This sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, one of my former seminary professors and an inspiration in the art of making scholarship a ministry to others and an act of devotion. She offered this reflection at a Seven Last Words of Christ service on Good Friday at The Paulist Center in downtown Boston, where I served as a graduate student intern. She preached it over ten years ago, and it has remained with me ever since. Every year, on Good Friday, I pull it up and read it. And it never gets old. That’s how you know you’re hearing the Word of God in it. Many thanks to Stephanie for granting me permission to post her sermon on this blog!
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Paulsell
The Paulist Center
April 9, 2004
In one of his many anxious meditations on the inadequacy of human words, St. Augustine maintains that words are reminders of our distance from God because they are temporal and will not last. No matter how eloquent we are, Augustine writes, we cannot capture the eternal mystery of God in language. Even our best words–God, life, love–even our best words only strike the air for a moment, and then they are gone.
On Good Friday, imperfect, fallible, very human words are all we have. We can join the women at the foot of the cross, but like them, we cannot make this horrible dying stop. We cannot rescue Jesus; we cannot take him down from the cross, bathe his wounds, feed him back to health. All we can do is listen for his last words and try to hear them–really hear them–before they disappear into silence.
Like most words that are forged in suffering, Jesus’ last words are hard to hear: forsaken, thirst, finished. These are words exhaled on a last breath, words that will be swallowed up by a silence that is empty and complete.
And yet, even with that terrible silence spreading out across the afternoon, Jesus breathes out a word that shines out of Good Friday like a jewel. A beautiful word: Paradise. A word that evokes images of pleasure and loveliness: a quiet stretch of beach; streets paved with gold; angels, their wings arched and trembling. Paradise: a word that says this day of suffering will end. A word that promises that forsaken, thirst, finished are not the last words to be said about us. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says to the man suffering next to him, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Perhaps you read the interview with religion scholar Karen Armstrong in the New York Times magazine last Sunday. When asked if she believed in the afterlife, she said it didn’t interest her in the least. “Religion is supposed to be about losing the ego,” she said, “not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.”
Armstrong objects to our lack of imagination about Paradise, the way we tend to imagine it as the ultimate in personal fulfillment, or an excuse not to respond to world’s pain, an excuse to focus our attention on the end of the story rather than the life that is before us, right here, right now. We all know what our misuses of the idea of Paradise have wrought: passivity, exclusion, violence. It is when our ideas about Paradise harden into certainties that Paradise becomes dangerous.
For who can say what Paradise is? The best attempts to describe it are marked by glorious failure. I know a person who was caught up into Paradise, the apostle Paul writes, but all he can say is that he heard things that are not to be told. Even that great cartographer of Paradise, the poet Dante, fails in the end to describe it. “How incomplete is speech, how weak!” he cries at the threshold of the presence of God. His critics have grumbled in frustration ever since.
Dante cannot give us a vision of God in words. He is writing with light, Peter Hawkins says, and its splendor hides the very face we long to see. But although the poet cannot show us what he sees in Paradise, he can describe what happens to him there. And what happens is that he begins to turn, to move, to be moved, as he says, by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. For the first time, he feels his inner life and the life of the world match. Everything inside of him–his desire, his will–begins to turn in harmony with creation itself.
It is this turning, this deep joining of the world that we hear in the second word of Good Friday. Two crucified men, their bodies spread out in an awful parody of openness and welcome, turn to one another in the only way they can: with words. Like all human words, these words do strike the air and pass away, but they also hold open a place in time in which the eternal can break in. One man says, “remember me.” The other replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This moment of turning mirrors God’s never-ending turning towards us, God’s joining us in birth and death, hunger and thirst, joy and pain. The wheel of God’s compassion turns and turns, gathering up everything in its path: Jesus, the crucified thieves, the executioners, the women weeping at the foot of the cross, the jeering crowds. And we ourselves, one Good Friday congregation among many, straining with other faithful people around the world to hear the last words of our beloved as he struggles through his last hours of life.
Paradise. This is not a disappearance behind the garden hedge of Eden, a turning away from the world of time. It is a radical turning towards the world, a joining of our life to God’s life, our life to all of life. It is a refusal to say–ever–that things may one day get so bad that we will have to turn away from others to focus on ourselves, or our homeland, alone. We’ve come here today to try again to set our lives turning against that grain and turning toward the world God made and called good. We’ve come here to put ourselves in the path of God’s own turning, to be swept up and quickened in God’s clasp. Paradise.
There are other words coming in this hour. Harsher, colder words: forsaken, thirst, finished. When those words have struck the air, Jesus will fall silent, and there will be no more words today.
Before that silence overtakes us, let us allow this second word to set us turning, turning on the wheel of God’s compassion, turning toward the world with our hearts wide open, turning in time with the God who never tires of turning toward us.
Paradise. Paradise. We need this word of generosity to help us stay turned towards one another, even as powers and principalities encourage us to turn us away from each other in order to seek our satisfaction alone. We need this word of resistance to help us stay turned towards the earth, even as our 24-hour economy tries to detach our body’s rhythms from the rhythms of creation. We need this word of love to help us stay turned towards God, even as we suffer, even as we weep.
One forsaken, dying man says to another: Paradise. And even the stars begin to turn.