1) Holy Week
Whenever we get to this Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, I am always struck by the weight that the tradition places on the final week of Jesus’ life. It is commonly held that Jesus’ public ministry lasted about three years, yet roughly 1/3 of the material in all of the gospels, 29 of the total 89 chapters, is dedicated to this, the final week of Jesus’ life. As we read the gospels, it feels that we are jumping from occasion to occasion, uncertain of how much time elapses between healings and teachings and various encounters with Pharisees, lepers, disciples, and potential disciples. But once we get to this week it’s almost as if the events are unfolding in real time. Slow, detailed, one thing flowing directly into another, building up, all occurring within a couple mile radius in and around Jerusalem.
The weight of the tradition takes us into the darkest corridors of the human condition. Jesus, the peasant rabbi, the controversial teacher, the healer, lover of the poor, the innocent one, is crucified on an instrument of capital punishment by the forces charged with the duty of keeping the peace.
Our Bible Study group – Rachel Smith, Tim and Greta Holt, Kory and Nichole Beighle – observed how political in nature these stories are. The entry into Jerusalem has all the makings of a political rally. Jesus’ riding on the colt feels like a pretty direct reference to the Roman victory procession into cities, or a head of state’s ride through the streets on the newest model car.
Repeated references to the chief priests and religious authorities feels like an all too easy parallel to the Anabaptist experience in the 16th century. We see it so often, our study group observed – the few standing up to the powers. Movements rising and falling, sometimes making great progress, sometimes sliding back into obscurity with little visible change, leaders getting accosted or killed. The Anabaptists, Gandhi, Civil Rights, 1989 Eastern Europe, Tiennaman square, The Arab Spring.
We read together one of those stories that happens within this final week – the woman with the jar of expensive ointment that she breaks open and pours over Jesus’ head. The oil is estimated to be worth about a year’s wage, a lot of money, and the onlookers, social justice minded people that they are, protest that the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. They have listened well to Jesus’ teachings. But Jesus sides with the woman, who has anointed him for his burial, played a beautiful role in this drama. There is a shocking extravagance to the story.
One person in our group wondered about what might be a modern day equivalent. A young person in the Oakley neighborhood has been diagnosed with a fatal condition with only a few weeks left to live. He loves Corvettes, so our finance committee and Spiritual Leadership Team get together and decide to withdraw $50,000 from the church funds and buy a Corvette so we can take him out for a spin before he dies. When this is shared during joys and concerns time, what a few see as a joy, most others see as a great concern. The church erupts in protest that this money could have been sent to MCC to help the poor. The pastor sides with the Corvette buyers, who have anointed this young man for burial. I then wondered whether what happens next is that the pastor gets crucified.
We also read the account of Jesus and the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. One person commented that this is the place where they felt closest to understanding Jesus. He is so very human. He is deeply grieved. He is facing death and prays that there might be another way. His closest companions are not up to the task of walking with him through the valley of the shadow of death. We saw in a different light Jesus’ statement to his sleeping friends – “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” We wondered if this might be not so much a rebuke, but a lament, even a statement of solidarity – Jesus reflecting on his own weak flesh, praying for a willing spirit.
The nature of the entry into Jerusalem on the colt, and the events that follow during what we call Holy Week, made us reflect on the scripted nature of the whole ordeal. Carrying out a drama that has already been choreographed, with everyone playing their parts, even if they aren’t fully conscious of doing so.
2) The Script
These scenes are familiar. Too familiar. Not just because we’ve heard them before about this time of year, each year. But because we keep seeing them. The script is well-known, and the actors always stay in character.
The chief priests and scribes will be playing the part of the keepers of the peace. Those charged with upholding the order, enforcing the law, protecting the people. Who resigned themselves long ago to the fact that there will always be collateral damage. That taking one life to save the lives of many is a necessary equation.
The disciples will be playing the part of the hopeful, the student. The ones who dare to imagine that a new world is possible. Who can sense the dis-ease of society, and resist it. Who can see the faint outline of a new dawn. Who are angry with things they barely understand. Who stay up late talking about ideas. Who love the teacher, and never miss a talk. Who believe.
Judas will be playing the part of the most hopeful. The most passionate, most committed, willing to do anything to accelerate the revolution. The one you thought you knew. The wild card, whose loyalties and motivations are uncertain, even to himself.
The woman with the jar of very costly ointment will be playing the part of the adoring fan. Gushing and excessive. Over-the-top. Easily mocked and dismissed.
