“Give me this stranger!”

Reflections for the 2019 Telos Consultation
Jenny Haddad Mosher, Director

The heartbreaking beauty of Holy Week hits me anew every time I pass through it. The church fills with flowers, a glittering expanse of candles, and hymns so lovely, so carefully crafted, but only sung once a year. The overabundance of those hymns, their countless little icons painted with words and notes, means there’s simply too much to take in, and the vast majority of their exquisite beauty just washes over me like a wave. But when that wave recedes, sometimes one particular line, like a unique shell, will catch my eye and I’ll pick it out to examine it, turn it over, admire it from every possible perspective, and be taught some beautiful new truth.

This year, it was the plea of Joseph of Arimathea for the body of Jesus: “Give me this stranger!” Joseph, the gospel tells us, was a secret disciple of Jesus, someone who had been following him from afar, “a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). Joseph hadn’t yet been ready to sacrifice his reputation by admitting his admiration of Jesus, but now, after the debacle of the crucifixion, he’s struck by that strange amalgamation of pain and shock that, instead of immobilizing with fear, somehow gives birth to strength, love and a desperate boldness. He asks Pilate for the body of this stranger, this person to whom he has no legal or other right. He’s not Jesus’ next of kin, he’s not his guardian, he’s not even, officially, his friend. And yet suddenly his only task, that which he must do at great personal cost, sacrifice, and possible risk, is to acquire the body of this stranger. He must perform the most intimate, familial rites of washing and preparing his horribly abused and broken body for burial. This stranger with whom he has no substantive connection, shares no blood, and to whom he owes no due—suddenly this stranger must be cared for as Joseph would only care for a parent, a sibling, or a child.

In the experience of Joseph, we see the experience of all the first Christians, their lives turned upside down and then thrown suddenly together, first by the mutual grief of the crucifixion, then by the common joy of the resurrection. These disciples, known and unknown, were, for the most part, strangers to each other. They came from different clans, towns, professions, and classes. Some like Joseph were highly educated and knowledgeable about the Scriptures, the law. Some were not even literate, laborers from the fields and fishing boats. Women with servants; women who were servants. They didn’t share the same religious opinions, the same politics. Some had so much to lose—great wealth, status, the neighbors’ good opinion. Others, well—Jesus had fed them more loaves and fish than they’d ever seen in their lives. But here they were, now connected to one another and somehow responsible for one another, now family—mysteriously related through this stranger.

So perhaps it should be no surprise that much of the New Testament is made up of letters, pages and pages of carefully composed instructions intended to help this previously unimaginable mix of people live together. And not just live together, but love one another. And not just love one another, but labor together to build a brand-new, irrevocable reality, a new creation, a unity amongst themselves that had never existed before. Their newfound intimacy was to be embraced and strengthened until their lives were so bound together, so invested in one another’s, so seamlessly connected in purpose—if still diverse in expression—that they would function as a human body functions, one part flowing into the next, in an astounding miracle of well-regulated and productive life.

Look at your hands; think of all the different parts and substances that make them up. Now think of the incredibly sophisticated and delicate engineering required to get those parts to synergize and produce the thousands of simple and complex tasks you rely on your hands for every single day. How carefully and amazingly are we knit together! Jesus and the apostles dared call the Church to this same level of unbelievable artistry, potential, and productivity. They were called to the diligent and irreversible knitting together of their hearts, their souls, their strength, their gifts, their lives, to become the very body of Christ in and for the world.

This experience of the first Christians feels so far away, so long ago—and yet we read those same epistles, those same instructions of the apostles, every single Sunday in Divine Liturgy. We read them not as an archival acknowledgement of a past long gone, but to call all of us to take our own place in that self-same reality, that unbelievable icon of unity in the midst of diversity, that most powerful sermon the Church has to preach to the world. Because that sermon is no list of does and don’ts, nor a call to personal spiritual experience or fulfillment. That sermon is us, our common life as the body of Christ; because in the words of St. Gregory of Palamas, “Every word can be contested by another word, but what word can contest against life?” We are called to the diligent and irreversible knitting together of our hearts, our souls, our strength, our gifts, our lives, to become the very body of Christ in and for the world.

Our common life in the Church—how we live together, how we love one another, how we labor together to build that new creation—is, aside from the person of Christ himself, the most powerful gift the Church has to offer the world. It’s the very ground of being for our own salvation. Elder Sophrony Sakharov, disciple and biographer of St. Silouan the Athonite taught: “We cannot actualize in ourselves the image of God unless we are truly united, as Christ asked of His disciples. Love one another so that the world may know that you are Christ’s.” Our common life is no random byproduct of this thing called Church; it is the thing itself. Our common life is where we find our place in God, a place we cannot reach on our own.

And that common life in Christ, is the exact thing the world is starving for. A world where too often people are deeply lonely, unsure where they fit, measured by their money or title, consumed by a society that strives to sell them everything, but which won’t claim them in times of weakness or want. They seek sustenance for the long, hard days of labor, shade and rest when weary, strong branches with which to build wonderful things, and wine to fuel their joy. And here we are, the Vineyard. We’ve all been grafted onto Christ the Vine, and we exist for one thing: so that the same sap—the Holy Spirit—will course through our unity, equipping us to be all things to all people, and causing us to bear fruit for our Maker and our starving neighbors—joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, healing for the nations. And if we don’t bear that fruit, Christ warns us, if we don’t live into the reality of that Vineyard, we’re only fit to be lopped off and tossed into the fire.

Harsh. And yet so often true. So often we leave our common life uncultivated, unaware of the treasure that lies buried in the field, just waiting to come forth. We imagine the Vineyard belongs to us, when in reality we belong to the Vineyard. Our common life fades from the bright green of Paschal spring to something older, more staid, perhaps autumnal, perhaps rotting. We know this; perhaps we would explain it, “the way we’ve always done things!” We stand ignorant of the magnitude of the shift in the universe that happened with the shift of the stone at the door of the tomb, that we too stand with those first disciples in a whole new Kingdom, in the midst of those graves opened up, with those formerly sleeping saints wandering around the city, appearing to people (Matthew 27:52).

It is too easy to relax, overfamiliar with our parish families (or our teams!), the half we’re related to and the half we don’t like. We show up at the same place and same time and call it fellowship. We create and delegate to-do lists and call it ministry. We cease to really talk to one another, settling for the niceties of coffee hour, not asking the deep and hard questions: What are we here to do? Who are we here to be?

It’s too easy to settle for the entertainment of rolling our eyes when we sit through yet another unproductive parish meeting, or of allowing ourselves to be stirred up into anger when our priest says something that offends us, lording it over one another like the Gentiles. We reach for the titillation of community drama, year after year, and tune out the truth.

This truth is offered to us in the Gospel and Epistle readings week after week: because of this stranger, we belong to one another. We are called to the diligent and irreversible knitting together of our hearts, our souls, our strength, our gifts, our lives, to become the very body of Christ in and for the world. And if we truly cultivate, with diligence, with our best selves, as an offering, our common life, if we truly live into the unbelievable synergy of that belonging, with each one of us—hungry, humble, and smart—bringing their full set of gifts into the work of Christ in the world, who could contest against the life we build together?

Give us this stranger—the bodies of our neighbors, our communities, our parishes—for our life, and for the life of the world, and let us prepare for resurrection.