Garden Thursday : Thy Will Be Done

GethsemaneDuring the Sermon on the Mount, while expounding on anger, adultery, oaths, and retaliation, Jesus repeatedly emphasized the importance of motivation over action. It is not the act of adultery that makes us adulterers, but entertaining the desire. It is not the voicing of our hatred that is the sin, but the hatred itself.

The moral character behind our decisions, that inner seed of the actions which are regulated by Law, was at the core of Jesus’ teachings.

For this reason, Reform Unitarianism honors Garden Thursday — the day on which Jesus accepted the necessity of the painful events to follow — as the highest of Holy Days.

It is at Gethsemane that the teachings of Jesus and the story of Jesus come together.  During the Prayer in the Garden, by praying “Thy will be done” in the face of imminent suffering, Jesus made the commitment of moral character he had preached about in the Sermon on the Mount.

It was this decision in the Garden of Gethsemane that signifies the taking of the fruit of the Tree of Life, countering and remedying the imbalance created by the taking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  As that Knowledge brought responsibility to the first Adam, requiring punitive Law to regulate human actions, the moral teaching of the “Second Adam” (as Jesus has been called) transcends and fulfills the Law with the virtue of character.

Law, married to Wisdom, becomes whole. The Lion lies down with the Lamb.  Knowledge and Life together bring us back into Paradise.

The arrest of Jesus, his trial, and the crucifixion that followed were, like the material events consequent of any decision, secondary to the spiritual and moral event that took place inside the soul of Jesus when he said to God: “Nevertheless, Thy will be done.”

This fulfillment of Christ’s own teachings was the true pinnacle of his ministry.


[A version of this homily has been published on earlier Garden Thursdays]

[The stained glass above is at First Reformed United Church of Christ of Burlingon, North Carolina.]


Reform Unitarian Symbols – The Chalice

During this Lenten season leading up to Garden Thursday, let’s discuss one of our key symbols in Unitarian Reform: the chalice.

Now, the flaming chalice is known as a symbolism of post-Christian “Unitarianism” (absent the Unitarian meaning) with origins in the oil-burning lamps in Greek and Roman ritual.

For AUR, however, the chalice is the Cup of Gethsemane: the image Jesus used to symbolize the suffering of material existence, the worst of which he was about to suffer himself.

Continue reading


Garden Thursday – Living The Sermon

During the the Sermon on the Mount, while expounding on anger, adultery, oaths, and retaliation, Jesus repeatedly emphasized the importance of intention over action. It is not the act of adultery that makes us adulterers, but the desire. It is not the voicing of our hatred that is the sin, but the hatred itself.

The moral character behind our decisions, that inner seed of the actions which are regulated by Law, was at the core of Jesus’s teachings. Continue reading


Thursday Observance

AUR views itself as a particularly American and Unitarian Christian expression of the universal search for Truth. Just as the earliest Christian communities struggled with the question of Saturday or Sunday worship (the outcome of which is disputed even today by Seventh Day Adventists) and Muslims took Friday as their Day of Gathering, the Reform sought a weekday that honors the particulars of its idiom. Continue reading


Why the Cross is Okay on Ash Wednesday

ashcrossTypically, Reform Unitarianism avoids the use of the cross.  One reason is that the cross did not become an important symbol in Christianity until well into the 4th Century, after conflationist corruptions had begun to undermine Christian theology.  The cross simply does not represent original Christianity.

More importantly, however, veneration of the cross puts salvific power in the murderous actions of Romans and the foolish decision of the mob of Barabbas.  In AUR, we believe that the moment of salvific power during the passion narrative was not at Golgotha but at Gethsemane, when Jesus of Nazareth committed his soul to the will of his Father and ours: the Creator of all things.  

The metaphorical Cup of Gethsemane (“take this cup from me”) which Jesus ultimately accepts (“nevertheless, Thy will be done”) is the universal key to salvation.  The cross is merely the local instrument of Jesus’s punishment and execution.  Suffering and death were indeed necessary for Jesus — as they are for us — but it is “Thy will be done” that effects salvation, not the Roman whip, thorn, nail, and spearpoint.

Still, although the chalice is a more spiritually accurate symbol of salvation through commitment of the soul, the cross remains a potent material reminder of what that commitment meant for the founder of our religion. To use the cliché that has arisen from the passion narrative, each of us has our own “cross to bear” — but the cross born by Jesus Christ was one of the thousands of actual crosses on which so many were tortured and executed in ancient times.

On this day, as a reminder of the material consequences of our spiritual commitment, Reform Unitarians join with other Christians in taking the ashen mark of the cross to remember that we are dust, and to dust shall we return.


Resolution Day – Finding Comfort Through Spiritual Strength

One key distinction of AUR is the commitment not to offer false consolation on the cheap, whether its the sort of “bow to dogma and your soul will be spared” comfort of conservative churches or the “I’m okay, you’re okay, nothing we believe really matters” comfort of liberal churches.

Spiritual peace is not won by reciting a confession or catechism as if it were a magic spell, or by impulsively tossing your life over to God like a hot potato for which you can abdicate all responsibility.

Nor is spiritual peace achieved through conflict-averse relativism or laissez-faire creedlessness, what Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described unflatteringly as religion “you can’t flunk.”

Spiritual peace is achieved only through a resolute struggle, by committing of one’s character to moral growth and accepting a higher Good beyond one’s individual interests. Continue reading


Neither Mug Nor Magdalene : The True Divine Vessel

With the controversy over Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code reaching a high pitch as the release of Ron Howard’s film version nears release, one can hardly turn on the television without hearing the debate about whether the “Holy Grail” was the cup of the Last Supper mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew 26:27, Gospel of Mark 14:23, and Gospel of Luke 22:20, or was actually Mary Magdalene in her purported role as wife to Jesus and mother of his child or children.

But, does this debate really mean anything for the spiritual truth of Jesus’ last days, or are both sides materialist distractions from the real message? If we speak of a Divine Vessel, are either the womb of Mary or the chalice of the Last Supper up to the task?

The important cup of Jesus’ final days was neither the physical cup passed around the table at the Last Supper, nor the symbolic vessel of Mary Magdalene’s maternity even if she actually were his child-bearing wife.  The cup of Gethsemane, the cup of ultimate sacrifice which Jesus in prayer asks to be taken away but then immediately accepts, is the truly important vessel.  Appropriate to one who taught by way of parables, it is a metaphorical cup pointing to the spiritual reality that underlies our material world.

The Divine Vessel holds not a dram of symbolic wine nor the seed of a royal bloodline, but the absolute surrender of the personal will to the Divine… in Jesus’ case, the surrender of the Son of Mary to the Son of God.

This event in the Passion sequence (which appears in Mark 14:35-36, Matthew 26:39, and most elaborately in Luke 22:41-44) depicts an agonized plea for mercy which Jesus follows with a central phrase from the prayer that he specifically instructed his followers to pray: “Thy will be done.”

This is the true Divine Vessel, a metaphoric cup holding the will of God, an unfathomable Ocean of meaning and purpose that overwhelms the life of any mere creature who lifts that cup to the lips.