The fifth mountain: Travel lightly, let it go

Connection to heaven (photo by Martin Malina by the Kindersley Range, BC, July 2019)

Twelve-step programs for recovery, founded in the early 20th century by Bill Wilson has evolved to healing journeys not just for alcoholics, but for anyone struggling with addiction. I was just listening to a podcast of someone suffering from depression who started a group at his church called “Twelve steps for normal people.”[1] It’s become that effective for anyone who wants to recover, heal, and grow.

This orientation towards personal well-being is important, because healthy individuals mean healthy faith communities, and vice versa.

It’s the first of the twelve steps that launches us on the path of recovery from anything.[2] It teaches us how sin in general is overcome not through personal willpower or by control. We open our hearts to God’s healing more by recognizing, right at the start, that we are powerless to overcome.

For example, we don’t become charitable by willpower, by saying to ourselves, “Be charitable!” Rather, we recognize the moments when we were totally uncharitable. And we first need to weep over them. That’s what confession is: acknowledging and admitting our limitations. In addition to baptism and holy communion, Martin Luther wanted to make confession a sacrament of the Lutheran church.

Weeping. Crying. That doesn’t feel like power at all, does it? No one wants to go there.

Yet, the way we stay on the path with any authenticity is to experience our incapacity and our failure to do something even good. This is the genius of what Paul calls “the folly of the cross”[3]

Constant failure at loving, for example, is ironically and paradoxically what keeps us learning how to love. Nineteenth century saint, Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) called it her “Little Way”. She writes in her letters how it was failing to love every day that kept her on the path of love.

We hear today the fifth and final tip for the Lenten journey: Travel lightly; let it go. How do we do that?

Even before he gets to the last mountain on our Lenten journey—the Mount of Olives[4]—Jesus had already shown his openness to expressing grief. At the death of his friend, Lazarus, Jesus wept.[5]Then, as he approached the city and made his way up to Jerusalem for the last time, the Gospel of Luke records that Jesus “wept over it.”[6]

On the Mount of Olives, the day before he died, Jesus weeps when he prays: “Not my will by Thy will be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, all the Gospel writers describe Jesus in a state of great agitation and distress. Luke writes that “In his anguish … his sweat [or tears] became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”[7] In the Psalms for Lent and Holy week, we read the words Jesus himself prayed: “I cry to you, O Lord,” and “my eye is consumed with grief.”[8]

Peter weeps when he becomes aware of his blatant denial of knowing Jesus.[9] Indeed at the foot of the cross we can imagine the women and men who counted themselves among Jesus’ followers, weeping for their loss. The Passion story reveals these images of Jesus and his followers opening their hearts to expressing their sorrow. They all cried.

In our culture, we tend to be ashamed of crying, especially in front of others. Many of us may have been raised not to show our tears. We may have learned that tears show weakness and make us vulnerable. All of which, in the context of religious piety and public discourse, are bad things.

The Gospels tell us otherwise.

You will notice in the readings for this Passion Sunday the emphasis on the ‘face’—the human face. Tears, of course, emerge from our eyes and are displayed on our face. Our face reveals what is true in our hearts and who we really are.

“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” the prophet declares, “therefore I have set me face like flint …”[10] And, the Psalmist prays what Jesus prayed during his passion: “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”[11]

Showing your face, is showing both your grief and your love. Showing your face is an act of love. There is a relation between the depth of our love and a corresponding sense of grief. “It is the depth of our love that determines the intensity of our weeping.”[12]

In his book, Faces: The Changing look of Humankind, Milton Brener presents a detailed study of the way in which the portrayal of the human face evolved in antiquity.[13] Noting that 90 percent of emotional communication is non-verbal, most of this non-verbal communication is expressed through the face.

What is surprising is that there are virtually no faces in prehistoric art. Its subjects are mainly animals and where there are humans, all the figurines are headless; and, where there is a head, though there may be hair there is no face. When faces do begin to appear they are expressionless, schematic and non-individualized.

A major change occurred in the sixth century BC, incidentally about the time we have the earliest scriptures written down, where portrayals of the face give way to a more individualized, varied and emotionally expressive and empathic presentation. 

Today we may miss the revolutionary impact the scriptures had on the first readers and listeners of the sacred text. Imagine the shock reading and hearing about human faces! The very mention of, indeed emphasis on, the face of Jesus—and the prophets, the Psalmist and the followers of Jesus—speaks to the importance of expressing emotions in the life of faith. And the life of God.

