Photo by Alison Fischer All Rights Reserved.
Fires were raging over tens of thousands of acres throughout our West Coast Region, people and animals were dying, multitudes were fleeing to safety.
Those of us who were safe from the flames were entrenched in the toxic smoke that permeated our air with a suffocating realization that the nature within our worldly context will always carry the upper hand.
Schools were closed. We were instructed to wear masks with respirators when we had to venture outside. A friend described this period as apocalyptic and wondered if this was what the earth was like during the Triduum, while humanity responded to the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps this context and experience was similar to the world without Jesus in more ways than we cared to recognize.
Five months ago, the Son of God had not been murdered, but these fires that ravaged our fragile earth were also caused by our human actions and egos. It was difficult to ignore our role in this modern crucifixion of our God’s Beloved creation.
How effortlessly we forget and exclaim “Crucify! Crucify” because that is the easier action to take.
And I wonder, as Jesus was preparing for his betrayal and death during this time we refer to as Holy Week, is the sense of suffocation that we experienced a glimmer of what he might have felt?
Just as life continued on for the loved ones and condemners of Jesus, life continued on as the world burned around us. I found myself on Cal Campus, picking up packages at the Amazon center. A venture that my husband was frustrated that I took alone because of the armed robberies that were occurring in our neighborhood. He was working late to provide for us and I didn’t want to increase the tasks on his to do list.
And for my own sanity, I needed to get out and walk. Because after a while of being confined by forces with greater power than ourselves, even toxic realities provide opportunity for freedom when you are using the correct respirators.
My lungs and heart were pounding from over exertion of walking the short distance in that air quality and I needed to rest. My attention was drawn to a gentleman who was playing one of the outdoor pianos outside the Student Union. It appeared that all of his possessions were in a back pack that laid at his feet. This man was not a Cal student, but was simply seeking solace from the oppressive reality in an opportunity to escape into music.
And I wondered about this gentleman’s journey towards that piano on an evening filled with toxic air. Did he learn to play at school, from a private instructor, or perhaps teach himself? Where are the individuals who fostered that love for music in his life now? Were the people who invested their time and love in this gentleman wondering where he was and about his well being? Perhaps they didn’t care at all and sleeping on the streets of Berkeley, CA were the healthiest option for him.
I didn’t know a thing, except that his piano training clearly exceeded mine.
And then I noticed this gentleman lean forward and stop playing for a few moments. Then, he would revive himself and play again. This cycle repeated itself a few times with each effort becoming weaker and weaker.
And I recognized those nods as a possible product of opiates.
Or perhaps he was exhausted.
Or simply choking on the toxic air and oppressive realities of life.
But I identified and empathized with each possibility. I wondered how much this gentleman and I had in common and realized that we probably shared more similarities than differences.
If he was nodding off, I empathize, because the balance of healthy pain management is a slippery slope. The potential spiral that is often sparked by the nodding into oblivion is a terrifying reality for many people. For most, this quest for relief and numbness quickly becomes a living hell. One must choose between the spiral that is derived from seeking total relief from a substance, as it appeared this gentleman had possibly decided, or resolving to pain management that is just effective enough to enable one to function. All, while staying uncomfortable and clear of the numbed oblivion. Even relief from pain can be suffocating.
I wondered if this gentleman and his loved ones perhaps parted ways similar to Judas and Jesus in that Upper Room. Did one party identify the other’s toxic behavior and claim “Go ahead and leave. What you are about to do, do quickly.”
And I recognized how easily I could have been in this brother’s place, alone at the piano, if it weren’t for people who loved and invested their time and resources in me when I needed assistance to find wholeness due to tremendous pain and confusion. It isn’t a stretch to consider how easily I could have been nodding into oblivion if it weren’t for the good influence of others that empowered me to make a few wise decisions in pure faith and obedience and specifically given to Christ to sort out.
As I reflect upon our pianist brother, I ponder “who is Judas, Simon Peter, and Jesus in this situation?”
Despite his suffering and lack of worldly means, he was gifting the world with the beauty of his music that was also serving as an outlet for him.
In contrast, I had respirator masks in my bag and I chose to not interrupt him and offer him one. I used the excuse that although we were in a crowded space, I was alone and he may have been high. I chose to remain seated and selfishly document his beautiful music.
I chose to remain seated and observe rather than serve as Jesus commanded us to do in that Upper Room. And then I chose to walk away and leave my struggling brother to continue his cycle of gifting the world with music, being overwhelmed, and attempted revival. I chose to walk away from an opportunity to allow another soul to not suffocate and selfishly clung to the masks which I did not need.
The Upper Room, the setting of today’s Gospel, was a location where Jesus and the Disciples sought refuge from their oppressors. It was here that Jesus continued his teachings of invested love through the demonstration of how we are to be of humble service to one another. washed his friend’s feet and served them bread and wine. The same Upper Room that Jesus identified His betrayer in Judas and sent him away to fulfill prophecy.
Jesus’ teachings imply that the Pianist is the one that Jesus would most likely embrace before me, especially when I was choosing to not interact with this gentleman as Jesus instructed.
Yet our pianist brother is who our society consistently casts out and discards.
I continue to pray for our brother. I hope he is still alive and finding opportunities to gift the world with his music. And to stop his cycle of being overwhelmed and in need of revival. I pray that he has the opportunity to learn that the suffocation of life may be relieved by the breath of the Holy Spirit. That total pain relief comes in the teachings and the investment of community derived from Jesus Christ and not a substance. That we have the opportunity to identify, sincerely repent and experience God’s grace, presence, and wholeness.
And I hope that we all may find solace and hope in the good news of Jesus Christ, His teachings, and His resurrection from His murder on that cross.
French writer Luc de Clapier stated, “We discover in ourselves what others hide from us, and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.” I often reflect on this self-identification, especially when I have issues with another person. I wonder how much of my identity I hide and what actions of my commanded faith do I ignore with the masks that I wear in my day to day life.
It is easy to default into the façade created by our masks and pretend that we are all like Jesus. But the truth is that we all succumb to the stresses and temptations of life and act a lot like Judas in choosing the easier and more profitable solutions and opportunities. Or get overwhelmed or intimidated by life and deny our relationship with Christ like Simon Peter.
But the Good News is that Jesus loves and is devoted to us, masks and all. Jesus remained in that Upper Room knowing what was to come and still washed his friends feet and broke bread with them. The same Upper Room that Jesus identified His betrayer in Judas and sent him away to fulfill prophecy. He suffered a horrific death and still cried out for forgiveness for His murderers. Jesus was and is invested in devotion and love.
He still faithfully cries out for us. So that we may cry out and be faithful to each other. And gift each other with music, to carry each other through the fires, and offer relief from the pains and suffocating situations of life.
And despite us making the easier and more selfish choices and choosing to repeatedly crucify Him, Jesus offers us redemption through the cross. He calls us *through* our desire to crucify and leads us to the opportunity to evolve into someone else.
One who is whole.
One who has opportunity to heal and be healed.
One who finds courage in the difficult and suffocating circumstances of life.
One who is invested and devoted to others.
One who is Beloved.
That is the Good News of Jesus Christ.