“I stubbed my toe going to the gallows.”

Have you ever heard of Twitter?  Of course you have.  In today’s context, one would have to live under a rock…in a hole…at the bottom of the ocean not to know about the ubiquitous social media site that encourages users to express their most profound and meaningful—or inane—thoughts in 140 characters.  Twitter is so pervasive today that it’s difficult to believe that Twitter has only been in existence for eleven years.  That said, in Twitter’s pre-history there was an old-fashioned way to accomplish the same thing.  It was called the Big Book of Quotes, and it compiled and presented, often in 140 characters or less, the musings of poets, sages, comedians, warriors, and virtually everyone else of note throughout human history.  I received a Big Book of Quotes as an adolescent, and I would lose myself for hours in its pages, reading proverbs, aphorisms, jabs, and jokes across space and time.  Some of the quotations were funny, others inspirational, and yet others desperately sad.

Mark Twain said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” (That’s 80 characters.)

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas.  Average minds discuss events.  Small minds discuss people.” (83 characters.)

Twain and ER

Some speakers were well-known and had numerous quotes included in the Big Book: William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill.  Ben Franklin could have filled an entire book himself (which in a way he did, through all those issues of Poor Richard’s Almanac). Others, though, had but a single, solitary quotation, one line in the middle of a single page among thousands, and it was one of those that stayed with me the most over the course of years, a brief utterance by a man I’d never heard of, and I’ll bet most of you haven’t heard of, either.  The man was Charles Guiteau, and his quote was this: “I stubbed my toe going to the gallows.”

The nature of the Big Book of Quotes—like Twitter—was that the quotations were always out of context.  They stood alone, exposed on the page, and none more so than the quote of Charles Giuteau.  His quote struck me because it seemed to embody the absolute lowest depth to which a man could fall.  “Going to the gallows” meant, obviously, that Guiteau was on his way to be hanged, publicly executed before his fellow citizens and neighbors.  And to stub one’s toe on the way?  He couldn’t even be hanged well.  He messed even that up.  He had not dignity even in dying.  At the very end, Guiteau’s life, whoever he was, was a miserable, tripping mess.

Years later I learned that Charles Guiteau was the man who assassinated U.S. President James Garfield in 1881.  Right up until he fired the shot that killed the President, Guiteau’s life was one of grandiose unfulfilled dreams, religious enthusiasm, and crushing disappointments. From the first moment my eyes scanned the mere 37 characters of his quote, I felt for him, whatever his crime, and I felt for myself, because in some dim way I could imagine what it must be like to be so desperate and hopeless, to stub one’s toe going to the gallows.

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“I stubbed my toe going to the gallows.”

Each year as we move through Holy Week, Charles Guiteau’s quote floods my mind.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus processes into Jerusalem with grandiose dreams and religious enthusiasm, to waving palms and cries of “Hosanna!”  But as the week wears on, the disappointment of Jesus and his followers is crushing.  Jesus, on whom so many had pinned their hopes, is betrayed by one of his closest friends, dragged away by a mob, ridiculed and beaten, stripped naked, and crucified—falling in the dust three times as he carries his cross to Golgotha.  What a miserable, tripping mess.  I stubbed my toe going to the gallows.

There no hope at the end of such a story, at the end of such a life.  At best, the only thing that might endure is a brief quotation, something that sums up in a few words the whole pitiable thing, such as the 41 characters of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Otherwise, the sorry end is the end, and the fool on the cross is as forgotten as Charles Guiteau.

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb this morning to mark that end.  Let’s not pretend she’s doing anything else.  Jesus is dead.  Everyone knows it.  Peter, James, John, and all the others are already huddled together making plans to slip quietly out of town and back north to Galilee.  It’s all over.

Even God knows it, and God grants ample signs of the end as soon as Mary arrives at the tomb: There is an earthquake, and an angel appears like lightning.  These weirdly specific details are intentional.  They hearken back to something Jesus himself said four chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel.  Then, the disciples had asked Jesus to tell them what the end would look like, not just his end but “the end of the age.”  And Jesus replied, cryptically, that there will be earthquakes, and from the east there will be lightning.[i]  At the tomb on Easter morning, God makes good on Jesus’ prediction, because something has ended, something cosmic.

Rolling stone tomb, Nazareth

But when the angel speaks, Mary realizes that this ending does not mean it’s all over.  “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” the angel says, acknowledging the reality of the miserable, thing that has happened.  But the angel’s words do not cease with that acknowledgement.  He stubs no angelic toe.  His voice doesn’t stumble or falter.  “Jesus is not here,” the angel goes on to proclaim, “He has been raised!”

An end that is not the end?  A trip to the gallows that doesn’t end in darkness? A death on a cross that results in an empty tomb?  For the guards who are present, it makes no sense at all.  They can’t begin to comprehend it.  They are paralyzed in their prior knowledge, and Matthew tells us they “became like dead men.”

But Mary receives the words and portent of the angel differently.  She believes, with dawning understanding in that dawning light, that something utterly new begins with this ending that is like no other.  She runs back to the city to tell the others.

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Have you stubbed your toe going to the gallows?  Have you ever made such a mess of your life that you even failed at making the mess?  Have you skirted the depths, from which you feared—and perhaps from which you were told—there is no recovery, but only a miserable end?  So had Jesus the Christ those centuries ago, when he was anguished in Gethsemane, shunted from Sanhedrin to Pilate, forsaken even by God, and hung on that cross.  And yet, in Jesus God determined for him and for all of us that the end need never be the end.  We need not be paralyzed in our old lives.  The dawn can always break; resurrection is always possible.  When Mary Magdalene embraced this truth, we are told, she was both fearful and joyous.  Endings and beginnings always entail both fear and joy.  It is frightening to walk beyond our lives as they have been and into the resurrection God makes possible.  But when we meet the God of love in the risen Jesus, God receives our fear and makes our joy complete.  He bids us move forward in the dawn light of our new lives, and he promises that he walks into that life with us.

