The Drama of the Cross: What the Torn Curtain Reveals

Year B Palm Sunday with Mark’s Gospel

Sermon to Pohick Church • March 28, 2021Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

“And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

This final line of Mark’s Passion story has always haunted and intrigued me. Even when I was a little girl, I imagined how everything happened: The day becomes dark, thunder rolls, and something like lighting rips the curtain in two. I see the faces of those who’ve played a part in the tragedy, as they look up at the cross and suddenly realize who it is they’ve just killed.

Exactly what do they see – and what do we see – at that dramatic moment the temple curtain rips open?

Biblical scholars say the veil of the Jewish temple was in fact a curtain. It hid the “holy of holies,” God’s presence, from all but the temple priests.  The ordinary person couldn’t see or get to the inner heart of God. Mark’s Gospel reveals that Jesus’ death on the cross opens the curtain and takes us right to the heart of God.

The Cross of Christ shows us exactly what God looks like. God looks like Love. “God IS Love,” according to I John.

God is love, light, truth and beauty: a gentle but persistent invitation to the whole world. The love revealed on the cross attracts us and woos us as a lover would. During the Eucharistic Prayer, the Proper Preface will proclaim succinctly and clearly:

He was lifted high upon the Cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself.”

Yet the cross was an instrument of torture. The horrific suffering it caused ought to repel us. Instead, the drama of the cross draws us into the very heart of God. There we see the outstretched arms of a suffering lover. It is a love story that begins with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

You might know the symbolism of the garden. A garden is a place for lovers. A place to delight in one another, drink wine, be consumed with one another. How does this love story unfold in the Garden of Gethsemane?

Jesus sweats blood, begging his Father to spare him the cup of suffering. I used to think Jesus was struggling with the question, “Will I let myself die.” But as Fr. Ron Rolheiser says, the real choice Jesus faces is “How will I die?” Angry, bitter, hard and unforgiving? Or with a soft, forgiving heart of love?

We know how this drama resolves: Jesus the lover chooses forgiveness. He dies forgiving his executioners. Throughout Passion Week, Jesus remains in character. Jesus lives with integrity into the message he has preached all his life and reveals on the cross:

Love, forgiveness, and community ultimately triumphs.

Jesus’ suffering and death reveals the astounding, astonishing, undeserved love of God. Yet we’re not called to just stand and gawk at the cross, or simply admire and applaud the drama. We are called to play our part.

This drama presents itself in countless ways in our lives. At the end, we can ask ourselves, How will we die? Will our lives end with anger, unforgiveness, or bitterness about the unfairness of it all? Or will our hearts be warm and forgiving?

I am reminded of dying people with whom I’ve had the privilege of participating in their final act. An early inkling I was called to priesthood was when an elderly man suffering from cancer clung to my hand, eyes wide with fear, and asked, “How will God ever forgive me?” Soon after, a bitter woman refused to forgive a church that had condemned and excluded her. My heart was broken that both remained outside the embrace of God’s crucified love.

I’ve also encountered many who have in time come to terms disappointments, lost dreams, broken relationships. They received grace, chose to forgive, and returned to God’s wide-open arms. They died well.

Furthermore, experiencing the drama of the cross is not just about the choice we face at the hour of our death.

How we die is a choice we face daily, several times a day: in interactions with family, colleagues, friends, enemies, and ultimately, the world. We can be victims of coldness, bullying, misunderstandings, unfairness, and especially this year, of polarized opinions and labeling that distances and distresses us. This can include the indifference of a family member, sarcastic comments, gross unfairness in the workplace, or prejudice and abuse.

Throughout this pandemic year, we have experienced tragedy and loss. We have faced countless choices about “how we will die,” as we experience:

  • Grief over 2.7 million COVID deaths worldwide, and 540,000 in the U.S.
  • Fear of our own, suffering and death.
  • Loneliness and isolation.
  • Frustration at disruptions, hardships in family life, gathering restrictions.
  • Polarization and rage at injustices.
  • Profound changes in our own health, questioning meaning and purpose.

In small and large ways, we have been invited into the drama of the cross. There we face the ultimate choice:

  • In the darkness of our noon hour, on our own Good Fridays, will we let go of the light?
  • In the face of hatred, will we let go of love?

In spite of what we once thought, the central drama of Passion Week is not really about physical whips, thorns and nails. It’s about the choice to die for love.

Holy Week, begins with Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, hailed as triumphant king. It ends when the curtain falls on the crucified king of love, and he is laid in a tomb. On Easter we’ll give a standing ovation and shout ‘Alleluia, He is Risen.”

Today we gather again in church – not quite shoulder to shoulder – but delighted to see beloved faces. We may even be tempted to skip over the suffering, and race to the joy of resurrection and the hope of Easter!

But let’s slow down. Don’t get ahead of the story. Don’t miss a single scene. Instead, pay attention. Struggle, and ponder the profound meaning of each act:

  • At the gates of Jerusalem, hail the King of love, who does not rescue us from disillusionment and suffering, but suffers with us.
  • At the Last Supper, wash others’ feet, by continuing to follow distancing restrictions — loving our neighbors selflessly.
  • At the Garden of Gethsemane, struggle, go ahead and grieve, and pray to drink the cup without resentment. To die well, with love and forgiveness.
  • At the Trials, face those who accuse or condemn. Will we be true to our best selves? Will we speak truth, and act in the face of injustice?
  • Ultimately, at the cross on Good Friday, will we forgive and be reconciled, loving those who hurt, betray or disappoint us?

When our final curtain falls, what will the cross reveal about our lives? About us as a community? Were we…

Bitter…or Gracious?

Cold… or Compassionate?

Fearful…or Trusting?

Despairing…or Hopeful?

And ultimately,

Hate-filled….or Loving?

For in the tragic romance of the Passion, the torn curtain reveals the very heart of God. Lifted high upon the cross, Jesus draws the whole world to himself. When we look up and see there His passionate, unconditional love for us, our only response can be to play our part. To die well daily. To love as He loves. Amen.