Raising the Grail

the-crucifixion-1524.jpg!HD Karlsruhe Gruenewald
Crucifixion by Matthias Gruenewald

All week we have been looking for living images of the Grail in the events of Holy Week. We have looked at the archetype of Christ’s descent into the human condition, his way of moving and working in his final days and offering the gift of his clear reflection back to us of the places where we are clouded, or no longer bear fruit, or have become resigned to the status quo, or even where we are destructive.

 We have looked at how he raised his own cup to give the disciples to eat of bread which becomes his body, and drink of wine that becomes his lifeblood.

Today, on Good Friday, he takes the final step into our condition: that our eternal nature is crucified on the cross of over-identifying ourselves with the mortal body. He offers himself upon the cross and makes a chalice of his body thereupon.

We can observe this in the altar picture by Gruenewald, where he hangs on the cross and with his arms wide open and raised a gesture is created of opening to the heavens above.

His final act of life is to surrender and enter the experience of death. God dies a human death! This sacrifice becomes a vessel for something new and otherwise unattainable which enters through his deed for the advancement of humanity and earth: the raising up of the human being. He does not depart but remains united with the earth and humanity even in death and plants a seed in the human constitution that the human being may be raised above death’s sting.

But it is not enough for this chalice to be placed before us. In order for Christ’s offering to be fulfilled to be fulfilled, this chalice must be taken up. By us. For a gift to be a gift, it must be received. The profoundest aspect of his gift to us is that he leaves us free to unite with him. Which means that his sacrifice might not be sufficiently taken up, and the Grail that he offers us might remain stationary, slumbering.

That Grail is not something object outside of us, but the newly potentialized human spirit within us. In order to grasp this new Grail, we too must go to the cross–and through it. It is the ultimate commitment. The cross is an image of being willing to enter fully and completely into the body, to take hold of it with love that it might be transformed from within into a spirit-bearing body once again!

As the substances of bread and wine are transformed at the altar into his body and blood, three crosses are made over them. The Spirit that overcomes death takes hold and enters in. They become filled with a power of life that never succumbs to death.

Throughout the service, we are invited to each cross ourselves, making three crosses over our bodies at the forehead, the chin, and the heart, taking hold of ourselves anew in thinking, willing and feeling. We take hold, in order to raise ourselves up and make of ourselves a chalice in offering, and in receiving this new power of life.

Good Friday is a day of great suffering, because it is reflected back to us just what confusion and lack of courage we live with most of the time. We do not yet understand our true spiritual nature. But the pain of loss can awaken us to what is slumbering inside us, awaiting our most personal and intimate movement for religious renewal, that we can truly stand in the world and say: Behold, the human being!

For whom is the cup?

The name Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin translation of words that Christ speaks

gethsemane Otto Dix
Gethsemane-Otto Dix

on this day in Holy Week: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos”

“A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you”

So much happens on this day. Jesus knows that his hour has come, and the events which take place in the Temple now give way to a moving into the inner space of the Coenaculum, where the first community around the Christ will celebrate the Passover together.

The tone is set for a new kind of Passover, when the Lord washes the feet of his disciples before the meal, and tells them, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Then he tells them that one of them will betray him, and they begin the Passover meal. It is during the meal that Christ tells Judas to do what he is to do quickly. And Judas goes out, against all tradition—for all remain inside while the Destroying Angel of the Passover is in the land—so it reads: it is night.

It is then, following a revelation that the Son of Man will now be revealed and that he must leave them, that he gives his greatest word: Love one another as I have loved you.

It is from this love that the Last Supper is given to them—and us—as the seed for uniting with him and with the impulse to love that streams from his being into the far future.

It can be puzzling to us that the gospel reading in The Christian Community on this day is not all or even anything that takes place on Thursday, but rather the beginning of the events around his crucifixion (Luke 23: 13-32). What is poured into the cup is not only pure love, but also betrayal, trial, condemnation. How can we bear it? The final events that lead now to Golgotha will be spread before our souls over these three days: Thursday, Friday, Saturday—before we are invited to celebrate his triumph over death on Sunday. This greatest mystery of death is the heart of what is ours to come to understand in this time.

