Victims: An Easter Homily

I’m the Coordinator of an organization called The Senior
Ministers of Large Unitarian Universalist Congregations
(or
“SMOLUUC”). We meet twice a year, once for dinner with the
president of our denomination, wherever the UU General Assembly is
meeting. This reminds the president of how important we are. And once
each year, in February, we meet for a week-long conference in Santa
Barbara, California. We didn’t get to be Senior Ministers of Large
Unitarian Universalist Congregations by scheduling conferences in
North Dakota in February.

We meet at a Roman
Catholic retreat center, a 22 acre paradise called, “La Casa
de Maria”
in Montecito, a ridiculously wealthy suburb in the
hills above Santa Barbara. Each morning, before breakfast, we gather
for worship in the chapel. The chapel building is in western mission
style, about the size of a small suburban church. White stucco walls.
Orange tile roof and massive wood doors.

But it’s the interior of the chapel that is so striking — so
surprising. The entire back wall behind the chancel and the altar is a
window, wall to wall and floor to ceiling glass. Beyond the glass,
like a contemporary sculpture, is the starkly-beautiful,
radically-pruned ruin of what had been an immense eucalyptus tree.
Inside, in front of this window wall, almost filling it, is suspended
a massive cross, probably twelve feet high, with the carved wood
figure of the crucified Christ upon it. In ten years at La Casa,
during thirty or forty worship services, I have looked away from and
around that cross and its figure.


I remember my first visit to La Casa and the first services in the
chapel. I found the huge crucifix overwhelming, almost repelling. I
come from a traditional Christian background (but a decidedly
Protestant Christian background) and nothing in that experience
welcomes so immense an imposition of a religious idea on the senses.
Protestant Christians certainly do revere the cross. Like most
Methodist ministers, in my youthful religiosity, I wore a small gold
cross on the lapel of my black preaching suit. And a heavy, brass
cross stood on the altars or communion tables of the churches I
served.

But, as you may know, the Protestant cross is usually plain, with no
figure upon it, symbolizing the victory of Jesus? resurrection. The
Roman cross, the crucifix, bears the crucified Jesus, known as the
corpus, fixed upon it, emphasizing the ultimate sacrifice of
the Christ. During those first few visits to the chapel at La Casa, I
barely looked at the huge crucifix, though it loomed large and high in
the window, near-impossible to avoid. Perhaps, on some level, it would
have seemed a betrayal of my Protestant heritage, certainly of my
Unitarian Universalist heritage, to let myself be captured by that
“popish” figure. I focused instead on the view beyond the
windows, on the ruined tree, the pure blue sky, the mountains beyond,
the Bird of Paradise bushes in the lower panes. To refuse to deal with
the crucifix filling in the window was much like pretending not to see
an elephant in the living room.

Strange that, when religious liberals feel we have arrived at a
reasonable and rational place on the religious spectrum, we shyly
avert our eyes or belligerently complain when religiosity threatens to
gain a toehold in our intellectual sanctuary. It is as if we fear that
to let ourselves hear the language or sing the songs or contemplate
the icons of the banished or escaped faith would trigger a trap-door
beneath us, dropping us into a bedlam of blood-screaming preachers and
ruler-wielding fiends in black habits.

But on a morning this spring, seated with my colleagues in the dim
light of the chapel, the early sun brilliantly lit the window and cast
the looming outstretched figure in a particularly commanding light. We
were gathered in silence. There was no colleague bravely preaching to
the preachers, no singing, no reading. Just sitting. For the first
time in a decade, I found myself staring full at the pinioned figure.
The body now hanging of its own weight, emptied. The spirit freed into
the world. I gave that figure the full attention of my meditation,
mindful of nothing else. The carver took the moment just after the
last words were gasped in agony and despair, “My God, my God, why
hast thou forsaken me?” And, “It is finished.”


