Harrowing Of Hell
May 17, 2020

The King of May

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

In normal times, yesterday would have been Mayfair in Madrona. It is not a traditional May Day celebration with a May Pole or a parade led by the Queen of May, a young girl with a crown of flowers and tiara who personifies the passage of spring into summer. But the Madrona Mayfair, too, would have  begun with a makeshift parade of high school drummers and little children riding their bikes. At parade’s end the Madrona Playfield would have been set up with pony rides and a bouncy house, a clown and the reptile man. The fair, sponsored by the Madrona Community Council, would also have had booths staffed and supplied by the PTSA, local businesses, and Epiphany Parish that provided food, beverages and treats for the neighborhood children and families.

In normal times, we would have…In other times we could have…. These phrases are not so different than those we might use to begin a fairy tale because what we are experiencing is so unlike anything we’ve experienced before. And so, it almost makes sense to begin our story with something like Once upon time  in the time of Covid 19…

This point is certainly made by Sabrina Orah Mark a writer and poet whose column in the Paris Review deals with fairy tales and how their symbolism speaks to our daily lives. She begins her April 6th column:

“Once upon a time a Virus With A Crown On Its Head swept across the land. An invisible reign. A new government. “Go into your homes,” said the Virus, “or I will eat your lungs for my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The city that never sleeps shall fall into a profound slumber, your gold shall turn to dust, and your face shall be pressed against the windowpane.”

“And the elders, for fear of death, shall not embrace the young.”

She then goes on to say, “The fairy tale I will write about this time is this one. The one we’re inside.”

The tale we are living inside. I am thinking about this today as we read our gospel from John. Jesus has been with his disciples for three years and has shared with them many teachings.  And, Jesus taught his disciples using metaphors and short illustrative stories to help them understand his important role in God’s work through what theologians sometimes refer to as the “I AM” sayings. Jesus says “I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the gate for the sheep and the good shepherd. I am resurrection and life – and the way, the truth, and the life. I am the true vine. We feel these sayings deep down in our souls because while Jesus is neither bread nor gate nor vine, our lived experience with him has, indeed, nourished us and has guided us. In the valley of the Shadow of Death, we do not fear because we know that our Good Shepherd is showing us the way. And when the days grow dark, we know that God has left the light on for us.

If there was ever a time that we might need to hear about how Jesus remains with us, it is now during this strange tale we are living inside. It all seems so surreal. There is so much we do not know and about which no one can tell us. And it is affecting us on so many levels – even when we try to keep our thoughts positive and our schedules fixed. We are unnerved. As journalist Gillian Flaccus writes for “millions of people around the world…dealing with COVID-19…our dreams are exposing feelings of fear, loss, isolation and grief that transcend culture, language and national boundaries.” A friend from back home wrote on her Facebook page, “I have been having horrible nightmares lately.” Of the 17 comments to her post – many read something like “Me too” or “Lots of anxiety dreams here.” This is a real thing. Flaccus notes “Experts say humanity has rarely experienced “collective dreaming” on such a broad scale in recorded history.” Our minds, our human science, and reason do not even pretend to have all the answers. There were people who lived their entire lives and have joined Jesus and the saints without ever having experienced anything like this. And, so it is as if we are walking through new world without any maps – without even a compass.  And so, through our collective dreams our minds are trying to make our way – find our way. 

Today’s gospel, a part of what scholars call the Farewell Discourse, finds Jesus’ disciples in a similar place. They have followed Jesus and through his teachings and his great acts come to believe he might just be the one who was to come – the Messiah. Comprised of chapters 13-17 in John’s gospel, Jesus’ farewell begins after Judas’ hasty exit from the Last Supper and ends with Jesus’ arrest. Just as Jesus has used traditional story-telling and metaphors heretofore, his final words also follow a literary form that would have been familiar to his disciples. Most scholars agree that the farewell discourse is a literary genre called a testament. Testaments are found in the Hebrew scriptures in the farewell and blessing of Jacob to his children (Gen 47:29–49:33), Joshua’s farewell to Israel (Josh 22–24), and David’s farewell speech (1 Chr 28–29). Raymond Brown writes that a testament tells the story of  “…a  great …[leader] who gathers together his followers…on the eve of his death to give them instructions that will help them after his departure.” In his Farewell Discourse, however, Jesus is not only giving his disciples instructions, he is giving them consolation as well.