Wrongful death is everywhere in our time. Acts of violence and terror rip into our days at an alarming frequency—whether from individuals acting out of personal reasons, or those gathered around ideological or political causes. From one perspective, it simply does not matter what the reason. The Destroying Angel is in the land and in our hearts. Suffering abounds, and people are crossing the threshold in new communities that seem through our eyes to be random. Perhaps they are not.

But what can we do? What is the relationship between the cup that we raise together here in this hour, in this somewhat idyllic setting, far from most of the terror of the world and all that happens among our fellow human beings? Can we truly include all those who die in our prayers here?

In the garden of Gethsemane on this night, Christ falls to the ground and prays: “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” When it comes to the overwhelming amount of suffering in the world today, we would like this cup also to pass form us.  But we are invited to pray with Christ when we wrestle to understand just how to include everyone in our heart and when we pray, “Our Father in the heavens…”

Whose cup is the Grail? Who shall drink from it? And for whom do we raise this cup? The Destroying Angel is in the land. Let us also bring a new human being forth in ourselves to meet this Angel with love.

The Holy Grail and the Events of Holy Week

A note about this week’s entries

chalice stained glass janesvilleucc.orgDuring Holy Week this year in my congregation we are looking at the events on the way to and through the cross in connection with the search for the Holy Grail. As you might suppose, this connection is less about the outer search through history for an actual cup than it is about the activity of the Grail in the individual and in community. The Grail is something we raise up in offering, and into which something can be received from above. It requires the activity of the free individual, but finds its most expansive meaning when it becomes a shared experience. It has to do with the heart. It has to do with the meaning of Christ’s uniting himself with humanity and the earth. The sermons during the week as well as conversations following our communion service the Act of Consecration of Man are explorations of the connection between these essential images within Christianity.

Die and become -J.W. Goethe

the-penitent-magdalen-vanitas Jusepe de Ribera
The Penitent Magdalen (Vanitas) by Jusepe de Ribera

Matthew 26

Holy Wednesday brings our souls before the threshold.

Until now, the events of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem have had a kind of distance in them; from this distance, work could still be done of cleansing and correcting perceptions and practices.

Now everything changes. Christ enters ever deeper into the experience of being human and allows the mystery of death to draw near. He has been sharing now for awhile with his intimate circle that he will be killed but also that he will also be raised again. It begins to dawn on them. In the gospel reading, we hear of two very different responses to the approach of death.

Death—as we all know deep in our souls—is the utmost transformation. If we do not know or remember what lies on the other side, then we naturally have fear of this total transformation, and full of fear, we resist and even fight against death’s approach. This is the most natural thing in the world.

Judas is plagued with this fear, and it incites him to try to force the situation, to betray his beloved Lord in order to force him to resist death show his divine power, and take up an earthly rule in order to transform the world. Judas is unable to receive Christ’s death, and it leads him to reject the great mystery and all it brings with it.

Mary perceives what is coming, and allows grief to work in her, and what rises up in her soul is the purest of love. Out of this love, she brings the most precious oil to anoint the Lord and help prepare him for what is coming. She says yes to what he has also said yes to, accepts his destiny, and unites herself with him—and opens herself to the mystery of death.

It is our task today to work to understand and stand within this mystery. Death brings us so many gifts. We could not live, if we did not die. Grief is a doorway into receiving death and letting it work upon us. Crossing the threshold, or being present to this threshold in life allows us to receive life in a whole new way.

We seek the threshold everywhere in life. We find it in our struggles in our relationships and in ourselves, in which we somewhat dreamily experience the threshold; and also: here at the altar, where we wakefully seek it out. Each hour we spend at the altar gives us an experience in the midst of life of the threshold of death which is transformation. At this place and in this hour, we practice dying a little bit. We seek to be healed that we may live anew.

Not what goes in but what comes out of my mouth

Matthew 23

The words of Holy Tuesday resound in our souls powerfully. The intense “woes” spoken out of the mouth of the Prince of Peace may feel somewhat shocking to us. But like the cleansing of the temple which occurred the day before, these words work like fire to awaken us urgently to recognize those places where authority and dead forms have shrouded our true nature.

