holy week 2023: good friday


Note: this is the second Holy Week retreat talk given by The Rev. Alice Cabotaje Roshi.

Reading: Philippians 2:5-8 (New International Version)

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[
b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Every evening in Zen monasteries and at the end of a day’s sesshin, a practitioner strikes a wooden board with a mallet and calls out: ‘May I respectfully remind you: Great is the matter of birth and death. All is impermanent, quickly passing. Be awake each moment.
Don’t waste this life.’

In the same way, our Lenten season started with Ash Wednesday with ashes imposed on our foreheads, reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

It also marked cleansing and preparing us for the wilderness journey of Lent, a special time of prayer, sacrifice, and good works as we movetoward reconciliation — seeking forgiveness for when we have been resistant to our journey of faith, to our journey of trusting the process, of trusting the unfolding of our lives — toward service, toward Easter.

Ashes are a symbol of purification.  As a fire burns, it can separate what is valuable from what is valueless. The mark of Ashes also reminded us that new life emerges from death.

As we know from John 12:24, which states: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus showed us how to die – that is in complete surrender to God, to All that is Unknown and Beyond him despite the pain, suffering, and desolation that came with his dying.

The mystic John of the Cross talked about this — the ultimate emptying of Jesus on the cross. He said:

“At the moment of His death, He was likewise annihilated in His Soul and was left deprived of any relief and consolation, since his Father had left him in the most intense aridity, according to the lowest part of His nature. Wherefor He had perforce to cry out, saying: “My God! My God! Why has thou forsaken me?” This was the greatest desolation, with respect to sense, that he had suffered in His Life. And thus He wrought herein the greatest work that he has ever wrought…that the truly spiritual person may understand the mystery of the gate and of the way of Christ, in order to be united with God.”

We are all confronted with the same requirement that Jesus faced: We all have to face Death with the capital D and all the other things that are within us, in our lives that have to die each time and sometimes over and over again. I’d like to invite each one of us to consider what is it, what are those in us that have to die?

Would anyone be willing to share one thing in you that has to die.

In my case, there are many things, including my ego that has to die again and again. One that comes to mind, which gets in the way of my practice of being here and now, is my craving to get things done immediately, as soon as possible. In my current work where many things call for my attention, I constantly am seeking and creating ways to get things done promptly, efficiently, and effectively.

While all these are happening, our 14-year old dog Cody, a 3.1 lb Porkie — half Pomeranian, half Yorkie — has taken the role of Teacher, which happens often. To those who have met her, I often say that she is my constant source of theological reflection.

She constantly teaches me how to love unconditionally. Not because she does, but because she doesn’t. Not because she gives freely, but because she takes freely. Not because she is patient, but because she is impatient.

And at this particular time, she is teaching me to be patient…to be very, very patient… to slow down…to truly slow down… and to watch, to wait and pay attention when she meanders around our patio, bumping into the iron fence, lounging chair, screen door as she figures her way back inside.

When it seems like she has sniffed the scent back to our living room and ambles towards it, I open the door and wait. As she comes close and I coax her to step over the threshold, she stops and moves her head around. Something has caught her attention and she turns around and follows that invisible and silent Pied Piper.

I say invisible because to my eyes, there is no one or nothing there. I say silent because I did not hear a sound. I then wonder what is it that she sees, now that she has gone blind…what is it that she hears, now that she’s gone almost deaf.

I do not know how her mind works, and I know how mine works. I know that I can get distracted even if there isn’t a sight or a sound that calls my attention. I can get distracted by my notions, expectations, assumptions, concepts that I veer off towards a different direction.

So here is Cody, who once again veers off, following what she had sensed. Around and around the patio she goes and I wait for her to find her way back.

During the weekdays, I give her a maximum time of 20 minutes because I have to head for work. During the weekends, I join her in the patio, watching how she navigates her way without the benefit of eyesight and hearing.

I see how a once feisty, alert, highly sensitive and anxious tiny dog is now one who takes each step lightly, slowly and stops frequently to tilt her head towards the wind or the rain or the sun and sniffs the air.

Over the past three weeks, when I walk from the parking garage to the hospital, I take many stops and tilt my head towards the direction of the wind, or towards the rain and feel it pelt, or towards the sunlight and sniff the air.

This practice has slowed me down and expanded my senses. It has taught me to take each assignment, each project, each event one at a time, trusting that all will be well. This practice has meant the dying again and again of that self that craves for certainty, for assurances, for success, for things to happen quickly.

While there are these continued small deaths along the path, there, too, is that required big death of the self, an annihilation to allow the Divine in us to be expressed without hindrance.

As Zen Teacher and Benedictine Monk Willigis Jaeger said: “To become Jesus Christ in this annihilation is the highest state the soul can reach. This supreme state consists in the experience of death on the cross, sensorily and spiritually, inwardly and outwardly. For John of the Cross the “conformation” with Jesus Christ in his deepest state of abandonment is the precondition for a mystical experience. But abandonment and emptiness are not the goal, only the transition and prerequisite for the resurrection.”

In other words, Jesus Christ is, as it were, the archetype of the unity of God and humanity that we bear within us. He came to cure us of the misconception that we live separated from God. His death on the cross dealt a lethal blow to this wrong belief.

May we be willing to surrender our selves, to die so the Divine can awaken and unfold in us.  As Paul said in Galatians 2:19-20: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”