“What are you huffing about, McMillan?” It was one of my colleagues. Four of us had gone out to the lake for a much-needed, and well-deserved afternoon of relaxation. There is nothing lovelier than a bright blue lake in the middle of a desert. Lots of people were out enjoying the day. We had gotten some samosas and were sitting in the sun to let the sun burn through our black abayas and deep into our bodies before beginning another long week at work. I had checked my phone and, apparently, a heavy sigh had escaped my lips.
“The usual,” I answered. “Racism, homophobia, misogyny… the system.” A buddy of mine had posted an article about how tipping had emerged in the USA as a way to pay newly-freed slaves a very low salary, or no salary at all. It is really discouraging to me to realize how much I am a part of the system without even realizing it. Only the very privileged can be that ignorant. We are all women, though, those of us at the lake, so we know about the system. Two of us are black. And I am a currently-closeted lesbian. We’ve been crushed a little. The system has affected each of us in different ways, always there in the background, grinding, threatening, and on that day reminding me that I was fully in its clutches as both victim and perpetrator.
Today’s reading offers a lot of avenues for exploration, but none is so broad and obvious as the fact that Jesus has now been handed over, delivered up, to the machinery of a system that is beyond his control. He has crossed the Rubicon. There is no turning back now.
The book of John has a lot of references to being delivered up or handed over. Interestingly, the same word used for this is also translated into English as betray, so there is a link between merely handing over, giving someone else responsibility, and betrayal. In John 18:30 Jesus was handed over to Pilate, he was betrayed. In John 19:16 Pilate handed Jesus over to be killed, so Pilate betrayed Jesus too.
The most literal reading of this passage reveals that Jesus was handed over, or betrayed, to be crucified. One doesn’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface, though, to see that there is a violent machinery at work which is more in control than the ones who may appear to be controlling the levers of power. Pilate, the Sanhedrin, the crowd, even Judas… they are all both perpetrators and victims too, just like us.
Those of us in the first world participate every day in a system that crucifies both others and ourselves. There is no getting out of it. It is the violent system that Jesus was handed over to, and it hasn’t changed much since Jesus stood before Pilate.
The thing about the machine is that it doesn’t care who hands over, and who is handed over… it just grinds on.
As the gears shift and grind, and Jesus makes his way to the cross, we are given a vignette into his thinking. The text says that as Jesus was thinking forward to his death he was troubled and he wondered how to pray about it. Should he ask God to intervene and somehow change his fate? He was thinking about it. But, in the end, Jesus realized that this was the very reason he was born. His purpose in life was to show us the way to God by becoming the seed that falls to the ground, dies, and finds new life on the other side.
Lots of people in the Bible found their purpose in life, and many of them died because of it. One who didn’t die, not right away anyway, was Queen Esther. It was her cousin, Mordechai, who pointed out to her that perhaps the reason she’d come into the world was for the moment that she would save her people. What often gets overlooked in that story is that Esther was on her very own personal cross when Mordechai made that observation. She was married to a non-Jew, separated from her people, a seed fallen… Yet, this seed fallen resulted in new life for the Jews and gummed up the works of the violence machine.
The machine is now in full flame, the ruler of this world seems to have the upper hand. There is gun violence, the control of women’s bodies, open and unashamed racism. We build walls instead of bridges and look for differences where there should be fellowship. The rich get richer and the poor are sent away hungry. I am pretty sure I don’t have to go through the whole list with you. The machine is up and running. You probably see it closer to home too. Who among us hasn’t had at least a minor panic attack in recent memory, or maybe felt the icy wash of despair that isn’t kind enough to drown but deep enough to leave you holding your breath anyway? Oh, I know. I’m there too. It’s the rulers of this world and their job is to make it so that you can’t become the glorious new creation that is dormant in the seeds of your life.
But here we are.
One of Jesus’s last instructions to us was that we should break away from the safety of the pack and fall down into the dirt of this world. And God is God’s own example of that: God didn’t save the world by fiat, you know. God fell down to us, becoming one of us, and then God was raised up on a cross. There is no promise in Christianity except a cross.
Jesus’s brilliance is that he did not fight the machine on the machine’s terms. If you do that, the machine will win. That’s how that works. Jesus, having discerned the hour to which he was called, his real purpose, dropped out of the system, falling down into the dirt, a tomb.
There is a reason you are here too. It might be to work in one of the areas mentioned above, maybe you will change the world. That would be super. But, more probably it is just to survive. Honestly, I do think that surviving this world with your soul intact is the most heroic thing we can do. When you embark on that journey, though, all the forces of darkness will try to crush you. You can overcome, but you don’t overcome by fighting on those terms. You overcome by falling down, into the dirt, becoming united with all the others who are trying to live in harmony with God, with his law, and his grace. Then wait. That is what seeds do. They just lay in the ground and wait.
Finally, in John 19:30 Jesus, having fallen as low as anyone in the ancient near east could fall, naked and crucified, will hand over his spirit. In the end, there are glories and alleluias. But, for you and for me, for now, we wait.
Linda McMillan lives in Sakaka, al Jouf Province, Saudi Arabia and does what she can to gum up the works.
Image: Pixabay. This photo is in the public domain.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Read more about Dumit al-Jandal Lake here. If you want to see a similarly beautiful lake in the USA, check out Lake Mead in Arizona. The mineral composition of the stone surrounding the Lake Mead gives it a lovely blue tone.
I can’t find the exact article I read but here’s a good one.
For those who believe that Jesus was a God and could control everything, my statement that he was given over to a system that was beyond his control will be difficult. For those who believe in his humanity and vulnerability, it will be all too familiar since that is what makes him truly like us. The early theologians and thinkers did us no favours with the invention of the Trinity and their convoluted Christology. It has kept countless generations in a state of bouncing from one heresy to another as it is humanly impossible to believe all things at once. Bless them, they did the best they could. And may HaShem/God/Allah bless us all as we continue working out our salvation.
You can read more about the story of Esther here.
I am not saying that the ruler of this world does have the upper hand, I am saying that it seems that way. Whatever you believe about the devil, demons, or what have you, there is no denying an anti-Christ spirit on the loose.