In today’s gospel Jesus is encouraging his disciples and us, by letting us know that even as he departs, we are not being left on our own. Jesus promises us ‘another’ advocate. It is with this new Advocate, the Holy Spirit, that we will walk in the world. And it is this Spirit that will help us remember that Jesus remains present and continues to show us the way. We need the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to remind us of that our relationship with God is a living relationship. It is not enough to ‘remember’ the historical Jesus and what he did and taught during his time on earth. What he accomplished and what he taught then was just the beginning of what he has promised to do. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, inside of us lives the ability to see, to believe, to embody, to experience, and to feel God’s continuing presence in the world and in our lives.

 Our collective stories and dreams are felt deep in our souls because they come out of our lived experiences. We are not comforted by abstract principles or titles or words. We do not believe a princess truly chooses or falls in ‘love’ with a prince because he wears a crown. True love only happens in relationship with another person. We often express feelings of deep love —by saying that our beloved is ‘always there for us when we need them.”  Over and over again, Jesus reaffirms that he will be there when we need him. When we feel vulnerable, fearful and alone, Jesus abides with us.  In the midst of the darkest night or nightmare, times when we might be tempted to ask “Is God really here?,” through the Holy Spirit, Jesus answers “I am.”  The ministry of the Holy Spirit then is one of presence… being there. The Spirit lets us feel the presence of the living Christ we can no longer perceive with our sense of sight.

While the word ‘advocate’ continues to refer to someone who is called to one’s side as a source of help, we often use this word in rather official or legalistic ways in our court, educational and healthcare systems. But this is not the connotation of the word in John’s gospel. The Spirit’s work is not to intercede on our behalf. That powerful role belongs to Jesus.  Jesus died for our sins once and for all. Jesus conquered death, rose again and ascended into heaven. This is not the work the Spirit came to do. God has already given us the gift of perfect love through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rather, the Holy Spirit is the Advocate who stays with us and within us so that we can know the truth of that love and life. Jesus calls the Spirit “another” Advocate, which means that Jesus is also our Advocate. Jesus and the Spirit do similar things. “For example, Jesus and the Spirit both come from the Father and are sent into the world. And just as Jesus communicates what he has received from his Father, the Spirit declares what she receives from Jesus. If Jesus glorifies God, the Spirit glorifies Jesus. Both teach, bear witness to the truth, and expose the sin of the world. Yet calling the Spirit “another Advocate” does negate the very particular function of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit continues Jesus’ work by accompanying us on the journey of our lives. The Holy Spirit sits at our bedside and whispers God’s love into our ears when a nightmare wakes us. The Holy Spirit holds us when we mourn the loss of a beloved one. The Holy Spirit sits beside us, our companion when we feel lonely and frightened. The Spirit consoles us, encourages us and inspires us to keep going.

Jesus tells his disciples – tells us, that he is not leaving us orphans. He meant that in a couple of ways. First of all, he reminds us of what our cultures—what our countries—what are systems make us forget. We cannot be orphans because we are God’s very own children – God’s own heirs to the Kingdom of God. Or in fairy tale terms– we are all princesses and princes. He also means that we will never be left behind or left alone. We will always be in the company of Holy Spirit who not only has our backs but our front and our insides as well…. Including our lungs.

The singer Natalie Merchant wrote a song called the Last King of May. While written in honor of the beat poet Allen Ginsburg, it reminds me of this time of Covid 19 when the reign of dark forces and the Virus with the Crown on its head seek to steal our joy and hope…

Farewell today 
Travel on now 
Be on your way 
Go safely there 
And never worry never care 
Beyond this day 
Farewell tonight 
To all joy and to all the life 
Go on go peacefully 
We can’t keep your majesty 
Be on your way 
Make way for the last king of May 
And make a cardboard crown for him 
And make your voices one 
Praise the crazy mother’s son who loved his life 
Farewell today 
Travel on now 
Be on your way 
Can’t bear the very thought that we 
That we could keep your majesty 
Be on your way 
Make way for the last king of May 
And make a hole in the cloud for him 
Raise your voices up 
Drink your loving cup 
To his long life …

Jesus leaves us with an Advocate –The Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit reminds us we are not alone. The Buddhist teachers and thinkers Ginsburg and Ram Dass would, I believe, agree… We do not need to be afraid of what will come. Our nightmares do not rule the day and our collective dreams are made bigger in the power of the Spirit. We are not alone….we’ve got our crowns… the blossoms of Spring and the one true King. We’ve got the Holy Spirit holding us and lifting us up, once and for all, for ever after ever and reminding us in this life we’re all just walking each other home.