The most psychologically challenging part of climbing, and perhaps bike riding, is the “down before up” reality. We enjoyed (or ‘endured’, depending on which spouse you ask) a trek called “the seven summits” while in Austria six summers ago. It entailed ascending exposed rock ledges high above tree line to a summit cross, where we were met with a discouraging yet beautiful view of several more crosses/summits up ahead. Each one, requiring a descent: lower in order to attain that which was higher.
”The lower must always precede the higher” is an important eternal truth. It’s poignant for the moment because, make no mistake about it, everything’s lower these days: financial security; vocational security; health security; sense of peace and safety; confidence that our children’s future will be bright — all lower, not just a little bit - but by a wide margin. We’re presently on a downward descent.
So was Jesus, during this Holy Week. What we call “Palm Sunday” looked, for all intents and purposes, to be a moment near the summit. Jesus rode into the Holy City and everyone was shouting hosanna, which means “save now”. Embedded in the cry is the assumption that this man is the one who will bring our longed-for deliverance. This is the one we trust. The is the one on whom we pin our hopes. When the disciples observed that it wasn’t just Jews, but also Greeks, who were eager to follow, Jesus responded with “the hour has come for the son of man to be glorified.”
Yes. Glory! Honor! Summit. Ascendency. Success. Security. Arrival. Influence. “The Gold”. We all have our own definitions of glory somewhere in the orbit of words like these. If only Jesus had left it there, and lived it there. He would have catalyzed a movement that week, mobilized his team, cast off the Romans, and returned Israel to former glory. Under that model, all of us could go straight up - more influence, more power, more security, more! We like this, as westerners, as capitalists, as consumers.
Jesus‘ definition of glory, though, isn’t that path at all. After his word about being glorified, he defines glory by offering a mini-parable. ”Unless a grain of wheat falls in the ground and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.“ The disciples didn’t see that one coming - weren’t ready to believe that the way up required a movement down. I’m confident most of us don’t see it either. Investments return 8%, so save and... glory. Hard work leads to promotions, so study hard, work hard... glory. Pray hard... healing. Interview this way... get the job. Preach your heart out... grow a church. Follow these steps... enjoy spectacular sex. Do this cross fit... get healthy. Insert X... enjoy Y.
Nobody told us about the necessity of descent; how you do everything right, and then become a doctor and get sidelined by a rogue virus, infecting your wife along the way. Or you move to Paraguay in March of 2020 to serve Christ, only to be told you can’t leave your house and, by the way, you can’t get back to your home country either. Or you stay at home with your kids in obedience to the need of the moment and find the time revealing the uglier side of family life, and dark places in your heart, rather than blissful moments. Ugh. Really? Is all this necessary?
We could argue about ‘this particular plague’ being necessary all day by looking back or pointing fingers at politicians. There’s plenty of that in your social feed already though, so I won’t add to the list. Instead, I’ll observe that, beyond the particulars of the moment, the truth is YES: the downward path is always necessary. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies...”
What has descent looked like for you these past two weeks for you? What‘s descending now? Take a moment and name it.
Holy Week 2020 is ripe with opportunity, precisely because we’re not looking at Jesus through some sort of sentimental, “look at how much he suffered for me” lens this year. Rather, we ourselves are facing the cross. Our thirst for financial security needs to die. Our propensity to self medicate with alcohol needs to die. Our lust for control needs to die. Our idols of individualism and nationalism need to die too, because “every person for themselves“ and “making our nation great again“ won’t solve this crisis. Neither will militarism, because no army can kill the virus.
Wow! We need entirely new ways of thinking and living! The good news of Holy Week and Easter is that these new ways are there, waiting for us - but only on the far side of letting go. Only on the far side of the cross.
As we enter this particular Holy Week, my encouragement is that you not only ponder what Jesus the Christ did for you on the cross, but that you walk the path of the cross yourself, because whether you like it or not, you’re being led to places you “don’t want to go” this week - whether that means into the ICU of an infected patient, or the bedroom of a frustrated child, or the website of an unemployment office - nobody likes crosses or the death of visions. And yet, here we are! To help you on that journey, the Global Monastery page will be guiding you on Jesus’ path to the cross this week, starting Monday. You can join us every day to receive a prayer and scripture reading, considering not only what Jesus did for you, but how his example empowers you to walk the path of the cross with him.
The summits were glorious - every one of them. And yet, each of them required a downward descent we’d never have chosen on our own. May you find the strength to pursue what Paul calls the “upward call of God in Christ” by walking the path of the cross this week.
O God of the downward descent
I’d never have chosen this moment
Never have even anticipated it
And yet here I am
At home with small children
Thank you that the pathway of self-denial and loss is nothing new
that you’ve gone before us
that you’ll go with us
Give us the grace to follow you on the path to the cross
That we might, with you, know the glory of life “out from the dead”
A newer, brighter, better life, than we could have imagined before all this happened.