Some years ago I was waiting at a pub in Budapest to meet a friend of mine. I was, as I suppose I am wont to do when sitting alone in a public place, eavesdropping on the conversation - in English – of a group at the table next to me. I couldn't quite follow why, but it seems they had ended up in Budapest by chance and not by design, and would have to spend the entire next day there when they had hoped to be somewhere else. “What will we do for a whole day?” said a woman with obvious displeasure, as if being stranded there was an occasion of great suffering.
As fate would have it, I had worked as a tour guide in Budapest on the weekends of the summer of 2004; I thought to myself what a great thing that I happened to be there so that I could share some of my knowledge with people who obviously could benefit from it. “I couldn't help but hear,” I said, which is of course the socially acceptable way of saying “I was actively listening in on your conversation.” “I used to work as a tour guide here, so I would be happy to suggest some things for you to do tomorrow. A day is hardly enough, of course, but we work with what we've got.”
The vexed woman – whose name I discovered to be Karen – said “A day is too much when you want to be somewhere else.”
“Fair enough,” I said, although I was thinking something else entirely.
Her partner – whose name I discovered to be Zeke – seemed more interested, so he got out a notebook and a pen and said, “Shoot.”
So I went through my list of “What to see in Budapest if you've only got a day.” Zeke was most interested; Karen couldn't hide her disdain. Wow – she really didn't want to be there. I spoke about the Parliament building – that neo-Gothic jewel that sits on the Danube. Even if they didn't have time to go in, it was well worth a walk around. “And then,” I said, “you can walk along the river and see the shoe sculptures.
Karen perked up. “Shoes?” she said. It was the first time she had shown any interest at all.
“Yes,” I said. “Shoes. It is a memorial to the honour the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. It represents their shoes left behind on the bank. There are sixty pairs of them, but of course that's just symbolic. I think there were more than 3000 who were so killed. I have to say it is one of the most moving memorials I have ever seen anywhere in the world.”
Zeke nodded solemnly. “How tragic,” he said.
Karen said, “Oh. I thought it was going to be something different. You know .. shoes. Not a memorial.”
Zeke thanked me for my input, left some money for the bartender to get me another drink, and they got up to go. They hadn't even taken two steps away from me when Karen turned to him and said quite loudly: “Shoes? Of dead people? Why would anyone want to see that?”
The bartender, a very young man but with eyes that seemed older, answered, “Because we've got to.”
In a sense, that is exactly what this day is all about: our acknowledgement at God's urging that we've got to see this, remember this. This day we are asked to reflect, not in some morbid or mawkish way, but in true sincerity of heart, exactly what the Lord endured for our sake. It is not pleasant. It is as brutal as it is sad. We're asked to see it all: the betrayal, the confusion, the fear, the suffering, the tears of a mother, the anguished cries of friends, the utter desolation of grief.
We know the glories which will follow – we know the glories which have followed, feel them in our very beings. And, of course, those glories cannot be unseen – we who have been redeemed through the blood of the Lamb can't pretend his Resurrection didn't happen. But to better try to understand and celebrate that Resurrection, we have to try to understand and celebrate this day. We have to see – in the words of the Gospel and the dark places of our hearts – the betrayal, the confusion, the fear, the suffering, the tears of a mother, the anguished cries of friends, the utter desolation of grief.
If the placement of the passion narrative of last Sunday would lead us to reflect on the fickle nature of human beings, that of today instead leads us to reflect on that of humanity which is unchanging: betrayal, confusion, fear, suffering, tears, anguish, grief. And we bring all of those things, and we lay them at the foot of a monstrous cross, knowing that only in its shadow can we even begin to make sense of any of it.
Why would anyone want to see such heart-rending tragedy?
Because we've got to.