Well, my worst fears — and perhaps yours at this point — were not
realized. I was not converted. I did not surrender my Emersonian faith
and give my life to Christ. But I did give myself over in those
moments to what that figure came now to incorporate and personify —
and that had nothing to do with the dogma and doctrine of the faith
that later evolved out of that unique being’s life and cruel
death. What I absorbed in those quiet moments was The Victim,
consummate, all embodied, every abused innocent, oppressed in mind or
body, every captive imprisoned in stone and steel or in spirit. Poured
into a single figure, were all the holy innocents, all the victims,
here inescapable, here unavoidable.

In the quiet, a single voice:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the
earth;”
so it spake in Jesus;

“Keep fresh before me the moments of my high
resolve;”
so it spake in Howard Thurman;

“It is today that our best work can be done and not some
future day or future year;”
so it spake in W. E. B. Dubois;

“Grant us the ability to find joy and strength, not in the
strident call to arms, but in stretching out our arms to grasp our
fellow creatures in the striving for justice and truth;”
so
spake the voice in a Jewish prayer;

“Save us, our compassionate Lord, from our folly;”
so it spake in a Muslim prayer;

and in the voice of Black Elk — “Look upon these faces of
children without number, that they may face the winds and walk the
good road to the day of quiet;”

“Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and
honor that we may heal the earth and heal each other;”
thus
it spake through the Ojibway of North America.

All the voices, evoked from a single figure, speaking for all the
victims, all the crucified, all whose spirits and bodies are suspended
before our unseeing eyes. “Look upon these faces of children
without number, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to
the day of quiet.”
Within a few days of returning home, the
nightly television news was filled with images of thousands of
frightened, terrorized human beings fleeing the atrocities of yet
another satanic reincarnation history continues to thrust upon the
innocent. Bewildered children cradled in the arms of their sobbing,
exhausted mothers.

Victims.

And in the ghettos just beyond our “Shangri-La’s,” and
“Willow Walks,” and “Woodland Traces,” are the
victims of despair, violence, poverty, ignorance. Behold the lambs of
God.

This year, on the eve of this season of Easter and Passover, that
Innocent Victim looming out of the morning light finally grasped me,
pulled me out of the silence and cried in all those voices of the
victims, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken
me.”

Leaving the chapel, blinking into the bright light of California’s
early Spring, at every hand, at every bush and bed and tree, the
Resurrection was in progress. In that morning’s quiet epiphany, I
moved in the ancient cycle of life-as-it-is, from death to rebirth,
from crucifixion to resurrection, from despair to hope. I thought of
the short poem by Diego Valeri,

You who have an eye for miracles

regard the bud now appearing on

the bare branch of the fragile young

tree. It is a mere dot, a nothing.

But already it’s a flower, already a

fruit, already its own death and resurrection.


Ironically, I had been on the verge of all but dismissing Easter this
year, ready to finally give up what has often seemed a pretense that
these days mean something to us un-believers, replacing the nails and
thorns, cruel death and empty tomb with fatuous metaphors of
spring’s emerging flowers. Just a few months ago I had said to a
colleague, “When are we ministers going to have the courage to
ignore Easter?”

But in that figure, that of crucified innocence, that universal victim
of abiding evil, I re-experienced the need for this annual reenactment
of the promise of light out of darkness, life bursting again and again
out of the slaughter of the innocents.

A revered Unitarian Minister, Max Coots, wrote:

We need a celebration that speaks the Spring-inspired word about
life and death.

Unless we move the seasons of the self, and Spring can come for
us,

The Winter will go on and on.

And Easter will remain a myth, and life will never come again,
despite the fact of Spring.


In my garden, I open my eyes behind which the presence of the Victim
abides, I give thanks for this day of light and gladness and peer, as
before, and before, and before, into the loamy grave, rejoicing in
each insistent sprout of resurrection.

So saith the God of all the ages,

“This day have I placed before you life and death; therefore
choose life.”

Choose Life.