About a year ago at this time of year – on the night of Good Friday, in fact – my dog, a wonderful Yellow Labrador Retriever named Baxter, was asleep at my feet as I sat on the sofa watching TV. Without any warning, the dog suddenly got up and began to stagger erratically around the room. For about a half a second this strange movement of his was amusing, almost as if he was playing a game. But it quickly became clear to me that there was no game. After 30 seconds or so, I guess, Baxter came to a stop, and keeled over onto his side, losing control of his bladder as he fell.

By now I had jumped up and gone to him. He was lying on his side, furiously paddling his front paws. He’s choking, I thought, but on what I had no idea. Still, there must be a way to give a dog the Heimlich maneuver. So I started pressing on his belly and his rib cage trying to force some phantom blockage out of his windpipe. While he was between my hands like that: one hand steadying his back, while the other searched desperately for the right place to apply the right amount of pressure, the paddling stopped, and Baxter’s body simply went completely stiff, and foam began to drip out of his mouth.

And I thought to myself, I can’t believe my dog is going to die on Good Friday. It was very clear to me that there was no time for me to get Baxter to help. Penn Veterinary Hospital is on the other side of the river. There was no time to get my car. I would never manage to hail a cab with the stiff body of a 70 pound Labrador in my arms, and it would take too long anyway, we would never make it in time. My 5 year-old dog was dying before my eyes, I thought, and there was nothing I could do.

I was screaming by now at the top of my voice, BAXTER!!!! Trying to do what? Call him back from wherever he was going?

And as I pushed again at his rib cage, I heard a little growl, and felt a little movement. And almost as suddenly as he fell, Baxter staggered up to his feet and looked at me with a kind of blank confusion, as I knelt there with tears streaming down my face, gasping for breath myself, and wondering what had just happened, and not quite certain whether my dog was going to live or die.

When I called the Emergency Room at Penn Vet they suggested to me that perhaps Baxter had had a seizure of some kind, which I thought was completely inane, since he has always been a perfectly healthy dog. But he seemed to be unhurt, and the confused look on his face was fading, and he was beginning to respond to me like normal, and the ER vet suggested letting him have a night’s sleep and see how he looked in the morning.

It’s hard, as a single person, to describe the importance of a dog in your life without seeming pathetic or misguided or both. Suffice it to say Baxter spends a lot of time with me. He sits at my feet as I work, sleeps on the bed beside me, has driven around the entire country with me, and has greeted me almost every day of his life with the trademark enthusiastic tail-wagging of a happy Lab. And I had no idea how deeply the fear of losing him could wound me.

It turned out that the ER was right. Baxter was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy – which means that he is prone to epileptic seizures for no apparent reason, no underlying cause. He’s been treated with an experimental drug that has shown mixed results so far. And over the course of the past year there have been eight or nine nights (it’s almost always at night) that have been interrupted by the staggering, the keeling over, the pee, the paddling, the stiffened body, the foaming mouth, and finally the disoriented return to consciousness.

I am talking with my vet and with Penn about adjusting his medication or changing it altogether. Although the seizures do not generally put Baxter at great risk, it would be better to prevent them. And each time it happens I kneel at his side and I hold him gently, I stroke his side and murmur reassuring things more to myself, I suppose, than to him. And I sit with him while he goes through that period of disorientation that follows the seizure, and I wait for him to get his bearings again, and return to normal. But I remember each time, all too clearly that Good Friday a year ago, when I was sure my dog was dying and there was nothing I could do except shriek with hysteria and despair.

It’s too silly for words to suggest that Jesus’ death on the cross is anything like my dog’s epileptic seizure, because, of course, it is not. But if there is a similarity here it is this: today, as we recite again the Passion of our Lord, and remember him staggering to Golgotha, enduring the whips and the nails, gasping for his own breath, and finally giving up the ghost; today the church experiences a kind of collective seizure of her own as we recount this horrible narrative.

Because while it is true that we have been through this story before, we have sung it in different keys, read it in different translations, acted it out, painted and sculpted it a hundred thousand times and ways; it’s true that we have become accustomed to the throes of this Passion, beginning today, we set aside a week to remember that first time it really happened, before we knew how it would turn out.

It is as though we induce this seizure again, once or twice a year at this time, to remember the hysterical despair that once actually accompanied this sad story, as a mother watched her son put to death, and his friends stood powerlessly by, and the earth groaned and shook in the darkness, and the Lord of life met a violent end.

Like clockwork every year, we see the seizure coming; we count down the warning signs all through Lent. But in our case, this is no idiopathic seizure: we know exactly what the underlying cause is: a world that has wrapped itself in greed and lust and power, and in which most of us have discarded the idea that we should ever seek forgiveness for the miserable things we do to each other, and in which we have largely forgotten how to forgive one another anyway.

The church uses shorthand to describe all this, calling it simply, sin. But you can see the effects of it in a world that awards the wretched children of Mumbai with a golden statuette for entertaining us, but does nothing whatsoever to improve their plight. Or in nations like ours that will violate any part of the planet to exploit the possibilities of carbon-based energy and then belch out the noxious fumes with a self-satisfied grin. Or in a city like ours that still color-codes prosperity and poverty more or less in terms of black and white, with hardly a whimper for the rolling waters of justice and righteousness. (Just to choose a few more obvious collective examples.)

Indignant that at least once or twice a year we should confront the reality of this, the church stages this seizure of hers, intending that it should remind us of how deeply wounded we have been by all our sin, and how deeply wounded is the man who bears them for us.

And it’s become difficult in our society to talk seriously about the importance of Jesus in our lives without seeming pathetic or misguided or both. But still, a week away from the joys of Easter we kneel here beside the stiff body of Jesus. And we are meant to confront the hard truth that in his case, he is actually dead: this is the real thing. We are meant to remember that at the foot of the Cross there is nothing we can do, frankly, to help Jesus or to help ourselves, nothing we can do but shriek with hysteria and despair.

For we know too well the precise underlying causes that have brought us here, if we will be honest with ourselves. We know the sins that nailed his perfect love to the tree. And, as at any death, it’s not just for him that we cry, but for ourselves, and all that we are losing as we see him go. And if we screamed or moaned his name in our hysteria and despair, what would it be for? To bring him back from where he is going?

But of course, we know where he is going. We know that in his death Jesus will do greater work, even, than he did when he was alive: unlocking the gates of sin and death and hell, so that we will not be imprisoned by them.

We have knelt by this stiff, dead body before, our hands on his sides, helpless to do anything to save him. And we know by now that we must let him go, let him die, so that he can save us.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Palm Sunday, 5 April 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 6, 2009 .