We are called with the Pharisees and Scribes to examine how raising ourselves or someone else up as authority can obscure to us the true lord who guides us in freedom from within to true self and true community.

The search for the Grail may begin as the search for an actual cup that was used once at the Lord’s Supper, and again underneath his Cross. But it must be transformed into the search for a vessel for the Spirit in the human soul. This search requires us to allow authority and hollow form to give way to authenticity and spiritual substance which brings creating power into the world.

This struggle is most active and most palpable in the human being in our speaking. Our words can become hollow and authoritative when we are afraid to reveal who we truly are and what our true intentions may be. The temptations in speaking are many. Here, we are each quite powerful—though we may not realize just how powerful we are. Our words shape the world around us and our experience of it.

The sixth Woe that Christ speaks out refers directly to the cup and the plate—an image of that which nourishes us through our mouths. For the Hebrew, this image called up the practices of purification of that which goes into the body. These practices are turned inside out by Christ. To them he says: You cleanse the cup and the plate on the outside, but inside they are full of greed and poison; first cleanse the inside of the cup; only then does it make any sense for it to be clean outside.”

He had spoken earlier to them in this way in the Temple when he said:

You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”

10 After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand. 11 It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” (Matthew 15)

We are all endowed with the gift of the word—which is a gift of leadership, the power to change the world.

How would it be if every time a single word left our lips we prayed: let the Word go forth from my lips purified by you, o Lord, in me?

How do we make an offering–raise up the Grail–in the act of our speaking?

Cleansing the Temple of the Heart

Holy Monday

Mark 11

I watched a short video yesterday on the wonderful site theworkofthepeople.com interviewing Brené Brown, the researcher who has written about the debilitating power of shame and liberating power of learning to be vulnerable.

She was speaking about the importance of boundaries. Her research showed her that the most compassionate, loving, generous people are not people who are just nice all the time, and let everything everyone does be okay.  They are not just okay with everything. They are people who have boundaries, which simply said means: saying what’s okay and what’s not okay, and not being afraid to be straightforward about it. She links the words: Boundaries. Integrity. Generosity. B.I.G.—She asks: “What boundaries need to be in place for me to be in my integrity, and make the most generous assumptions about people?” She points out how afraid we are to set boundaries, mostly for fear of what people will think of us, and that people won’t like us. It takes courage and clarity to hold boundaries, in order to create and protect the vessel of an open and generous heart.

If we follow Christ, then we are in the business of setting boundaries, and cleansing our heart to become a temple of the divine. This is another way of saying, to make of our heart a grail.

What Christ does on Holy Monday is cleanse the temple of the body, the temple of the heart, of things which are not okay in that place. He does it with a holy anger, a divine wrath that has nothing cruel or unkind in it. He does it because he is utterly committed to what should be taking place there.

His power is one that seeks to return generosity to the temple of God of earth. We are this temple. Boundaries are not walls or divisions, but are a way to create a more genuine and deeper connection. They help us to prune away what hinders or no longer bears fruit, help us fight to create a true vessel for the generative and generous spark in us and between us.

Praying the heart new

imageOn Palm Sunday we walk with Christ Jesus into Jerusalem now towards the Cross. He enters, knowing it will lead to his death, knowing it will involve great suffering on the way to death.
His entry on this day is celebrated as if he would take up a rightful kingship over humanity—and palm branches and cloaks are spread before him over the dusty roads. But he does not enter in a display of great power, but riding on the young colt of a donkey, never ridden before.
He enters in total humility and vulnerability.
He makes himself open, a vessel, into which all human struggle will be poured. He receives us into himself, all of who we are, because that is what he came to do. He does not come to fix us, but to love us and give to us the power—all of it—to heal or not to heal.
His true power and gift is powerlessness: the ultimate non-violence. The gift that we can receive is to follow him freely in this powerlessness. This is another way of saying he makes himself totally present to us.
There is a prayer passed down through the centuries among Christians, a prayer to practice following him in this presence, to transform the self into a vessel for divine love, to find the root of our weakness in our separateness from our divine nature. This is really all sin is: separateness from ourselves, from the divine in which we have our true self. This prayer is given to help us overcome the separateness, to create a chalice of our own heart. It goes:    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
This prayer is practiced many ways, but often accompanied by the instruction that it should be repeated for fifteen minutes, or a half hour, or throughout the day; beginning by being prayed on the lips, then quietly in the mind, and gradually making its way into our very center, into our hearts. It works rhythmically, like new blood pulsing into the empty place of our hearts, to clean out the chambers, preparing a new vessel within us. We rebuild ourselves in humility and vulnerability from the heart out.