The colt that has never been ridden will play the part of the bearer of the king. The vehicle which is an extension of the rider’s aura. The mighty war horse. The shiny new car capable of achieving breathtaking speeds, but which ambles slowly through the streets, dignified, controlled, gathered, and impressive. There’s a certainty to all this, because we’ve done it before and we know what it all means. The king is on the throne and all is well.
All other participants will be playing the part of the crowd. 1000 faces and 1000 names. The faceless and nameless masses. The ones who show up for parades and processions and ceremonies, or watch them at home on TV. Who cheer and boo on cue. They are the public in public opinion, whose opinion sways. Impressionable, susceptible to slogans and commercials, vulnerable to propaganda. Looking for heroes, mostly just wanting to live quiet lives – do their work, raise a family, and be entertained from time to time.
Jesus will be both playing and not playing the part. He will be adapting this play from the well-known and well-loved version we have written for ourselves, along the way subverting every plot and subplot we hold so dear and have memorized by heart. The colt that has never been ridden will be small, easily spooked, wild and unpredictable, neither dignified nor impressive. The parade will end and everyone will go home uncertain of what just happened. The wasteful woman with the jar of very costly ointment will be defended and praised, and her story will be told in the whole world wherever the good news is proclaimed.
Jesus will be the director who allows himself to be directed. He will, in the months and weeks and days, leading up to the performance, repeatedly give away the ending, a spoiler. Everyone will still be surprised. He will overturn the carefully arranged tables in the temple. He will be the Messiah who refuses the crown, yet have it placed forcibly on his head. He will keep asking, “Yes, but who do you say that I am?” He will pray for a way out, but ultimately accept the inevitable. The students, always alert and attentive, will keep falling asleep. The Spirit that is willing will give way to the flesh that is weak.
Jesus will not defend his innocence, and the verdict will already be worked out behind closed doors well in advance. He will cry out – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God crying out to God, who is nowhere in sight. Everyone has played their part, familiar as it is, knowing exactly what they are to be doing, yet Jesus will cry out; “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Darkness will come over the whole land, there will be a mighty earthquake, rocks will split, the curtain of the temple will be torn in two, and the whole story will collapse in on itself. And everyone will run away, except the soldier dutifully following his orders to stand by, and the women, looking on from a distance.
3) Stay with me
Everyone has fled the scene and gone into hiding. And, while no one was looking, the story that has collapsed in on itself has become the new story. It’s the collapsing itself which comes to be the expected ending.
The old narrative of the king or empire that holds everything together through violence hasn’t completely gone away. People keep playing their part, clocking in, doing their work, but everyone is less convinced. It’s fragile, and it could all fall apart any moment. It already has.
The poets all sense that something is amiss. Leonard Cohen sings:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
William Butler Yeats writes:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Everybody knows that the old story is crumbling underneath their feet, but still struggle to find a way out.
Some of the keepers of the peace stay up at night replaying the carnage in their minds. Struggling to justify the violence. Wondering how much longer they can keep doing what they’re doing before they lose their soul.
The prophets keep getting silenced and martyred, and, years after they are safely dead, proclaimed to be saints by the same powers that killed them.
The faithful still gather, and, from time to time, hear rumors of resurrection, but remain behind locked doors out of habit.
The fundamentalists of every stripe, political and religious, try to revive the old certainty. The rightness of their cause. The purity of the way things used to be. The ecstasy that comes with being sure. They evoke scriptures and constitutions, separate the righteous from the unrighteous, select a particular group to blame for the upheaval. The communists, the terrorists, the gays, the liberals, the conservatives, the Muslims.
The hopeful students regain their footing, settle back into their studies, and find more teachers willing to point the way. But they know it’s a long road ahead. Don’t expect too much too soon. They adopt phrases like “if you’re working on something you can complete in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Why is it that when the nonviolent ones rise up it seems to result in greater violence? The wrath of the old order in its death throes.
“Behold,” Jesus said, “Do you think I come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:49) The man on the cross has exposed and deposed the old story that held everything together. No one is quite certain of their role anymore, can’t be for sure how to play the part; searching for the script of the new creation, churning out draft after draft of “the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” The center cannot hold, and everybody knows we need a new story.
The world is Gethsemane. Christ is sweating blood, and gives us the command: Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch. And pray. Stay awake. Keep alert. Watch for the new dawn. Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch, and pray. Stay with me.