The Courage to Stand By

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Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

John 19, 25

By the time that Jesus is crucified there remain “standing by” him only his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple John. As the church celebrated yesterday the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, today it celebrates Our Lady of Sorrows. Yesterday’s feast resonates with the sense of victory and dominance, all initiated when Constantine sees an apparition of the cross with the words in hoc signo vinces, in this sign you will conquer. Today’s feast, however, is about courage in the face of apparent defeat and meaninglessness, about the rare willingness and fortitude to “stand by” and remain close to life and to those we love.

At the moment of Jesus’ rejection and death, at the moment that his life is truly and mysteriously “consummated,” those who will proselytize the world and lead the Church are absent. Those “standing by” Jesus are rather those who have always lovingly and quietly been with him, not in the moments of his greatest power and influence but in the quiet secluded moments of his own inner experience. Aside from John, it is only the women who are close to Jesus who have the courage to love, to stand by him at this moment of his “bitter, painful, and ignominious death.”

Where is the crowd; where are the disciples who “left all” to follow Jesus and who argued about who would receive the greatest reward from him? None of them are able to stand by at such a moment of darkness and desolation, but only John and the three Marys. In his ode, “On His Blindness, John Milton wrote: “God doth not need/Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best/ Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best,/ his State Is Kingly. . . . They also serve who only stand and waite.” As for the crowd and the disciples, it is far easier to work on and  try to change life than it is to “stand by” it and to bear it.

What makes it so difficult to stand by another, to stand by our own life, and to suffer the truth as it is? It is, perhaps, at the personal level the very tension that exists between the victorious and dominant church of Constantine and the radical message of the gospel. When we are ill or shamed, when one we love is suffering or marginalized, we are brought face to face with the truth which is our own smallness in relationship to the mystery in which we participate. It is painful for us to realize our limitations, or fragility, and our mortality. And so, we create an alternate story; we make ourselves legends in our own minds. We magnify our accomplishments and our failures, holding on to the illusion of our own false significance. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we come to believe in our own potency to determine our lives and to influence the world. We replace God’s story of creation with our own.

Yet, it is life itself that is always reminding us of the truth and shattering our illusions. As we see in the Marys and John, faith,  hope, and love are inseparable. They all depend on our “standing by” the truth of things as the truth manifests in the limits and suffering of our own lives and in the lives of those we love. At the Transfiguration Peter can say, “Let us build three tents.” and so desire to stay in and relish this moment of God’s epiphany. Yet, in its ultimate manifestation on Calvary, Peter is nowhere to be found. His denial of Jesus is a denial of his own life. Those who stand by the cross of Jesus are standing by, are remaining true, not only to Jesus but to their own lives in faith, hope, and love.

In the vows of marriage, human beings take an oath to “stand by” the beloved other in whatever happens. We need to vow this because it is not our typical stance. Because we do not understand the difference between a potency that is merely functional and our spiritual or transcendent potency to say “Yes” to life and to God, we tend to avoid those moments, relationships, and experiences in which we feel functionally powerless. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do.” To stand by, to be with another in her or his suffering is to live out faith in life and in God. To refuse to do so because we know not what to say or do is to deny faith, hope, and love.

Life forms us through our failures to stay true and to stand by. The good news is that, after the death of Jesus, Peter, in his weakness, can affirm his love for Jesus despite his failures. For our part, we need to dare to be still, to “stand and wait” and to sit and be. It is at such moments of stillness that we shall recognize how often we flee life and our responsibility to others and to God. Yet, it is also in such moments that we shall know that our failures to our commitments, our pledges, and our oaths are always forgiven and annulled by the mercy of God. Before the evening service of Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidra is recited and chanted. It asserts that all are forgiven “seeing all the people were in ignorance.” Jesus echoes this prayer from the Cross as he prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We live largely in ignorance. So, we pray that in our ignorance we may receive the grace to “learn to bear the beams of love” by standing by, as best we can, those whom we are given to love and care for on our way, and to stand by in acceptance and appreciation our own lives in all that is part of them.

In the tribunal of heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God—blessed be He—and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors.

All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called ‘ḳonam,’ ‘ḳonas,’ or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths.

And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them, seeing all the people were in ignorance

Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur

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