart and mind inseparable, sensibility essential. How could I make sense of atonement? Satisfaction theories, an angry God placated, relieving us finally of the burden of our mortality? I despair. There are other explanations, and somewhere among them may be answers. I suppose “Christus Victor” came closest to satisfying me, Gustaf Aulen trumping St. Anselm, but could I preach it in an evangelical setting that seemed to thrive on a view of God satisfied by the blood of Jesus as remedy for their fear of hell? Always the uncertainty.
Then came retirement 25 years ago, and relief from that annual dilemma. I could be critical of someone else’s laboring and bringing forth wisdom—and I was, over and over again, for never has the season fully made sense, and so we have come to 2020, but this time around, it’s different, and the difference is tangible. Lent this year will not mean skepticism and uncertainty, and I realize it is that I have let heart outflank mind, needing to understand how it worked overcome simply by a new imagery of why it worked. It’s as simple as that, and as satisfying.
I can pinpoint the moment of clarity. It was during a sermon preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland by the Rev. Eileen Parfrey, one of our pastoral staff, who likely had no idea her sermon might be affecting someone’s Lent. Her text was the unenviable first nine verses of Hosea (one of a series of sermons based on the Hebrew Scriptures) which confronted us with the story of Hosea’s obeying God by finding and marrying a prostitute to thus embody God’s message to unfaithful Israel. It’s common, I’d say, to interpret these verses as honoring Hosea for his obedient self-denial in choosing Gomer who was, in a way so identified then, adulterous and wanton, thus her humanity likely to be shrugged off as ugly and worthless. Gomer promptly delivers three children for Hosea, we assume through the usual means of procreation, but the the text read barely seems to say the children serve only to provide denunciation of Israel through their frightful naming.
Eileen, however, enriched that stark one-dimensional scene to create a family portrait, father, mother, son, daughter, and another son, and helped us—helped me—feel love within that family to which lamentable Gomer was central, captured especially in a single phrase, “When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah . . . ,” which could imply only one thing, that Gomer had nursed her daughter Not Pitied, held that needy child to her own breast to provide life, and must just as surely have done so for her two sons as faithfully, and thus in that unique way unavailable to Hosea or to me or to any man, loved her children as only a mother would, and so becomes in that story plainly an ikon of God’s love.
How had that brilliant insight been so readily missed by me and others? My thoughts turned backwards nearly 30 years to when Tom and Diane Ruebel came to First Covenant Church in Seattle. Diane, a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Covenant Church, soon joined the pastoral staff and began to take her turn preaching. I immediately sensed uniqueness I could not quickly identify but later realized: Diane heard grace notes in a biblical text that I simply did not hear, expanding meaning thrillingly. Eileen, likewise, a mother herself, recognized nuances in that difficult Hosea text that had been largely opaque or dismissed.
As the gray sticks of that story leafed and blossomed that Sunday morning, my reaction was visceral, moist-eyed. I felt the warmth and tenderness of being held, as surely I was almost 90 years ago, by a loving, doting mother, again and again for weeks and months, providing my unremembered sustenance, beyond the womb that had carried me for nine months, and which I must have welcomed eagerly as I grew. Assuredly, it was easy then to see and feel scorned Gomer loving her children as a profound expression of God’s love for God’s children that can aptly render the primal meaning of the Cross.
My thoughts moved on then to a familiar story we had discussed only in passing during the previous Monday’s Quaker Bible study, the story of Jesus bursting into tears over the obstinate resistance of his people, paired with the often-forgotten little parable within that lament of a hen gathering her chicks, and I abruptly saw that story in its abundant beauty—a hen has hatched a nest of eggs and now her chicks surround her in a grassy place near the hen house on our Iowa farm. She’s a barred Plymouth Rock hen, with black-white striped feathers, her wee chicks with instinctive curiosity scratching and pecking in the grass, oblivious of everything other than the pursuit of food or whatever interested them, when the hen issues some sort of coded clucks, and the chicks come skittering, tiny wings fluttering, back to her to disappear under the cover of her protective striped feathers, hidden and unheard, and sure as anything, I look up and there a hawk hovers and swoops overhead, and now that hawk with her far-seeing eyes knows she must face a menacing hen protecting her chicks, and she banks and turns away to search for prey for her own chicks that’s less threatening.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37, NRSV)
Again unrelenting mother love, mother protection, mother fealty, expresses unrelenting love of God, and I begin to understand that no atonement theory that does not somehow represent such a loving God can ever be sufficient to describe what happens on Golgotha, nor can anything be more indicative of the intensity and dependability of that love than the Resurrection, the triumph of perfect love over hate and death and the motivation for sharing such love in community with the world, the very world that “God so loved . . . that he gave his only begotten Son . . . .”
So welcome, Lent! There’s Good News!