Friday: Mary and Joseph: At the Manger, At the Cross
Today is about loyalty.
Or rather, it is about loyalty and the lack thereof.
Everyone in this story reveals where his or her loyalty lies, and actions speak much louder than words.
So today becomes the opportunity for us to show where our loyalty lies, because what we receive on Good Friday is a pledge of loyalty to us that stares down the forces of death and hell themselves.
Loyalty is something we admire. We consider it a virtue.
The difficult part of this story is that some of the people whom we consider villains in the story are showing admirable loyalty.
But where they choose to place their faith and commitment ends up being on the wrong side of history.
And that makes us afraid that we could be guilty of the same.
We begin with the chief priests and the elders.
They think they are doing the right thing.
Their loyalty is to the best interest of their people, and every day for years they have had to walk a delicate political line with the Roman occupiers.
How can they maintain the most religious freedom and autonomy for their people without angering the Romans, while not knuckling under to Rome to the point that they become collaborators?
They have one very clear priority, and the life of one upstart itinerant rabbi does not even tip the scales.
Our gospel says, “Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.”
He was right, but for the wrong reasons.
But he and the others did what they felt they had to do to protect their people.
Pilate had a more straightforward loyalty: to his own self-interest.
He was neither cruel nor unreasonable.
In fact, Pilate courteously leaves his own headquarters, coming out to meet the Jewish delegation so they will not have to risk ritual defilement.
Pilate can see that there is an injustice unfolding before him, but in the end he is simply not willing to get involved.
How easy it is for our loyalty to ourselves to result in simple inaction, which can be more damaging than any action we could take.
Judas has a more complex play of loyalty or lack thereof within him.
He obviously compromises his loyalty to Jesus by betraying him.
But why did he do it?
What was he trying to accomplish?
Did he believe Jesus had become dangerous or misguided?
Was Judas trying to express some sort of loyalty to the rest of the twelve or to the people at large by removing a Jesus he had come to perceive as a threat?
Did he even have a choice?
John says Satan entered into him and made him do it.
Or was there no supernatural influence at all? Did he simply want the money, no matter how much he would regret it later?
Judas is an example of the danger of not placing one’s loyalty in the right place from the very beginning, even of the danger of making loyalty to someone conditional on their continuing adherence to our expectations.
Judas was loyal to Jesus as long as Jesus did what Judas thought he should do.
But when Jesus challenged Judas with his teachings or actions, Judas withdrew his loyalty.
And the cost to Jesus, to their friendship, to Judas himself, was devastating.
Judas is the example of how wrong it is to be loyal to someone’s appearance or performance, rather than to the person himself.
Because when we do that to someone else, we do it to ourselves.
And then like Judas, we become profoundly disloyal to ourselves, disappointing ourselves and abandoning our own ethics and principles even as we express our disappointment in the person in whom we have lost faith.
And then we come to Peter.
Oh, poor Peter, whom we love and with whom we identify so closely.
The tragic part of Peter is that he so desperately wants to show loyalty to Jesus, but his fear makes him fail.
In our version from John that we read today, we do not get the full sense of this emotional moment.
But Luke clearly has experience with betrayal, denial, and failure, for he describes this moment with heart-wrenching realism.
The third time Peter is identified as a disciple, “Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.”
This, from the Peter who insisted he would die with Jesus, who cut off the ear of the high priest to defend him.
When the moment of trial comes, he fails.
And Jesus knew he would fail.
And yet when he is resurrected, Jesus offers Peter three chances to say that he loves Jesus, letting Peter’s disloyalty be crucified and his love and newfound leadership purpose be resurrected.
This is why, even as we cringe with how well we identify with Peter’s failure, we are so blessed by the knowledge that our failure will be redeemed on the Cross.
Then we come to the people in this story who show true loyalty to Jesus.
They do not need dramatic gestures like the chief priests and scribes, or legal arguments like Pilate, or impassioned outbursts like Peter.
In fact, they never say a word.
The people who show Jesus the most loyalty at his death are the people who have been loyal to him since before he was born.
The people who are with him to the very end are the ones who were with him at the beginning: Mary and Joseph.
It’s not the same Mary and Joseph as were there at the nativity.
Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, is long dead.
He is replaced by Joseph of Arimathea.
The Virgin Mary his mother is there personally, but she has two other Marys with her, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.
This shows us that the spirit of Mary and Joseph is present in the nature of the actions taken, no matter who takes them, and these actions are ones of profound loyalty.
