thinking theology

Reflections for A Holy Week

Palm Sunday

The tradition(s) of Palm Sunday are undergoing a transitional period. From Jesus’ “triumphal” entry to Jerusalem, the focus is moving to the narration of the passion, and indeed the day has come to be called “The Sunday of the Passion”. It is difficult to say which has been more problematic for the church, the idea of Jesus’ triumph or the factuality of the story. If we release ourselves from the need for a “proof” of the factuality, we can immerse ourselves in this very compelling narrative about what leadership and authority mean in the “kingdom” of this anointed one. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg invite us to see the entry to Jerusalem in counterpoint to the triumphal processions of the Caesars, with their explicit symbols of domination and oppression; the stark simplicity and vulnerability of Jesus delineating the comparison.

The celebration before the betrayal. is another theme that demands our attention. Yet another is the anticipation of the death with the uncomprehending, or perhaps fearfully aware, crowds in mindless pursuit of their hero. However, it is neither a triumphal story of a dying and rising god, nor a preliminary narrative by which to blame the crowds for unjust judgement. When we listen to the text, we hear a story of very humble leadership, of Jesus being lifted onto an ass. Not a horse. Not a Cadillac. He rides into the least prosperous part of Jerusalem, the part ignored by Roman patrols. He is greeted by the unemployed, by women and children, by the city’s poor. And they call out to him, “Hosanna, Save us, save us!” They will not be heard by the Sanhedrin, by the Roman sympathizers or by the Roman authorities themselves. They are nameless and voiceless in the place of decision and power.

As Dorothy Söelle observes, in an immediate concrete sense, Jesus cannot save them; he cannot even save himself without a wrench to his integrity, to the meaning of his life.

not without you

He needs you
That’s all there is to it
Without you he’s left hanging
Goes up in Dachau’s smoke
Is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you

Help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal

Instead, he positions himself within their pain and misery. He cannot change anything except how they see themselves. He sees them as lovable, precious, children of the Holy One, worthy of better lives. He shows them that it is not through force or oppression, but through the power of unassailable, humble integrity and passion that the world is saved

We read this story, recognizing that it is a waste of time unless we remember that it is we who are his body in the world now. It is our ears that must hear the cry of the poor, the cry of our earth, “Save us, save us.” We too must travel in humility and not resting upon seats of power, nor positions of authority. Our place is humble, our goals limited, our guarantee of success poor (Soelle). The only thing we can do in this world is to listen, to be willing to participate in the pain of it all, to weep with those who weep, to uncover our own vulnerability, our brokenness, our doubts and dreams. This ride to Easter carries with it, danger. We will discover what lies beneath our masks. We will discover that our solutions are useless. We will discover also that we are not alone, but at the heart of God who loves the humble heart and blesses it with strength to complete the journey.

Palm Sunday Crosses

On this day, we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, an entry that the gospels directly link to his arrest and execution. What the gospels quote the crowd as saying is “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the lord!”

“Hoshana” (הושענא) is a Hebrew word meaning please save or save now. It is most commonly associated with a cycle of prayer during the Feast of Tabernacles.Who was in the crowd and why did they shout what they did? According to Crossan and Borg in “The Last Week”, it was a political demonstration to counter another procession at the other end of the city. That procession showed Pilate leading the military, political, religious and economic power of Rome in relationship with the temple hierarchy. What did Jesus’ procession look like? It was a procession with and for the poor of Jerusalem, bringing the message of the rural poor over against the wealth of the city.

Because they were poor, the people had to cut down the palms growing at the sides of the road and they waved the only flags they had – their clothes. So this was not a triumphal entry into Jerusalem so much as a confrontation between the urgency of the poor and the indifference and scorn of the powerful. We would do well to remember this when we wave our palms, that we wave them not in triumph but in confrontation with the powers and principalities and in solidarity with the poor. The song by  Tchad, “Like a Waving Flag” comes to mind here. We wave palms not because we are strong but because we cannot let the poor stand alone; because we are all the poor in one way or another. I have heard it said that in Canada, a wealthy nation, most of us are only three pay cheques away from being homeless. We are all potentially the poor; we are all disabled; we all lead lives of contingency, in terms of economics, mental and physical health, safety.

Moreover, we cannot really understand this story without reference to the scene at the cross in Mark.  Near Jesus would have been the soldiers to make sure no one could rescue him. The witnesses would have been various officials. This was a very public way of ensuring that everyone saw what would happen to rebels and those who opposed Rome or spoke against the emperor and his system of oppression.

Those officials and witnesses in the court said, “Crucify him.” Out in the streets it was not the poor who cried out for Jesus’ blood; from the streets they shouted save us. The rich and the powerful called out in scorn and derision. In the world of the powerful, one’s ability to look after “Number 1” is what invokes respect, not “bleeding hearts”, not acts of compassion and solidarity. By the standards of worldly success, Jesus could not have been much of a saviour, much of a king, if the emperor could kill him. Who would care about his work amongst the poor once he was shamefully killed and buried?

And standing far off, away where the soldiers would probably have chased them, stood the women and the poor, still calling for his life not his death.

Enduring memory conveys from generation to generation, in song and story, the ideas that we believe must never be forgotten. It is really the only reason for institutionalized religion, to be the keepers of the precious stories and rituals that connect us to a great teacher; and that is why we remember that horrific day when Jesus was called. We bring in to the present the horror and injustice of the past so that we will be motivated to act, either with the oppressors or with the poor. Holy Week offers us choices about how we remember and how that affects every aspect of our lives. Let us take our palm crosses home, not to remind ourselves of victory, but to remind ourselves that the kingdom is still breaking in amongst us and requires our commitment, our passion, and our humility.

