The Parting of the Particles

Fiction writer and essayist Walker Percy, who is a real hero of mine, is notorious for his writing about the malaise of everyday life that befalls so many of us. With an overabundance of minute daily choices, Percy’s characters often find themselves in mundane daily routines that paralyze them from feeling like they’re actually doing something with meaning or approaching the “how” and “why” questions of life. Maybe you can relate to the demands of your life rolling on and on, and feeling like you could or should do more, be more; work harder or better, and before you know it, life becomes a dizzying fog of feeling lost, confused and frustrated. In a really strange and almost comical way, Percy has his characters, and suggests that we too are often snapped out of this haziness of life by of all things, some sort of natural disaster. In his novels, this therapy takes the form of a hurricane, about to hit land, and just like that we no longer feel uncertain about our role in the world. We become focused, connected and engaged with what we know we’re supposed to do: we’re supposed to survive and help others do the same.

When the Covid-19 hurricane touch down in our world about a month ago, I actually called our Rector Paul Walker and told him it felt like we were living in some bizarre version of a Walker Percy novel. And Percy’s strange diagnosis proved to be true. With our daily lives suddenly put on hold and many of us placed in some form of quarantine, I found myself and so many people I spoke with under a strange, buzzing spell of excitement. We had no choice but to look at the news, take stock of our home goods, check on our elderly and vulnerable loved ones and neighbors, try to be creative with work and home life. For a brief moment, we thought we knew what we needed to do, and we set out to do it. But just like any other storm, this initial excitement and enthusiasm has run its course and proven to be painfully impermanent. As Percy writes, “the noxious particles of everydayness billow back into this world”, and boredom and loneliness reappear. In other words, hurricanes and pandemics can’t save us, no surprise there, but there is also a painful awareness that not even a worldwide storm like the one we face today, with its power to alter our daily lives in unprecedented ways, not even that has the power to shift our thoughts away from the weight of sin and death and the awful thoughts that we might not be loveable.

It may be Good Friday, a notoriously heavy and melancholy day, but we’re desperately in need of some light right now, so I’m going to briefly jump to the end here.

In the epistle reading for today, from Hebrews 10, we read these words that direct us to the true staying power of Jesus’ death on the Cross, and the permanent impact that this sacrifice has on our lives; “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more. Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” On the Cross, all of our sin and all of our suffering was met and taken into the pierced, merciful, loving hands of God.

Our Gospel reading for Good Friday always comes from John 18 and 19. It’s emotional, to say the least, to hear this read out loud. When I read it myself, I’m almost always brought to tears because of the way it stops us in our tracks and places us right there within the reading itself, at the foot of the cross, witnessing this unthinkable death of our Lord. This year it already feels like we’ve been stopped in our tracks, stuck in our homes, left to our own devices to sit and think and wait. For many of us, our minds have already gone to the dark places of despair and loneliness. But on Good Friday we’re reminded that God has already entered into this darkness in mind and flesh, and because of this, we can rest assured that the darkness of our present day will not last, it will not have the last word. And this is because of what God has already done for us. In the Gospel of Mark’s account of the Crucifixion, there is an important detail that we don’t hear in John. When Jesus cried out from the Cross and breathed his last, the very moment he died, Marks writes “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (Mark 27:51)

The curtain in the temple, the veil that separated the holy of holies with the Ark of the Covenant from the rest of the congregation; the veil that separated the people of God from what was believed to be the direct presence of God, that was torn in two. This means that on Good Friday, the distance between us and God was removed. The great chasm between what can feel like a lost and meaningless life on one side, and the truth and beauty of our creator on the other, that divide was forever done away with. On the Cross, Jesus died for you and for me, having lived the life we could not live, he died the death we could not bear, so that you and I, now forgiven, our sins paid for and forgotten, could now, as it says in Hebrews, approach the presence and peace of God with assurance and faith.

But if you’re at all like me, this last little bit I’ve said leaves you still feeling a bit concerned. Our church doors are closed for the time being, I have barely left my yard for about month now, how am I supposed to approach anybody, much less the sanctuary of God as it says in Hebrews? A veil seems to have been hung over our front doors, keeping us in and away from many of the things and people we love. We aren’t approaching or moving out towards just about anything these days. The malaise that Walker Percy described may have dissipated for a brief moment, but as the social distancing stretches out into week five, now the fog has set back in, and for many of us the malaise is even thicker.

Well, the good news is that the truth and veracity of the Gospel has never been reliant on you, it’s never been dependent on your activity or approach or good works at all, the grace of God is not and never will be contingent on you getting up and out and on your way because, it sounds odd saying this, but the Gospel isn’t about you—the Gospel is for you. You are not the actor, you’re just the receiver.

Unlike the blood placed over the Israelites door frames to keep out the angel of death during the very first Passover, today, on Good Friday, the blood of Christ shed on the Cross has torn the veil hanging over our front door in two, so that Jesus himself may COME in. You are not alone. God is with you. And not just any God, but the one true God who didn’t live among us so to be an example for us, for how we might approach this or that, but instead, the God who is with you this day is the one who lived among us so that He could die for us. The veil has been torn in two. The noxious and foggy particles have been parted, and into your home, into your life, this day, has come your crucified Lord. Into your very being has come the grace and the peace of God that passes all understanding.