Bear Witness to Change

IMG_4960We are charged in our time to become aware of the whole world—to carry in our consciousness events that happen all around the world, in other places in our country, and in other peoples’ biographies. And we can barely respond to all that happens in our own lives. But we can see that the spiritual world is not waiting around for us to become ripe and mature before sending challenges our way, nor does the rest of humanity wait for each of us to catch up. The world is hurtling forward, and the presence of evil makes itself known every day a little more. Can we bear witness?

It is the task of our time to learn to be present and bear witness amidst the strife and struggle, to learn to stand in the face of beings and happenings which would throw us off our center and out of ourselves.

The events in Charleston in the last week and a half have been one such set of events. Evil rose up, working through a young man who thought he was fighting for the good. Most anyone can assess in this case: he was not well, and not able to rightly discern the good. His version came out as a terrible atrocity against humanity, based in racism and fear. We can bear witness to this.

We can also bear witness to the powerful response of the congregation, who met in their sanctuary the following Sunday, the same place where those precious lives were taken. Theirs was a clear presence of witness, unwilling to give in to fear and hatred. We can further bear witness to the stunning response of the families of the victims who did not let this terrible act throw them out of their center. For all their grief and dismay, they were able to also say: here is a human being who has done terrible wrong, but we see that he is still a human being, and we forgive him. They even said it to him–they said: We forgive you.

In them, we can see that it is possible for christian faith to become something very real, a real ground upon which we can stand, an orientation towards the being of Goodness and Truth and Love which, practiced over even years, can become fact, deed, and reality. It can become a way to be present in the face of such evil, even a way THROUGH such evil to the possibility of a world where human beings can live in harmony with one another on this earth.

I never thought I would be inspired by the preaching of a US president, but President Obama, during his beautiful eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the others of the Charleston Nine, called this event—yes, even the terrible event of the murders—he called it all GRACE. It is grace if we can decide to receive a gift from God in all this, if we take it as a challenge to wake up, to change our minds and hearts and become more than we are today. A challenge to clarify our orientation and decide who we are and who we want to become.

We do not come to the altar of God only to be blessed, and go about our business as usual. But we come here to be changed, to become more human, more courageous, more ready to stand up for our brothers and sisters, and the future world we want to live in.

Thirsty

  She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? Are you then greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I give shall never thirst; the water that I give will become in each one a well of water springing forth eternal life.”  John 4

On a purely physical level, each one of us shares a common human experience: after a short time, we need to take in the flowing element: water. We have thirst. Thirst is a deep desire of the body to balance out the mineral element which builds up inside. Salt and other minerals help us to take hold of our form, to incarnate and to act and to think. Too much mineral, too little water, leads to dehydration. We need the element of water from the world around us. It leads us again and again back into life. 

This fact of our need for replenishment from without keeps us in a relationship with the world; at least with the natural, created world as we develop ourselves individually. As wonderful as each of us is, and no matter how unique our individual gifts are, it remains a fact that our existence is a kind of desert experience without the company of others with whom we can move through life. To enter a certain quickening flow together. Through community is our life exponentially more lively.

We are also invited to merge our lives  into an even larger stream. We do not have only bodily thirst, and thirst after community experience, but a kind of existential thirst for real spiritual experience and a larger purpose in life. We hear of a living water which can still this thirst. But how shall we come to its source? What shall we use to reach into its depths and bring it out? 

What if my thoughts and feelings feel dried out and do not lead me to a life which feels truly alive? Can I turn them into a tool by turning with them, rounding them again by offering them up as a question and a prayer? To turn them into a kind of ladle or scoop? What if the depths that I seek are in fact in the heights, that I can reach into no matter where I am? Prayer is such an implement. With it I can bring my own will into the stream of a higher will to which my will belongs and from which new life can flow into me.