The Mary and Joseph present at Jesus’ death are acting in the same spirit as the Mary and Joseph at his birth.
When Gabriel announced God’s plan to Mary, both she and Joseph had to show enormous faith in something that everyone else would find impossible to believe.
They believed in his nativity, and Mary and Joseph at the Cross believed in his resurrection, perhaps not even consciously.
The Mary and Joseph present at Jesus’ birth cared for his body in the most loving and intimate way.
They held his utterly vulnerable body, wiped the blood and fluids from it, and wrapped it tenderly in linen cloths to lay it in the manger.
The Mary and Joseph at his death did the same thing.
They took his broken and vulnerable body down from the Cross, wiped the blood and sweat from it, and wrapped it lovingly in linen cloths to lay it in the tomb.
There is no loyalty like the loyalty to be at a birth or a death.
The sticky, uncomfortable truths of the human physical body are there in all their reality, and the person being born or dying has no control, no power, no ability to be anything else other than cared for by you.
This is the loyalty of Mary and Joseph.
They saw him into this world, and they see him out again.
They are the human beings who made the Incarnation possible by how they loved him, body and soul, and their love was so steady and so true that they watched the most painful possible end to the miracle that had dropped into their lives.
And they kept loving him even when he was gone.
Their tears mingled with the blood and sweat on his body as they tenderly cleaned it and laid it to rest.
They could not save him.
They could not save him from the pain and hatred he endured in life or from his unjust and agonizing death.
But they gave the gift of themselves, their presence through all of it, and they refused to abandon him no matter the cost to themselves.
So it is worth asking ourselves: can we be like Mary and Joseph, the faithful, the true, the steadfast?
Do we have the courage to be loyal to Jesus no matter what?
Will we bear the cost of seeing him born us, seeing him die for us, even without the promise that he will rise again?
That’s what the first Mary and Joseph did.
They didn’t know the story ahead of time.
All they knew was that the person they loved was dying before their eyes, but they would not turn away.
What matters so much about Mary’s and Joseph’s loyalty to Jesus is that it is not at all dependent on Jesus’ actions or performance.
When he was a baby and when he was on the Cross, he was not teaching or blessing or healing or walking on water or feeding the thousands. In both states, he was completely helpless.
They loved him not for what he did, but for who he was.
And God shows us the same kind of loyalty a thousand times over. God’s love for us has nothing to do with any actions or performance of duty or holiness that we could ever muster.
Jesus’ love for us does not depend even on whether we are able to be as loyal to him as he is to us. Peter proves that for us.
The reason this question of loyalty is so important is because it is the central truth of the crucifixion.
Jesus dying on the Cross was him expressing his ultimate reality, which is loyalty toward us.
Jesus dying on the Cross is God abandoning every single other priority for love of us.
Jesus dying on the Cross is God abandoning God’s own principles of justice and fairness and holiness because God will not allow us to be consumed by the darkness.
Jesus dying on the Cross is God abandoning God’s only Son to torture and death, because God is more loyal to us than to anything or anyone else, even Jesus. Even God’s very self.
God would rather break God’s own laws, see God’s only Son die and break God’s own heart beyond repair, destroy the laws of physics and the underpinnings of order in the universe, than be separated from us.
That is the depth of loyalty God has for us and our tiny, misguided, selfish little hearts, and it takes my breath away.
There is so little we can offer Jesus on this day, this Friday we call Good that witnessed the death of one man, which was the death of God, which was the death of death.
We cannot save Jesus from his pain any more than Mary and Joseph could.
The only gift we have is the gift of our loyalty, and what that really means is the gift of ourselves.
Mary and Joseph welcomed him into their lives no matter the potential cost, and they stood by him until he went out of their lives, no matter the cost to their hearts that finally came due.
Mary was told at his dedication at the Temple that a sword would pierce her own heart.
That happened when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side.
Mary and Joseph—of Nazareth, Magdalene, and Arimathea—all gave Jesus their loyalty, which is really saying they gave him their very selves, from the manger to the tomb.
They gave themselves to him, body and soul, and they loved him, body and soul.
Today is our chance to do the same, and we have an advantage they never had.
Today when we give ourselves away to Jesus, body and soul, we know that he will give himself back to us on the third day, body and soul.
Jesus will break through the very bonds of sin and death, because there is no greater force in the universe than his loyalty to us.
If we can return that loyalty to him, even in the smallest and most humble of measures, we have honored this day and his gift of himself to us.
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