Our hearts are the dwelling places of God. Yet, all of them are made of fragile glass. Tears signify the fragility of the heart. They expose the brokenness and vulnerability of the soul.

When words fail to express what we feel, tears are a tangible, trusted way, of addressing our pain and our sorrow. Through weeping, we learn not just by speculating, analyzing, explaining it all away. Tears are the word-less “articulation of our grief, the wording of our desire.” Some would say that our tears are the “only way into the heart.” And therefore, tears are a great gift.

While our tears reflect our surrender, our conversion, our turning to God, they also point us to new patterns of learning and living.

When we let go, with tears, we share something of ourselves with another. Letting it go means sharing. “Love learns to share things.”[14] There’s a literal side to “letting go.” One who is practised in letting go spiritually, emotionally, will also let go materially. We release and surrender whatever we’ve been grasping tightly in our hearts. 

Ultimately our tears symbolize an opening to new life. They speak of a promise. As Jesus’ tears promised resurrection, our tears signify the journey to rebirth and healing. 

“When we admit our hopelessness and desperation, when we recognize that we have ‘hit rock bottom’ in ourselves as well as in our relationships with people and with God, we also discover the compassion of a God” who became vulnerable on the cross. When we can’t any longer, God will.

Tears open upon the wound, and ironically God enters through this very wound and brings healing to the soul and to the world. God enters through the wound in our heart not just to comfort, but more to identify completely with us in an act of infinite compassion.

The Passion of Christ is therefore the Com-Passion of God. God has undergone the vulnerability of death on a cross. The more profound and intense our tears, the more abundant God’s eternal mercy. The deeper the abyss of our human brokenness, the greater the grace of heavenly compassion.

On this last mountain—the Mount of Olives—we witness Jesus’ tears. We pray with him, and in him. And in our surrender and release, we too await with hope the sure promise of a new way before us.

[1] I invite you to listen to a 13-minute podcast episode featuring Jeff Dafler, a recovering alcoholic and author of the book Psobriety: A Journey of Recovery through the Psalms. In the podcast, Jeff takes a look at Psalm 88, and discusses what he calls “the gift of desperation,” which allows those struggling to move toward hope and redemption.

[2] The Twelve Steps

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[4] Matthew 26:30

[5] John 11:35

[6] Luke 19:41

[7] Luke 22:44; see also Matthew 26:37-38 and Mark 14:33

[8] Psalm 130:1; 31:9

[9] Matthew 26:75

[10] Isaiah 50:6-7.

[11] Psalm 31:16

[12] John Chryssavgis, Chapter Seven “Silence and Tears” In the Heart of the Desert, Revised; The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (World Wisdom, 2008).

[13] Cited in Iain McGilChrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p.257.

[14] John Chryssavgis, ibid., Chapter Eighteen “Encountering God”

The fifth mountain; Letting it go (sermon by Martin Malina, Passion Sunday 2023)

An open-ended closure

audio for ‘an open-ended closure’ by Martin Malina
Dochart Creek flowing to the Ottawa at Braeside-McNab, photo by Martin Malina April 2022

Maybe there is a part in all of us, if you are little bit like me, happy that we are soon coming to the end of the Lenten season. Enough of the self-examination, self-limiting, fasting, giving things up—I want to be free again to do anything I want to, whenever I want to do it. If you are like me in this way, we are so ready to dive into the Easter season and message of new life, new hope, new beginnings, and get on with living! Amen?! 

Maybe there is a part in all of us, if you are a little bit like me, fed up with the prolonged, never-ending pall shrouding our existence in the pandemic, in the never-ending war in Ukraine. We are so ready to move on and get past this tortured period of history that still hangs heavy over us.

Good news and bad news. Bad news first …

The transition that is Holy Week does not offer a clear-cut change-over. Holy Week has ‘ambiguous’ written all over it.

First, we witness the crowds on Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna and praising God in Jesus.[1] These are the same crowds who a few short days later condemn Jesus to death, shouting “Crucify Him”. What a flip-flop! Human nature is anything but consistent, clear cut, cut or dry, either-or. 

Second, “Good” Friday? Why is it good? Jesus dies. Jesus is defeated. Jesus becomes the laughing stock from the perspective of power, command and control over any mission we might envision. Of course, believers will know why Jesus’ death led to something good, indeed something very good – just stick around till Easter. But the juxtoposition of good and bad so close together makes telling this story a challenge. It’s not a straight line.

