Arms Open On the Cross

Easter Sunday dinner at Joy’s and Tim’s house. We listened to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar. My older sister loved the film when I was a young adolescent. I came of age with those songs ringing in my ears. Now I heard them again, particularly Jesus’ lament in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“I only want to say
If there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don’t want to taste its poison…”

I felt myself entering into the drama, plummeting with Jesus into the depths of despair. I felt his fatigue at the enormous amount of work he’d done in the past three years (the work of helping both my parents die?) and his uncertainty that he’d accomplished anything of note. Then his tone changed. It hardened, as he accepted the inevitability of his death and challenged God to tell him why.

“But if I die
See the saga through and do the things you ask of me
Let them hate me hit me hurt me nail me to their tree…”

I sang the words with deep abandon, stretching my arms out wider and wider with each phrase. When I felt myself as outstretched as I could possibly be, I rested there a moment. It was a moment suspended in time, a moment of pure surrender. It’s an interesting position, those arms open on the cross. It signifies both strength and vulnerability, a heart open to the joy of life and to the pain.

I thought of another instance when I had stretched out my arms in opposition. During a talk about the apostle Paul during Christian formation hour at church a few weeks ago, our rector asked us to consider the continuum between a faith grounded in tradition and one inspired by a personal intuition of God. He drew an imaginary line along the wall and asked us to point to where we fell on that continuum. I hesitated as I scanned the wall, then stretched out an arm to each corner. My faith was formed in the liturgical traditions of the Roman Catholic church. That remains important to me. Yet I’m a mystic and a religious renegade, an out-of-the-box believer in a God too big to be contained by any system of belief.

I’ve struggled this semester with another set of polarities: My deeply intuitive sense of God challenged by the academic understanding of how manmade religion is. The two kinesthetic experiences — pointing to each corner of the room, and joining Jesus in surrender on the cross — have given me an inkling of how I might reconcile those understandings. It’s not an “either/or” but an “and,” a way of holding both poles in simultaneous affirmation. Yes, religion is a humanly constructed vehicle to express our deepest longings, hopes, and fears. Yes, faith points us to something true, something so far beyond ourselves we can never reach it any other way.

I’m feeling a peace that has eluded me through these long winter months. I’ve stopped struggling to ascertain which position is correct and accepted that they all are true. I’ve joined Jesus in letting go of the need to understand, of abandoning myself to the human drama without the need to control the outcome. As Jesus says in another song earlier on the soundtrack: “To conquer death you only have to die.”

All quotes from “Jesus Christ Superstar” with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Copyright 1970, 1993: MCA Records.

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