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There are two major Grail stories.  One involves Galahad and purity.  It doesn’t mean a lot to me.  But the one that lives in me like an ember features Sir Parzifal and the Fisher King.

The king was wounded long ago.  He met a man, and fought him, and was wounded on the thigh.  The man was his twin, but in reverse: dark where he was light, and light where he was dark.  After his wounding the king never healed.  The only thing that kept him alive was the ritual re-wounding with a magical bleeding lance, and the ceremony of the Grail.  But his kingdom suffered: the land was blighted and nothing would grow, and his people’s hearts were wounded, too.

Many years later, a knight comes along and finds the king fishing on a lake. That evening in the castle, he witnesses a procession including the mysterious lance and Grail.  But though he wants to ask the king what is wrong with him, he was taught not to look foolish by asking questions, so he keeps silence. The meal is served in silence as the people weep, knowing that Parzifal missed his chance to heal the king, simply by asking the question, “What ails you?”

In the morning the castle is deserted, and Parzifal figures the people from the night before were images conjured by a demon to torment him.  Only when he returns to the mundane world does he find the meaning of the Grail, and learn that in failing to ask the question, he lost his honor.  Stricken, he cannot find his way back to the castle to heal the king.  He wanders the land, righting wrongs and saving the weak, but always regretting his lost chance to save a kingdom and its king.

Years later, by hardship and magic, Parzifal finds his way back to the castle. This time there is a knight guarding the way, standing by the lake where the old king once fished.  The knight challenges him, but Parzifal, who has come to realize the futility of fighting, refuses.  Instead, he disarms: piece by piece, he removes his armor, throwing each in the pond.  As he takes off his armor, the nameless knight must do the same.  And as he does, he is revealed to be Parzifal’s own dark twin, light where Parzifal is dark, dark where he is light. The knight continues to challenge him, but is defeated by Parzifal’s refusal to fight when Parzifal throws his beloved, magic sword into the lake.  Totally defenseless, Parzifal now can enter the castle, where he asks the question that saves the king.

I always think of this story on Good Friday, and was surprised a couple of years ago to find that some versions of the story have the final encounter, the disarming, and the healing of the king all taking place on Good Friday.  It is a day, after all, when every Christian confronts his or her own dark twin, the aspect of ourselves that we fear, the aggression and tendency to violence, that in us which is inimical to life.

Because we fear this shadow-self we try to deny its existence.  We see it in others but not in ourselves.  On the communal level, we find a scapegoat, an outsider, a witch or a rabble-rouser.  Often someone innocent, but someone we can blame for what goes wrong in our lives and our communities.  We burn the witches, declare war on the enemies, kill the Christ.  Good Friday is the ultimate mirror, the mirror in which we see our shadows.  When the cantor sings, at some Good Friday services, “My people, what have I done to you, and how have I offended you? Answer me!” the only true answer we can give is, “You are innocent.  The fault is mine.”  It’s an answer that is so hard to say that generations of Christians took the easy way out.  Denying the shadow once more, they blamed Jesus’s crucifixion on the Jews, making Good Friday a day of fear in Jewish communities, a day of pogroms.   They – our Christian ancestors – left their churches to make violence on the innocent.

But the only way to prevent us casting our shadows on others, and all the forms of violence that engenders, is to stand before it and disarm.  To make peace with it.  To see it as kin.  It is perhaps the most painful thing we can take upon ourselves, to admit that there is darkness in our souls.  It is a true carrying of the cross, and if we claim to follow Jesus it is something we cannot avoid.

To take up arms against the shadow is to do violence to ourselves and others.  It is to suffer the wound that cannot heal, the wound that brings death in place of life.  To take off the armor and throw away the sword is to accept our creatureliness and imperfection, to cease to fight against ourselves, and to open the way for true healing.

Disarm.  Do not fear to be hurt.  Ask the question.  Do not fear to look foolish.

You are here. (video/song: You Are Here, by The Wailin’ Jennys)

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You Are Here, by The Wailin’ Jennys

You wonder why you wonder when
You wonder how now and then
How you became who you’ve become

You are here
And yet you dream of being there
Of being where you think the good life has begun

Every darkened hallway
Every fallen dream
Every battle lost and
Every shadow in between
Will bring you to your knees and
Closer to the reason

And there’s no making cases
For getting out or trading places
And there’s no turning back
No you are here

Who can say who made the choice
In the matter of your voice
Who brought about that fateful day
Well you are here and born with fire and desire
You’re the only one can stand in your own way

And every broken arrow
Every hardened smile
Every foolish gamble and
Every lonely mile
Will bring you to your knees and
Closer to the reason

And there’s no making cases
For getting out or trading places
And there’s no turning back
No you are here

And every sign of love
Every seed that’s growing
Every sweet surrender
To that silent knowing
Will bring you to your knees and
Closer to the reason

And there’s no making cases
For getting out or trading places
And there’s no turning back
No you are here

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