And finally, why do we even do this year after year: Lent, Holy Week and Good Friday? Isn’t Jesus alive? Wasn’t Jesus raised from the dead over two thousand years ago? Why bother dragging ourselves through this ambiguous, ambivalent, topsy-turvy exercise year after year? Aren’t we, after all, post-resurrection Christians?

All of these ambiguous notions makes this celebration for Christians not really popular, for Protestants at least, unless we just make it an Easter bunny holiday complete with coloured eggs and chocolate. We would rather tell a story with a straight line, something certain, and certainly not a story rife with ambivalent disciples, fickle crowds and an almost compulsive fixation on death.

Yeah, bad news…

The last two years has been like a bad dream in which we continue to move forward without really feeling like we are gaining any traction at all. In the changes we have had to face, consciously or unconsciously, we have lost so much: The death of loved ones whose burial rituals have been anything but uniform; The loss of jobs, friends moving, relationships changing, health deteriorating, family ties rupturing. We have been dragged through a time whose suffering is anything but over, as much as we might delude ourselves into believing otherwise.

And we may even fall to the temptation of simplistically asserting it is over and we should act as if it is. But denial will only lead to more problems down the road.

Holy Week is an ambiguous observance by the church. But it also reflects the ambigious nature of life today. And therefore this time in the church calendar can be very helpful.

The Passion of Christ, at the foot of the cross, is according to Martin Luther the place where God is revealed to us. The Cross is central to God’s revelation. And this poses serious problems for us. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, this is a hard, counterintuitive, instinct for us – to find God not in the glory of the days, not in getting everything I want, not in success and accomplishment and feel-good circumstances upon which much of religion even our piety is based.

It’s so hard to hold the ambiguity of it all in our hearts: On the one hand, a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing; and, on the other hand, who hangs on the cross of death and human defeat. A God who created all things beautiful, but who also bleeds, who is bruised, who is broken and gasps for breath in the throes of death.

Confronting the suffering of Jesus is like dealing with our grief. We would rather bypass the pain of it. And so we tend to deny our grief, and our losses. And we idealize ‘bringing closure’ even though we know deep down that there is no timeline for grief.

I hear echoes in how we have reacted to the ‘ending of the pandemic’. We have heard those announce it was a hoax, that there was no danger, and therefore no need to wear masks and staying away from large crowds. Even now with COVID protections legally lifted, refusing to abide by such protections suggests, does it not, a strong desire to be done, once and for all, of this pandemic – case closed, no danger, absolute thinking?

But the truth is, it is not emotionally nor spiritually healthier to close the door on our discomfort, our suffering. It is better to face it and learn to live with it. How so?

Here’s a bit of good news: Good Friday comes on the calendar every year. It’s as if the practice of our faith gently and regularly invites us to a healthy rhythm for life, the healthy truth of not denying nor avoiding the grief, the loss, the suffering of life for too long. Not denying the grief we continue to bear even life in Christ Jesus who suffered and died before rising to life. We cannot spiritually bypass the enduring and ambigious truth about grief, especially the longer we live.

Thank God Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday come around every year. Because even though Jesus is alive, Jesus gives us permission and a place to express honestly and with integrity the ongoing grief and losses of our lives. Because there is no such thing as ‘closure’.[2]

To varying degrees we live always with the pain of loss over the course of our lives. In truth, to resist our grief is the cause of suffering. But, to accept and to learn to live with the ambiguity of it all, to hold both our grief and our hope together, this is true faith.

To accept our losses-that-never-end is also to acknowledge grace, love and forgiveness where and when it happens. When we expect perfection, or when we place pre-conceived conditions on how something has to happen, we miss a great opportunity. We, in effect, reject an invitation to experience yet again God’s grace and love. 

For example, if a gathering can happen only if certain conditions that we set are met (if large numbers of people are desired, for instance); if a gathering of loved ones or of worshippers can happen only if our individual ‘wants’ are achieved, we lose big time. I tell people that when an opportunity to meet presents itself, then take it. And take it now. We don’t know what life may bring down the road. And when we take the risk … it won’t be perfect. It will not meet all our expectations. We will not get all that we want.

But those who are there, whom we meet, in that moment—the people, the family, the individuals, the strangers—they are God’s presence for you. God is revealed not in the glory of our imaginations nor in the fantasy of perfection born out of our minds. God is revealed in the imperfect, yes even in the suffering of the less-than-ideal.

The cross, as Martin Luther so profoundly explained, is where God is revealed to us, and offered to us. In the small numbers, in the small gifts of the moment, in the humility of meeting, in our self-limiting-for-the-sake-of-the-other, here we find and can receive the precious gift of Christ present.

God is here in the moment that is imperfect, humble, yet faithful. It is out of the ashes of grief and loss where pinpricks of light emerge and out of which, in the promise of days-to-come, we will bask in the glow of Easter joy. Again.

[1] A variation of the final, triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the Gospel for today, from Luke 19:28-40. Read the whole Passion story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

[2] Pauline Boss, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2022.

The Rock rolls on

12On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ 13So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” 15He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ 16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. (Mark 14)

In our pre-recorded service for Good Friday later this week, we will sing: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble ….”

Trembling happens in response to shock. Trembling happens as visceral reaction to something that shocks us, dislodges us, from long-standing, seemingly immovable positions.

Like a rock. Bedrock. Tectonic plates have shifted deep within us, far beneath the surface of what we normally perceive. And it changes everything. The death of Jesus changed everything. The Passion of our Lord causes us to tremble, tremble, tremble. The Passion of our Lord causes the world to tremble.

The changes were incredible and unexpected. The people, and even Jesus’ disciples, expected a mighty ruler to upend the Roman military and political dominance in their land. Despite Jesus’ humble yet triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his followers still imagined a way forward that evaded defeat at the cross. Jesus’ death didn’t upend the Romans. But it did upend everyone’s expectations.

The large rock that enclosed his body in the tomb symbolized the final seal on Jesus’ death. There perhaps isn’t anything more final, more terminal, than standing at the tombstone of a loved one. The end of the journey. “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

A little bit over a week ago, an earthquake struck just south of Ottawa, near Kemptville. It was a minor, magnitude 2.7 earthquake, lightly felt from Ottawa to Cornwall and into New York State.

In the Passion story from the bible, an earthquake rocked the ground around the time of Jesus death. “The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”[1] And again, at the time of Jesus’ resurrection, there was another earthquake.[2] When the women looked up at the tomb, “they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”[3]

The Psalmist often sings of the God who is the “rock” of our salvation.[4] Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the rock was Christ.”[5] And even Peter referred to Jesus as “a living stone … a cornerstone.”[6] A living stone is, as Diana Butler Bass puts it, a “rock that rolls”.[7]

On the surface, we may perceive rock as immovable. But, truth be told, rock isn’t really static. Geologically speaking, rocks move – slowly – but sometimes even suddenly. And when the rocks move, get ready! “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

We have a habit of domesitcating God. But Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter shock us out of our comfort zones. We like to turn Jesus into a static figure, the one who is ‘the same yesterday and today and forever.’ Perhaps the thundering rock is too much for us. 

Yet, God remains the One who “shatters”, as C.S. Lewis once remarked. “Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?”[8] Because to read the Bible fairly is to discover a God who is always on the move. Always changing things.

The Passover Meal, for Christians, has not only become a practice of remembering the great acts of God from history. The Holy Meal has become a practice of celebrating the living presence – the living stone – in our midst today. Over the course of the bible, the Holy Meal is a practice infused with layers of meaning, from Passover to Real Presence. Evolving in practice and meaning.

And continues to do so even during the COVID pandemic. We have adapted. We have changed in how we do things. We have felt uncertainty during our worhsip practice of the sacrament of the Lord’s presence during the pandemic. We have mediated the sacrament through the internet. And believe you me, “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble …”

At the same time, I am not the only one who has felt the initimacy, love and deep connection with those of you who have shared in this imperfect yet holy means of experiencing true presence together. We have been irradiated by Jesus’ love and presence beyond the boundaries of physical space.

Perhaps in doing these ‘temporary measures’ of responding to the pandemic restrictions, the church has done some good – to continue worshipping and seeking ever-changing ways of receiving the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. A grace of which we partake “in all times and in every place.”[9]

Thanks be to God. 

[1] Matthew 27:51

[2] Matthew 28:2

[3] Mark 16:4

[4] Psalm 18:2,46; 28:1; 31:2; 62:6; 89:26; 95:1; 144:1 

[5] 1 Corinthians 10:4

[6] 1 Peter 2:4,6

[7] Diana Butler Bass, “The Rock that Rolls” in The Cottage (March 13, 2021).

