On Ministry of Presence in Covid Time

For my fellow chaplains

I had a particular leading of Spirit that resulted in a reflection for Good Friday and the 7 Last Words. In particular, I was drawn to Mark 15:34, the Aramaic version of the cry of Jesus from the Cross to the God he felt had abandoned him to die in agony, alone. I wonder if we do not encounter this very human depth of despair, even unspoken, in our work or lives. We sometimes find ourselves in the presence of that despair that cries for reconnection to the Presence, and our hands, too, are tied.

So that reflection does not go to waste, you are my congregation. May Peace be with you.

Let me set the scene.

In the ritual of Holy Week, we reflect on the completion of the ministry of Jesus by joining ourselves in the experiences of that time. Good Friday relives his torture and execution for the crime of sedition, which was punished in those days by crucifixion. Jesus is tried by religious and civil authorities, scourged, with a crown made of thorny vines jammed into his head, and made to carry the cross on which he will be executed through the streets of Jerusalem to the place where many are already hanging in the hot sun.

Our reflection begins after his clothes have been stripped from him, he has been nailed through wrists and feet to the cross, the cross has been hoist upright and its base dropped into a hole. Above his head, a sign proclaims “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

We are present and stand witness to the completion of his three years of ministry.

“Eloi? Eloi! Lama sabachthani?” (“My God?  My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?”)

Mark 15:34

In our hearts, we can imagine the depths of pain and anguish of that prayer. We can hear his unspoken words:

“Where are you, Father? Why have you left me … hanging here all alone?

“Abba, what did I do? Wasn’t I good enough?”

“Where are you? Abba?”

No one else heard God’s reply, and some didn’t even understand the question. The Scriptures are silent.

But in our hearts, with Jesus, even now, we can hear echoes of his Father’s reply:

“I am here, with you, Son. In you, through you, now and always. You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

“The worst is over, Beloved. Just a few more breaths, and your mission is complete. You are coming Home.”

“Feel me here within you Breathe me in, now. With each breath let me fill you.”

“Exhale. Give me your fears. Blow out your pain. Give them back to me.”

“Inhale. Fill yourself again with my Presence.”

“Open your eyes, my Son. Look down. You are not alone.”

“Breathe in my Love.”

“Be here now. Just a few more breaths. See the others who suffer with you?”

“Behold, your mother, your beloved, who would not leave you here alone.”

“Fill yourself with me and let that Light shine on them.”

“Breathe in my Strength. You are my Voice. Lead them through this Hell.”

“You are my Beloved. Just a few more breaths.”

“We are One, and you are coming Home.”

Jesus finds the composure and strength to use the control he still has over his life and his words. He can breathe, with increasing difficulty. He can speak. He need not wait alone, in agony, for the slow approach of Death.

With Divine inspiration, he speaks:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

 Luke 23:34 

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

Luke 23:43 

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

Luke 23:46 

Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!:

 John 19:26-27

I thirst.

 John 19:28 

It is finished

John 19:30 

My Reflection on this Experience

After all the words and acts and turmoil of his ministry in Galilee and its endgame in Jerusalem, Jesus has been brought to a full stop. A sudden, devastating silence.

Last night, after a ritual and working supper with his followers, he had prayed fervently that he could be spared this suffering, but, if it must be, he accepted it. He had asked his closest friends to be with him in prayer, but they had fallen asleep and left him alone. And now he is alone, again. In agony and terror, bereft of meaning or hope. Is God mocking him, too?

In overwhelming pain and tormented by the wounds of trauma in the very recent past, Jesus is bewildered and powerless to help himself, to find any measure of calm or peace. He has only his voice, and with what breath he has, he calls for help. Not for physical help, taking away the pain, relieving the merciless strife between gravity pulling his body down and the nails through his flesh resisting that pull. He calls for hope that all this suffering is not a cruel joke, that the loving Father God who led him into this is still with him. His cry sounds almost angry, almost like he is accusing God of betrayal.

In my mind’s eye, giving voice to the question with Jesus, I was also hearing others in moments of pain and despair, breathing the shortest of prayers: “Oh, God!” Or even the newborn, suddenly exposed to light and sound and breezes and a totally changed world, crying out in shock and surprise. Or myself, once, as an overwhelmed mother with two messily sick babies and my own devastating case of the flu, whimpering quietly, “I want my Mommy.” Wanting Someone, somehow, to make it better.

Asking a question opens the mind to receiving an answer. And the God of Love, the Heavenly Father that Jesus had brought to the people who followed him through Galilee and Judea, would not have left him to suffer unto death alone.

But what would God have answered? What could Jesus hear in his heart that could help at all in that agony? What would I say, in all Love and Compassion, or what would I want to hear?

I fell back on the training I have had as a crisis response chaplain, on how to help when the unthinkable has happened. How do you approach someone who is in shock, when all meaning and hope for even the next breath have fled in the face of terror and anguish?

God reaches out to touch Jesus, to connect with Jesus, through the air, through his breathing. Jesus will feel the air he gasps into his lungs; let feeling that air become feeling God’s Presence; and let Jesus turn his attention to that feeling, to seeking more of that Divine inspiration. And give Jesus a way to unload the heavy burdens he no longer needs to carry; let him give them back to his Father; let him even throw them back at his Father. Which will trigger yet another inspiration of the Divine Presence.

Death will not come swiftly; crucifixion is intentionally horrible in that regard. How to help Jesus through the Hell ahead of him? Bring his focus back to this moment; not the past that got him here; and not apprehension of what is yet to come. Help him open his eyes to the moment. He is not alone. Somewhat refreshed, the old reflexes return. There are people at his feet with needs only he can fill. With the measure of reassurance that his Father is still with him, that he is Loved and accepted and has done well, and with the return of a small measure of personal agency, Jesus uses the last of his human life as his Father’s Voice to complete his mission.

Thanks be to God.

7 April 2020

Sandra Lee Harris, MDiv

On call chaplain, IFMC

Chaplain, Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps

Priest, Sacred Grove Community Circle (SWC)

Published by

Khalila RedBird

Khalila RedBird is Priestess and CFGL of Sacred Grove SWC and a Dedicant of the Fellowship of the Sacred Grove, where she was ordained Priest in 1995. She is Ordained Minister and Cleric Priestess of Sacred Well Congregation and holds a Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary. She serves as on-call Chaplain in a local hospital and in the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps.

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