The Vertical Dimension
The Vertical Dimension
This special week, this very special week, for Christians and, I daresay, Jews too (what with the not unusual coincidence of Passover and Easter), arrives as a welcome intruder, but an intruder nonetheless.
We are, I am, immersed in horizontal concerns. I tune in CNN so frequently I hear Wolf Blitzer in my sleep. Three or four times daily I check the S & P average, just to make sure we can continue to live in the suburbs for another month. I watch in living color at the implosion of the administration in Washington; and the explosions of the war in Iraq. I wonder with my grandson and a friend in New Jersey what the Mets are going to do with Lastings Milledge. And this morning I visited Lowe's to buy a new toilet seat to replace the broken one in the master bedroom lavatory. Oh, I have my ear to the ground, my hand on the wheel, and my eyes on the prize. That is to say, the world is ever with me. The horizontal concerns are absorbing.
Then palm branches appear. Larger concerns, other than my own, loom on the horizon, one of them, the largest, in the shape of two crossed beams of wood. And I am reminded, forcibly reminded, that this mortal life is about more than food and clothing and bank accounts... or wars and rumors of wars. Life, my own and the one I share with five billion others, has a vertical dimension. Above, in, and through the swirl of events which usually claims my attention.
We should know better. I should know better. I should know better than to lose the eternal perspective, for which the cross is raised Good Friday. And not because I am a professional religious person. Because I've lived seventy-five years and witnessed a procession of events each of which in the moment seemed to portend the end of the world: seeing beggars at the kitchen door in the 1930's; taking shelter against Nazi bombers in the school basement in the 1940's; worrying over nuclear annihilation in the 1950's; watching the institutions of our society crumble in the Age of Aquarius; marking the relentless spread of AIDS; listening to the dire predictions of the next bubonic plague. I've been there and seen that, over and over again, the seemingly endless turmoil of life lived on the horizontal.
I should know better, but I need the occasional lightning bolt from heaven to shatter my horizontal preoccupations; and, if not a charge of electricity, then someone or something to cut through my worries and fascinations, the better to behold this mortal life in its eternal dimension.
Not a lightning bolt, but a recent strong nudge, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the Democratic presidential hopeful, helped all of us to remember the vertical dimension. She deals with a life-threatening cancer. When Katie Couric suggested that Elizabeth and her husband might want to forgo the stress of a nomination campaign, Mrs. Edwards asked why. The TV personality, probably expressing the thoughts of a few million others, said the obvious, the threat of death. To which Elizabeth replied that we are all going to die. Strong woman, strong words: words that slice through our delusions of permanence as we with our busyness make our way through time... watching the S & P and buying toilet seats.
For those of us like me who keep their eyes glued to the ground, Jesus has a couple of choice words: look up. Actually, the full text from Luke 21:28 in King James English reads:And when these things begin to come to pass [wars, pestilence, turmoil of every kind], then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. Look up, not look around. I hear an echo of Anne Frank's favorite Psalm (121): I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence my help cometh. Bob, if not Anne, lists those hills to which we look for a vertical correction of our horizontal obsession: among them, Sinai, Zion, a Galilean hillside, and Mt. Calvary.
To see the world from another perspective, a much higher perspective: as trickster artist Salvador Dali did in his painting of the crucifixion. As Martin Luther King Jr. did with his sermon "I've Been to the Mountaintop." As preachers are commissioned to do every time they step behind the pulpit and dare (oh, what an arrogant and impossible expectation!) to speak the Word, the vertical intersecting with the horizontal.
These next few days, as Lent winds down and speeds up, as the drama of salvation unfolds and we allow ourselves to be swept up in events ancient and timely, there's a chance that my feverish grasp on the moment will release and the lightning bolt from above (that intruder from beyond) will deliver me to a more sober estimate of my moment in time and a deeper appreciation for heaven's gracious intention for me and all creatures great and small.
That's another reason the cross is raised: to save us from ourselves.