“He is not here; he has been raised,” the angel says in an efficient 34 characters.  The gallows are torn down.  We walk without stumbling.  The end is not the end.  It is Easter Day.  Resurrection joy to you.

[i] Matthew 24:7 & 27.

“If you really are the Son of God…”

Way back on Sunday, March 5, we read the story of Jesus being led into the wilderness after his baptism by John in the River Jordan.  In that story, Jesus is young in adulthood, in experience, and in untested spiritual power.  Jesus fasts for forty days, as some of us have done, each in our own way, throughout Lent.  He abides in the parched Judean desert, a topography I never fully appreciated until I visited it a year ago.  There is no water, no shade, no shelter from the scorching heat.  And thus weakened, the devil appears to test Jesus’ mettle.

Jesus must be near-delirious when the devil glides up to his ear and questions, “If you really are the Son of God…” and Satan follows his snide and mocking phrase with sweet suggestions about how God’s Favored One might ease his own suffering and rally the good things of God to his aid.  Three times the devil speaks, and each time Satan begins, “If you really are the Son of God…”  If we read the story rightly, we pause nervously each time, praying that this untested Jesus has the strength to endure temptation.

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Fast forward three years in Jesus’ life and a liturgical season in our own, and today we’ve celebrated Jesus as the One who comes in the name of the Lord with an elaborate palm procession, only to have our adulation turn to venom as we read the Passion Gospel.  I must ask: Did you experience déjà vu?  See, the words with which we mocked Jesus on the cross just a moment ago are identical in the biblical text, word for word, to the words of the devil in the wilderness on March 5.  We said, as the devil said, “If you really are the Son of God…come down.”

Just as the devil tempted Jesus three times in the desert, three times today Jesus is mocked, as he hangs in weakness on that cross: by the bandits on either side of him (Even the others being crucified see themselves in a position to mock Jesus), by the temple leaders, and by the same crowd of people who earlier laid palms at his feet.  In other words, by us.  “If you really are the Son of God,” all three groups sneer, quoting the devil, “come down from that cross.”

Palm Sunday icon

Frederick Bruner says, “It is an insatiable rage indeed which will not be satisfied with death, but will mock even the dying.”  One thing I’ve learned in my encounters as a priest is that insatiable rage is usually a smokescreen for fear.  You see, fear belies weakness.  No one wants to appear weak, so rage is kindled to make the fearful appear strong.  The crowd rages at Jesus.  It mocks a dying man.  And this leads me to wonder, what are the people so afraid of?  What are we so afraid of?

I think our fear is the same as the devil’s, and it is revealed in the snide words of our mockery.  “If you really are the Son of God…”  What if he isThat’s what we’re afraid of.  What if Jesus is who the Gospels claim him to be?  What if it’s not merely a wonder worker, or a healer, or a wise rabbi that we nail to that cross, but the Son of God?  What if he refuses to come down from that cross not because he can’t, but because he chooses not to call upon the legions of angels waiting in the wings for his command?

It’s a terrifying prospect, because it means God isn’t who we would prefer God to be.  At this point in the story, for those who’ve followed Jesus around Judea only to feel boondoggled by today’s turn of events, the God the people prefer would leap off the cross borne aloft on the wings of angels, harness our rage and serve as the symbol of our strength, and lash out against any who would dare stand against him.

But Jesus doesn’t, and he won’t.  And that frightens us.  We fear—rightly—that if Jesus really is the Son of God, hanging limply on that crossbeam of wood, then it means we have to rethink who God is and who we’re called to be.

It turns out that the lessons Jesus learned way back in the desert took deeper root in him than we realized.  By resisting the devil’s three-fold temptation, Jesus gathered wisdom, strength, and understanding of who he is and what he must do.  In the wilderness, it took greater power to resist the devil than to perform the miracles the devil requested.

Crucifixion

Just so now: Though it would require great power for Jesus to come down from the cross and wail on his enemies, it takes far greater power not to do so.  Bruner says of the cross, “The greatest miracle Jesus ever did was the one he did not do.”  It is the miracle that demonstrates that God will not raise God’s hand in violence, even against violence.  God will not let the venom of the mob infect him.  The Son of God will demonstrate to the extreme what it means to love.  He will meet ignorance with love.  He will meet rage with love.  He will meet hatred with love.  “But how far must such love go?” we tremble.  And the cross is our answer.

Jesus spent his entire ministry teaching those who would follow him that we, too, must take up the cross.  The disciples always hoped the cross they’d bear could be turned upside down into the shape of a sword and become an instrument of worldly power.  (One doesn’t have to go far in today’s world to find Christians who still harbor that hope.)  But the cross won’t be inverted.  We cannot wield it to coerce and force our way.  We can only bear it as Jesus did and pray that we can bear it as far as Jesus did.

We now enter the week of the Passion, when we’ll be tested along the way, when we’ll be asked on Maundy Thursday to love one another as Jesus loves us, when we’ll be asked on Good Friday to love in Jesus’ stead while he lies in the tomb.   And on Easter, we’ll see the full power of love, when it dispels fear and breaks the bonds of death.  On Easter there will be no question; there will be no “if.”  The Son of God will return to us restored.  Outside the empty tomb we will know him for who he is, and we will be redeemed.