Last night, as we remembered the Last Supper, at about the hour the sun was going down, we read the instructions for the first Passover from the book of Exodus. There we find that an unblemished, year-old male lamb is to be killed for the meal. The people of Israel are told to wait until the fourteenth day of the month, and then to gather together for the sacrifice of the lamb. And they are told to “slaughter it at twilight,” and to take some of the blood of the lamb and use it to mark the doorposts and lintels of their homes so that God will know which homes to pass over as he tramples through Egypt, wreaking vengeance on the firstborn children of the oppressors of his chosen people.
Twilight is not only that period of soft, grey, diffuse light between sunset and nighttime, when the sun is already below the horizon, but darkness has not yet fallen; it is also, as any teenage girl could tell you, the title and the theme of the story of Bella Swan and her forbidden love for the vampire, Edward Cullen. Although I am willing to bet not a single one of us here today has read it, the book has sold more than 17 million copies, and spawned two movies which have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. And it represents the latest installment in a series of romantic obsessions with vampires, who are dangerous, of course, because they need to drink your blood.
My little research about the Twilight phenomenon has brought me the discovery that the book begins with a biblical reference, taking as its starting point the forbidden fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. However, it would seem that the forbidden fruit of teenage vampire love is the real issue here; any knowledge of Good and Evil takes a back seat. The twist in the saga of Bella and Edward is that the gallant, hunky vampire actually prevents his beloved from becoming what he is when another vampire bites her. Edward sucks the vampire venom from Bella’s veins, saving her from his fate of an eternal deathlessness that is not quite living.
The whole premise of the vampire genre always has echoes of the reverse image of the Christian fixation on the blood of Jesus, making it jarring every time we read of Jesus’ instructions that his followers must drink his blood. These instructions were, of course, given to his disciples at twilight, as they were remembering the slaughter of the Passover lamb at the same hour. And they were attached to the symbol of the cup of wine he shared with his disciples in such an obvious way that none of them seems to have suspected that he was suggesting some strange new cultish practice with vampiric overtones. They already knew the symbolic significance of the blood of the lamb; they remembered the blood smeared on the doorposts and the lintels, and the older tradition of the scapegoat sent out into the desert to die, bearing the sins of the people. And vampires had not yet been invented, anyway.
What they did not guess, could not see coming, was that twilight would come at noon the next day, as the sky darkened so the Lamb could be slaughtered at the appropriate time, and their Lord was nailed to the Cross and allowed to bleed from his head, his hands, his feet, and his side.
Over on the wall there, at the 12th Station of the Cross, which depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus, if you were to look closely at the enamel image created by an artist about a century ago, you would see behind the Cross of Jesus a darkened sky, grey-black clouds eclipsing the noonday light to create an early twilight. On either side of Jesus are the two criminals, and in between each of the criminals and our Lord, there flies a sort of disembodied cherub, clasping a chalice to catch the blood that falls from Jesus’ brow, that sacred head, sore wounded.
Throughout Lent, I have returned to this image week after week in my private devotion. Because the church is dark, and because the cherubim are clearly not collecting the blood that drained from Jesus’ wounded side (their chalices are held up higher, just below his head), I imagined at first that they were actually gathering Jesus’ tears as he gave up the ghost. This seemed like a suitably sentimental image for 1928, the year the Stations were given to the church. And I tend to think that a reflection on the tears of Christ as he offers his life on the Cross for the world would yield some fruit, taking our cue from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, “Is it nothing to you all ye that pass by, behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.”
We don’t need vivid imaginations to color in the images of Jesus’ sorrow in our own day and age: after a century and more of warfare across the globe; the holy city of Jerusalem still a place of violence and strife; the church plagued by scandal and internecine fighting; a nation that brags about its liberty but cares little for those whose economic status or race or just bad luck leave them with very little freedom at all – certainly unable to break the cycles of poverty and violence; a planet that we continue to destroy as we asphyxiate, cut down, pave over, or drill out, marring its beauty and depleting its resources… just to name a few possible reasons for Jesus’ tears.
But it turns out the little angels are not collecting Jesus’ tears at all. It is his blood they are after; patiently waiting for every drop to fall from the thorns of his crown into their chalices. And I have found myself wondering: what do they intend to do with the blood of Christ they have so carefully harvested at this midday twilight? Is it to be delivered to his disciples for the doorposts and lintels of their homes, or swallowed in some gruesome ritual after his burial to give his disciples a vampire-like eternal deathlessness that is not quite living?
The Scriptures, of course, never suggest that angels descended from the darkened clouds, or that anyone collected so much as a drop of the blood that drained from Jesus’ veins. But year after year, for these twenty centuries, twilight has come early every Good Friday, at least in the living memory of the church, and with it comes the remembrance of the Garden where once we lived in happiness, and of the tree, and its forbidden fruit that tempted us with more than teenage angst. And we know that there is cause for tears as we reflect not only on our human history, but on our own lives, our failings, our diminished hopes and unrealized dreams, the stupid things we’ve done or the good things we ignored doing when we should have. And we reflect on the pain and the loss in our lives – some of our own making, some of it not.
And if we think of Jesus on the Cross at all, we might hope that he weeps for us, as much as for himself, if indeed he does weep as he hangs there.
But tears, as any of us who have shed them knows, will only get you so far. The children of Israel had wept through decades of slavery without relief before God gave them instructions to take a lamb and slaughter it at twilight.
And although the sun is shining brightly on this glorious spring day outside; in here, at this hour, it is twilight.
And in this twilight blood is being spilled. But the twist in this saga is that by his death, Jesus is not preventing us from becoming what he is: he is helping us become more like him. He is marking out the way to an eternal life in the world to come by offering forgiveness to us and to the whole world for all the things that cause so many tears to be shed.
“This is my blood,” he said, “which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.”
If angels collected his blood as it spilled from his body, I suppose it must have been in order to bring it to some heavenly dispensary so that it could be distributed one miniscule drop after another over the centuries, to tint the wine in chalices all over the world. Not so we could be spared living a life like his, but so that we might share in his life and in his death, by which I mean to say not only a life of forgiveness, of grace, and hope and healing and blessing, but also a life that does not end at the grave, but is a new kind of living in the hereafter.
For Bella and Edward, and for so many of us, twilight is a dangerous time, as darkness approaches, and the demons of our lives lurk in shadows, and it becomes safer for them to come out, under the cover of darkness.
And the mystery of God’s love is not only that he supplies the Lamb for the sacrifice he requires (as he always has), not only that he can take spilled blood and use it as a symbol of new life, not only that he forgives us our sins without having to locate a scapegoat year after year.
The mystery of God’s love is that he makes an early twilight at the middle of the day, when the spilling of his Son’s blood might be a sign of nothing more than the depravity of humankind, and cause for tears…
…but he fills this twilight with a different light that seems to bend around the barriers of our sin and defensiveness, and reaches into the darkest corners of our lives, and gives us hope.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Good Friday, 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia