While the church today, as always, is challenged to confess in word and deed that Jesus is indeed ‘the Christ’, it is simultaneously warned against using that confession in the service of triumphalist religion. ‘The Christ of faith’, when true, always leads again to the ‘Jesus of history’―that is, to him who ‘was crucified, dead, and buried’, and whose anointing entailed a ‘descent into hell’ before it could sit him down at the right hand of God. ― Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.1
Trigger warning re domestic violence
Christophe Munzihirwa was a Catholic, a Jesuit, and an archbishop in the African nation of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was in office for just over a year, until he was assassinated by Rwandan soldiers in 1996. He was a protector of Hutu and Tutsi refugees in the Rwandan civil war and a proponent of democracy and reconciliation. He once said:
There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried.
I thought of these words after the dreadful murder-suicide last Wednesday just fifteen minutes from here in which Rowan Baxter cruelly killed his wife Hannah Clarke and their three children Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey before killing himself. How many eyes have cried since then, and what have they seen that they hadn’t seen before?
There has been a lot of criticism of the reporting of the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children. I would say that much of the reporting avoided tears.
Initially, it sidestepped the reality of what happened; then, it spoke of what a ‘good bloke’ the murderer was, a footy player and great dad.
When we try to sidestep the issues, we avoid our tears. Are we afraid of tears?
One early newspaper headline was
Rowan Baxter died along with his three children when their car was set alight in Brisbane
A TV report said:
Three children have been burnt to death in a car fire, along with their father.
Is that what happened?
There’s some small excuse for all this, maybe; the police had not yet declared it a murder-suicide. But the news reports imply death by misadventure, which was surely never a possibility.
And the police themselves misspoke. The then inspector in charge said:
Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence and her and her children perishing at the hands of the husband, or is it an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues he’s suffered by certain circumstances into committing acts of this form?
I’m not criticising the police officer who said these words. He was in a stressful situation, and no doubt trying hard to remain professional. But his language shows where so much of the mindset of our society is situated. The big questions seem to be Whose fault is it? His or hers?
When we try to be even handed, we avoid tears. Are we afraid of tears?
There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried.
I also thought of these words when I thought about today’s Gospel Reading of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Why would I do that?
It’s because of what Jesus says to the disciples as they walk down the mountain:
Don’t tell anyone about this vision you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from death.
You can’t be ‘raised from death’ unless you’ve died. By definition. And this (almost) always involves tears at some point. What did the disciples see through their tears?
Jesus had undergone a horrific death. Crucifixion was one of the worst tortures ever invented by our species, which is relentlessly creative when it comes to methods of killing its own. The disciples, cowards to a man, had scattered. Some of the women remained, though from a distance. The movement Jesus had started was as dead as its leader.
There was nothing left except tears. Tears of shame and grief and regret.
Then the Third Day came. The stone was rolled away and Christ was risen. The Resurrection changed everything.
The Resurrection is not happy ending story. Jesus died on Good Friday, but don’t worry folks!—he came back on Easter Sunday.
So when we look at the event that has shocked us all this week, we do not tell a happy-ending story—they’ve gone to a better place. Dry your tears, they’re with Jesus.
The Resurrection is not a happy ending; rather, it is a new beginning, the beginning of a new creation. One that reveals life and peace and reconciliation and justice—and, above all, love—which enables us to see with the eyes of one who weeps for the sin of the world.
Why am I talking about the Resurrection of Jesus today? I mean, Lent, the long walk to the cross, starts on Wednesday. We’re nowhere near Easter.
The reason is this: the Transfiguration is a foretaste of Easter. Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved Son, in the midst of the ancient heroes, Moses and Elijah.
From the Transfiguration onwards, Jesus is walking towards Jerusalem and Calvary. So the Transfiguration serves to strengthen Jesus for the trials lie ahead; and to let the disciples know that there would be a Third Day, not a happy ending but a new beginning. A new creation. They’d see it when they saw it.
Yet: they would go through a ‘vale of tears’ to get there. They would see the Resurrected One with eyes that knew tears of pain, of regret, of shame, tears flowing because of their desertion of Jesus.
Only then would they know tears of joy.
Let’s turn back to the horrific event that happened last Wednesday:
To reflect theologically what occurred this past week, we must look at it ‘with eyes that have cried’.
Eyes that have cried don’t go first to a defensive position, or to blame; they go to compassion for those who suffer. When they try to see what can be done, they look at how to protect the vulnerable.
We’re nowhere near there, folks. People are trying—a restraining order had been taken out, but Mr Baxter could track Hannah Clarke on her phone. Mediation was attempted, and a recommended course of action refused by Mr Baxter.
Perhaps you’re sensing that if my eyes have cried, my tears haven’t provided me with any answers. But between you and me, I wouldn’t trust me if I did claim to have the answers. I’m just a preacher, after all.
Yet the tears we need to shed are not sentimental. As Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa said, they lead us to see things we couldn’t see without them. An ABC article reminds us:
It is imperative that we do not create a narrative where domestic violence is seen as ‘mutual combat’ or ‘relationship conflict’. It occurs when one person makes a unilateral choice to exert power and control over another person.
In the vast majority of cases, the one who makes that choice to exert control is male, and a male who is the product of toxic masculinity. But we can’t let that blind us to the power imbalance. We may have a family here in which all are victims in some way; but one has chosen to murder the others and must bear that responsibility.
In its basic form, toxic masculinity reveals itself in catcalling and bullying behaviour against women. It shrugs its shoulders and says ‘boys will be boys’. We’ve seen that the consequences of toxic masculinity can be nothing less than evil.
We men need to call one another out on this. Boys shouldn’t be ‘boys’. It may be uncomfortable to call one another out. But it is necessary. We have to do it.
I am sure that Jesus shed tears for the sin of the world. Those tears took him to death. Ours may take us into difficult places, where we need to do and say difficult things.
Maybe that’s one reason why we need the Transfiguration. God’s glory is shown in humility. Divine glory is revealed in service. We can’t see this without tears, tears of pity, of compassion, tears of grief. Only a few saw Jesus risen from the dead. Perhaps they are the ones who had cried. Pilate, the soldiers, the priests had no time for tears that could see a new creation. They were too busy ensuring business as usual.
Next Sunday is the First Sunday in Lent. We’re on the road to the Cross. We walk that road together, we shed our tears together, alongside the Lord whose crown is thorns.
Yet we wait for those tears of joy that come on the Third Day. And we live and work now, today, in the light of that Third Day, this New Creation in Christ. Amen.
West End Uniting Church, 23 February 2020