1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
(Psalms 51:1-2 ESV)
I am late to mass. I am late because … because I am late. Because I have never been to this church before. Because I’m taking time out of work, a work schedule that is harried and hurried and busy. Because I had a hard time finding a place to park.
The church is Catholic, and priest wears a chasuble of deep purple, reflecting the color of the day. He is preaching — ten minutes and I’ve already missed the readings — a heavily accented South Asian English. It’s a simple sermon about the meaning of the Lent, about fasting and sacrifice and following Christ to the Cross.
Lent has begun.
And I need this place. This mass. These words. This forgiveness.
I’m a mess. A far bigger mess than usual. My job has left me … gasping for air. I have found yet one more thing I am not good at — the world seems to insist upon finding me things I cannot and should not do, seems to enjoy sticking me in places and among people I should not try to belong to — and I’m addled, desperate, sad, overwhelmed. I waver between a fragile confidence that I can, in fact, do this job, a tremendous desire to pack the car and go anywhere that isn’t here, and the urge to crawl under my desk, curl up in a ball, and weep.
I feel broken. Shattered. Like the glue that holds me together has stopped bonding. Or maybe the atoms inside me are about to fly apart, and I will simply disappear in a blinding white flash of atomic fission, replaced by a tiny mushroom cloud and a burst of lethal radiation. Or maybe — the quarks holding my particles together will simply go their own way, and I will become a naked singularity, benefit of mass, my presence marked solely by what isn’t there and what it destroys.
I’ve not felt like this in a long, long time. And I don’t like it.
So, I need words of forgiveness. Yes, it matters to me that the priest tells me
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
as he smudges a cross on my forehead. It reminds me that no matter how much of a failure I am — and oh, but I am a failure — I face the same end, the same fate, as any successful regional manager, author of books, or real estate speculator. I will die.
It matters that on the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread, and he broke it, and he gave it too to eat, and he told them: “This is my body. It’s yours, given for you, and you eat it when you gather and maybe you will remember me.” It matters that the priest hands me a piece of that broken body, a body no less human and no less broken and desperate than mine, and tells me, “The body of Christ broken for you.”
The saving body, broken for me.
And after mass, after the priest has awkwardly dismissed us all, I kneel before a giant crucifix and I weep. I grasp the nailed feet of Jesus and I weep. This is my Good Friday ritual, a few weeks early.
He knew failure too. Yes, he told everyone he would go to Jerusalem and be betrayed and would be killed and then rise again on the third day. But then … he had to actually face it. He had to actually face betrayal, feel the blows of his accusers, the lash of his torturers, and then … he had to die. Maybe he would rise and maybe … he wouldn’t. Jesus wouldn’t have been fully human if he wasn’t torn by doubt in those last several days.
No wonder, in the garden, he wanted it to end so very differently. Take this cup from me…
In the last several years I have dreamed big dreams. I followed the call of God. I wrote a book. And I failed. At everything.
I feel his feet. I grab hold. I do not want to let go of this dying man. He is dying, this man hanging here. He is dying so that I may live.
Yet he knows failure. He must have wondered, on the Cross, if this was all there would ever be. Pain and suffering and slow death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
He must have felt like he failed. Utterly. Completely. Spectacularly. For all the world to see.
Are you not the Christ? Then save yourself, and save us!
I want to say I have nothing to show for myself right now but panic attacks and bills I cannot pay. But that’s not true. Five people depend utterly on me. My wife Jennifer, who loved me into this and made it possible for me to meet this Jesus dying in front of me. My foster daughters Molly and Michaela, who both have looked me in the eye and told me, “I hate to think where I’d be if I hadn’t met you.” And “Bethany” and her brother “Adam,” who have started calling me “dad” even though they have good and proper adoptive parents of their own. (Please don’t hate me.)
I am not a failure in their eyes. Because they don’t judge my accomplishments, or my position, or my wealth, or my power. They just love me, because they know I love them. A love like that … cannot fail.
As I set out on the lenten journey with Jesus into what I’d rather was glory but is really the stunning failure of all sorts of hopes and dreams, I want to remember that God’s love is the kind of love that must die first. Must face fear and terror and uncertainty and not flinch. It must be willing to walk into death and not look back.
We dream of glory. I know I have. But Christ died first before there could be any glory.
And so … failure that I am, I go on. Out of love. Out of hope that from love comes resurrection. Because I know how it ends. Because I know what I have to go through to get there. That there is a cross I must bear. Suffering, and sorrow, and fear, and terror. And death.
But I am not forsaken. No matter how alone or lost I feel. Christ is with me. Christ suffered. That gives my life meaning.
And I remember the words of the other priest, the Indian priest, as his thumb traced ashen crosses on foreheads:
Repent, and believe the gospel.