[8] Cited in ibid.

[9] Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2008), p.108.

Our ‘passion’ story

Looking at this tree-like plant (behind me) reminds me of one of the major symbols of Palm Sunday – recalling the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; and, how the crowd sang “Hosanna!” to Jesus by waving palm branches and making a roadway strewn with leaves from trees.[1]

Indeed at this time of year in Ottawa we start to see more green outside. The snow has just melted and the earth covered by ice is exposed to rain and sun for the first time in months. Thoughts of earth renewed and life restored tease me out of the doldrums of despair, as I struggle to keep my spirit afloat during the coronavirus crisis we are all enduring.

Maybe then it is appropriate to call today by its other name: “Passion Sunday”. Passion Sunday launches us into Holy Week which culminates in Good Friday, the day Jesus died. Throughout this coming week Christians recall the stories surrounding Jesus’ path to the cross.

In fact a large part of the total content in all four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – make up the Passion stories. If we consider each Gospel as made up of major parts, or Acts, as in plays of live theatre or opera (e.g. Act 1, Act II, Act III), the longest ‘Act’ of each Gospel situates Jesus in Jerusalem during his last few days. 

And yet, in our practice of faith, we conveniently steer clear of this significant though uncomfortable and disruptive part of Jesus’ life. In doing so we learn to devalue our own path of suffering as integral to faith in Jesus. We Protestants, especially, in our worship life normally leap from Palm Sunday (not even calling it Passion Sunday) to Easter Sunday avoiding everything in between.

These days during the pandemic, we don’t have the luxury of choice. We are being forced into our own Passion story. We are being asked to self-isolate. We are being asked to place restraints on our normal, social activity. And some of us are sick, and will still get sick. As social beings, we protest. 

Relationship dynamics are pushed to the limit – dating relationships, marriages, faith communities, extended families, households. And the normal fractures within relationships, usually glossed over by the activities, novelties and loud noise of regular life, are exposed now as cavernous fissures separating us during this time of ‘physical distancing’.

At this time we need to take another look at Jesus’ Passion. The word used in the context of Jesus’ suffering is not ‘passive’. It is not ‘giving up’ in a fatalistic hands-in-the-air way. It is not rejecting, or running away from, avoiding or denying what is happening to us now.

It is not giving up. But it is giving it up. Jesus in his passion did not run away. Instead he faced head-on what was being done unto him. We, too, can choose to accept our current situation and ask God, Jesus, who knows this path well, to be with us in it. Precisely because we don’t have control over this circumstance, our lives, then, are about allowing life to be done unto us, which Jesus prayed in the Garden on the night before he died.[2]So, we embrace our time of passion.

Passion time is like ‘fallowing’ time. In agrarian cultures, in farming communities, people become in tune to the seasonal changes. During long winter seasons, the land is not being productive, crops are not being sold and money is not being earned. But it is valuable time, in fallow, to refurbish and repair tools, equipment, and buildings. Down time, though seemingly ‘quiet’, is in truth generative time to press reset on the fundamentals of our community and personal relationships.

Passion time, though not easy to endure, is time nevertheless to both help and allow bodies and ecosystems to renew themselves. It is time to refresh and expand our awareness of what is, to reflect on successes and failures and decide what needs to be done differently once we are back to normal.

These fallow-time activities are not a waste of time, or time off. But, rather, this time can be seen as investment in personal, family and community well-being.[3]

The fallow season is the bridge between suffering and joy. Keeping fallow means trying another remedy for the malaise, boredom and despair we all feel:

Stillness rather than incessant activity.

Simplicity rather than always doing too much and over-functioning.

Silence rather than raising the volume.

Being with whomever makes up your household rather than being distracted by a noisy crowd.

Take this time during Holy Week not only to read the entire Passion story in any of the Gospels. But take the time, also, to rediscover your relationship with your spouse, partner, children, grandchildren, parent, grandparent, yourself. Even if you live by yourself, your pet and even your plants.

I’ll be watering this palm tree and caring for it a bit more this coming week. The meaning of Holy Week is the Passion of Christ. Walk with Jesus as Jesus walks with you. The waiting, the watching, the patience of remaining in this suffering. The ground is still fallow. The earth is fallow. This is our season, now. Waiting for the life that will surely come. 

[1]Matthew 21:6-9


[3]From Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, “The Path of Descent”/”Reality Initiating Us”, 28 March/1 April, 2020 (