Maundy Thursday

On this night we move from the crowds of Palm Sunday to the intimacy of family and friends. On this night we remember the actions Jesus left for us as not only as a memorial, but also as a practice. One story we tell is of the woman who anointed Jesus, who understood the nobility and power of sacrifice that is chosen but not sought, that is offered but with sorrow and doubt. The woman “sees” Jesus and the inevitability of his choices in a way that is too frightening for many. The enormous cost of love in action still troubles us and we would like to think that we can fix things without being willing to sacrifice ourselves. It is not the frivolity of her act that alarms the others, but the way it makes them look mean and cheap.

Another story that we read tells of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an action performed to their great discomfort and embarrassment. It continues to provoke discomfort in modern re-enactments, partly because it is culturally disconnected and partly because we still have to learn about mutual service. Henri Nouwen writes about how loving action necessarily leads to repentance. Nobody likes to receive a gift unless they have a means of reciprocating. Nobody wants to be healed by someone who has no idea of what it feels like to be wounded. We cannot earn grace; we can only receive it. We can, however, share the experience of being healed, the experience of being surprised by love, the discovery of our worth, when we thought we had wandered too far. Before we perform service in the world, service untainted by our own egos’ agendas, we have to say, “wash me of my delusions; wash away my fear of being known for who I am.”

The third story is the supper of community in which Jesus binds his family and friends to him and to his mission. He tells them that just like bread, many grains have to be gathered together to make a changing, flexible, nutritious community – food for the world. Like wine, grapes are crushed together, their skins broken so that juice can be released. Jesus says that these humble foods are like his life, differences held together, lives broken open and changed. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. And thanksgiving it is, for others to share the journey, for stories of bread that keep us going from generation to generation, for sacrifice so that all may have hope and all may taste being loved just as they are. Every time we remember Jesus in this way we give thanks that he is present with us, absorbing our pain into his suffering, blessing our joy with his vision for us. And as this has been done for us, so we must do it for others.

Finally, we remember the story of the garden in which the disciples, sleepy from food and wine, miss the point and miss the moment. Jesus alone in the garden struggles as every human must with the need for survival balanced against witness to the power of love. Jesus’ death would not be a sacrifice otherwise. What else can we really offer except our own lives?

So now we come to the point of the liturgy. How much of our lives have we given until now? How much will we offer up tomorrow? Whose needs will prevail? What are we willing to lose? What do we hope to gain? The musician Dido sings, “no love without freedom, no freedom without love.” To be free in the way Jesus was free means also to embrace his love and let it transform our lives.

Good Friday

The story of Good Friday can be understood as the story of two competing drives in human nature. These drives are expressed by the need to dominate/be dominated and the need to liberate/be liberated. The trial and crucifixion of Jesus differs only in his refusal to participate in this dichotomy The power of Jesus’ love has left a mark on human history that no domestication by institutions can ever fully erase. The cry from the cross continues to reverberate throughout the corridors of power, no matter how much insulation is employed to drown it out. And that cry is mirrored in every faith group, every humanist group, every atheist group.

On Palm Sunday we remember how the forces of domination began to swarm around Jesus, trying to drown out the cries of the poor, even the very stones in the earth: Save us, save us. We “hear” Holy Week, how Jesus’ friends could not hold the course, how impatient they became, how easily they turned to the brokers of power, or were intimidated by them.

On Good Friday, we remember the answer. The answer is found in the refusal to retaliate, and the refusal to submit. It is the hard and long road. Resolution does not come quickly or efficiently. It costs. It requires sacrifice, holy work. It requires everything we have because it is not only about acting with compassion but not acting with violence of any sort.

There really is only one question on Good Friday. Do we hear the cries or do we turn up the music and anesthetize ourselves with work or facts, with drugs or excuses, with privilege or position. We are not deaf because we are wicked. We are deaf because we are afraid of the bullies who try to tell us how to live, how to lie to ourselves. We are afraid that the cross is stronger than our faith. We have forgotten what freedom looks like and we think the price is too high.

But what will our fear cost us and our children? Do we want a culture where people are cocooned, which is a way of being imprisoned? To be free is to be aware of how we have been co-opted and to seek ways of liberation for everyone. The revolution that we need is of the human heart. We need to re-learn compassion as a life skill that is as important as career training. We need to learn resistance to complicity with the lies of domination.

Liberation from fear allows us a freedom to experience how precious we are to the Holy One who did not count Jesus’ death on the cross as a failure. Rather Jesus’ death led his disciples up to this present day to have a vision of the peaceful kingdom, a dream of realized life, the truth that we are all part of the transformational process of matter and spirit. Liberation from fear teaches us how to embrace the deep laughter of the one who is making all things new and leading us more fully into awareness of the light within and around us.

Holy Saturday

In the dark a candle is lit and a voice rises in the night calling us from death to life. Jesus says that our God is the god of the living so – leave death for the dead. On this night we affirm that death is a means of passage, but life is the nature of existence.

Death is the absence of transformation, a mausoleum of the imagination. It is through our imaginations that scientific discoveries are achieved, facts become mutable, a life of spirit is possible. Our response to our paschal celebrations is to throw off the imental shackles that tell us we are separate, finite, limited. We are invited to understand our minds as fuelled by endless possibility for change, growth, renewable life.

We give thanks for the body of Jesus that reminds us that we, with all the created order, are precious and unique expressions of the divine. In our relationships, we remember that Jesus taught us that the linking of vulnerability leads to resilience and power not over, but with.

With our souls, we engage in the awareness that we know so much less than the wealth of our experience can name. The life of the spirit is always beckoning us on, to new knowledge, to a deeper sense of connection.

One day, we will heal the planet.
One day we will be at peace.
One day we will know the joy of abiding
within the goodness and love of the divine.
One day, we will look at each other,
recognizing the Divine Self that we each contain now and forever.

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