I first shared this as a Good Friday meditation, back two years ago, but it's been echoing in my mind as I listen to this coming Sunday's readings for Lent 4: the snake on the pole to heal the people, with John's gospel to tell us that Christ is the snake lifted up on the pole. I don't offer it now as a direct engagement with those readings - they only score a passing mention here. That said, as I reread this meditation, I find it a helpful point of entry as we approach Holy Week.
As a personal aside, I will forever remember this meditation with special fondness. It was Holy Week - my first as the sole priest at a church - and I had a total block. Overload. Too much. I could not preach. Bek said, "Then don't." Huh? "Just respond." Oh. My perceived burden relieved, I sat down and fell in love with God's story again.
Once upon a time there was a forest full of trees, and it wasn’t so much the trees but the one tree that caused the trouble. You know the story. The woman; the fruit; and the man. Serpentine transgressions. Was it gluttony, lust, or pride, I wonder. Peek a boo with God. Selective hearing, maybe. Exile, swords of fire.
A friend of mine said, “avocado.” Avocado? Yes, he said, the fruit that marked the sin. He was probably projecting, but I wonder sometimes what fruit would be shiny enough, just ripe enough, enticing enough that I would dismiss God’s voice to me.
Before too long, the man and the woman were fruitful, found with child, but that had long stopped being an obvious good thing. And it’s fruit again, the parent’s sin, the cry of Abel’s blood. And Abel’s blood’s still crying. Good God, is Abel’s blood still crying.
And every night on channels one through nine, you can see him, hear him, they call him different names, but you can still hear Abel’s blood.
And it’s Abram and Sarai, Moses, Elijah, David, Elisha, Jonah, God bless him, and Nahum and all of God’s prophets, his judges and kings, the high priests of the people, trying to give God back his blood.
Sometimes I pray when I hear it, and sometimes I laugh when I hear it; other times, when I hear it, I sink into my sofa and drip through to the ground, the weight of the sadness slaying my tears and as heavy -- oh, as heavy -- as the flickering light is blue against the wall.
They sprinkled blood, not Abel’s, on their beaten, wooden, doorposts that first, black night called Passover; that first last night in Egypt, just as God commanded. Prefigured Lamb of God. The Egyptians were howling; God, he was faithful, and the Hebrews walked out on dry land. Pillars of cloud. Columns of fire. And the Hebrews walked out on dry land.
But college freshman everywhere will tell you, when they’re talking to you at all, that unexpected freedoms are the hardest kind to handle. And the people who walked free from their mud bricks in Egypt had a hard time believing that the One who had freed them from their mud bricks in Egypt, would keep them, could keep them, from their mud bricks in Egypt. That they would be cared for. That God would bring them home.
And so, in an ironic twist, somewhere along the wandering road, somewhere among the endless, numbered, days that followed, the people who wandered and followed griped one time too many, and God brought back the snake. You know, the one that started the whole mess in the first place. He brought him back. With friends. Satan had been busy. Snakes to bite their heels. Some were even dying.
Moses said, “What the heck, God?” and God had Moses fashion a separate snake, this one made of bronze, and put it on a pole; the people were told to look on the pole in order to be saved. And the ones who did were saved. And some millennia later, the disciple Jesus loved, the one called John, he saw that snake, and called it Christ.
Which brings me to a second tree that caused the trouble. One tree from the forest. You know the story. A man. With some women. And some men. They found him in a garden, with their torches, flaming swords. Sound familiar? Exiled Son of God. Or at least that was the goal.
The disciples had swords, too, but there would be no battle here. No second spill of Abel’s blood. The cup first drunk at Passover, now come before the Lamb. And Peter, who would have fought for him, would not, will not, die with him, and the cock crow names the hour.
They gave the man a trial, the people did. Or close enough to one for their intentions on that day. And they dressed him like a king, and pranced before the powers, and the powers lost their power to the madness of the night. The night as dark as blood. The day that looked like night. And they crucified our Lord.
Once upon a time, this mother, she could smile. But darkness knows no friend.
Two trees by which to see the grief, to hear the cries and taste the blood of wars that will not cease. The rivers flowing blood. Infernal blue light flickering. But eyes to see and ears to hear pick out a pin-prick hope against the darkness, amidst the blood, if faint, if far off, flickering. And this is the pin-prick hope -- God’s own happy sadness -- the moment despair loses hope, becomes futile -- this is God’s secret: the two trees are one tree and his wounds heal the first.
The flaming sword extinguished now, Life’s tree holds high its fruit; and Christ himself, pressed, crushed, for us, becomes the very wine of heaven.
And heaven prepares the song.