It began well enough. Excited followers and hangers-on, disciples relieved that, finally, with this journey to Jerusalem, Jesus is getting serious about being the Messiah they know he is, Jerusalem’s jaded inhabitants streaming out of the gates in force to get a glimpse of the ‘prophet from Galilee’, children picking up the excitement and shouting out, ‘Save us, O son of David!’
Crowds energized by eyewitness reports of Jesus’ most stupendous miracle yet, in the nearby village of Bethany, his friend Lazarus, dead four days and decaying, raised to life; crowds, wanting to see more.
Palm branches waving in the air, cloaks cast on the ground for Jesus’ donkey to clip clop over. We’ve managed to preserve the celebration in our churches today, the palm-frond crosses, the ‘Hosannas’ and the rocks employed to sing if the children are made redundant. But rarely do we access the profound, disturbing, crushing irony of the day. It was all froth. It was meaningless praise. Because no one got it. No one understood. Not the disciples, not the crowds, not the children, not the authorities. There would be no popular uprising, no freedom from Rome, a la Judas Maccabeus. There would be no stars falling from heaven, no bloodied moon, no settling of scores with the wicked of the earth, a la John the Baptist. Jesus would end up alienating everyone, including his own disciples, one of whom would betray him, another deny him, all of them abandon him to face his fate alone.
We have prettied the week up as it has been transformed into a liturgical event; an excuse for a petting zoo for the kids with donkeys trotting and children singing pretty songs and the rest of us celebrating the cluelessness of Jesus’ disciples and his followers and the crowds who did not know what they were saying; but ‘holy week’ or ‘passion week’ is really nothing more than the week from hell.
Jesus takes the plunge into the morass of power politics, manipulation and corruption that is Jerusalem. And many things start to happen. First of all, from his disciples’ perspective, after a promising start, Jesus does nothing to follow up on his ‘successful’ return to Jerusalem. This is frustrating. This becomes maddening. Visions of thrones, of sitting on the right and left, of lording it over the Gentiles – none of this is happening. And for the well-connected religious hierarchy, Jesus is their worst nightmare. Get the riff-raff excited and the Romans will put the screws on them. Plus they do present a rather large target. And Jesus is not pulling his punches – with him around and holding the crowds’ attention, they are looking as bad as they really are, and they are being shown to be not on anyone’s side but their own. And the Roman garrison is always twitchy when there are crowds, especially when the crowds are religiously motivated. It is a toxic soup, and Jesus has decided intentionally to stir it.
You can feel the disciples growing, increasingly profound disillusionment. Judas has been so vilified over the centuries that it is easy to separate him from the rest as a kind of malignant solo operator. But he was one of them. And the fact that the rest of them are arguing about which one of them is the greatest and who is going to sit where in the coming kingdom indicate that their minds are on their reward and not on what Jesus is actually saying. Judas betrays Jesus, but so does Peter. And the rest of them make themselves scarce when it becomes clear that no kingdom is about to happen.
The ‘Jews’ as John likes to refer to them, the religious leadership are constantly backfooted by Jesus in their attempts to establish a case against him. It becomes increasingly clear that just another holiday in Galilee for Jesus is not going to do it. They really must be rid of him. And to do so, they really need it to be an inside job. They are pleased when disillusioned Judas shows up. It remains for them to sort out a way for this to appear as though it’s all legal – proper channels and all that. Those Romans are sticklers for legal propriety. It will take some finessing, but they have lots of experience.
And the Romans, there concern is order. And they have observed that order is better maintained when it’s made clear to everybody that things will not go well with you if Rome considers you to be a threat. Crucifixions are actually advertisements of Roman power, literal sign posts intended as flashing yellow lights for everyone else. Deterrence taken to a new level.
Jesus had made it clear on several occasions that he knew exactly what he was doing. He was going to Jerusalem, he would be arrested, treated horribly and killed. And then, he said, on the third day he would rise. But none of this made sense. No one else understood.
|Entry into Jerusalem by Pietro Lorenzetti|
So everybody, this last week, is busy putting Jesus in their own box. The disciples can fathom nothing but a Messiah. The Jews nothing but a threat. The Romans nothing but cruel sport, and, of course, a deterrent. All this time, Jesus is talking, Jesus is teaching, Jesus is doing things in an attempt to engage everyone’s attention. To no avail.
And we have Jesus in our own boxes. We, too, are like the disciples, not understanding; like the Jesus, feeling under threat; like the Romans, busy with our own agendas. We use Jesus in so far as he his useful. But no further.
But Jesus presses on. By doing so he reveals that either he has become mad, or he is doing something deeper than anyone can comprehend. And even twenty centuries later we are still struggling to comprehend. He is betrayed, falsely accused, tortured, crucified; he dies. But in doing so he embraces our death, and all its causes, and breaks its power. Jesus is engaging our foes, Jesus is effecting a deliverance, but not from Egyptians, or Midianites, or Assyrians, or Babylonians, or Greeks or Romans. However glorious the deliverances of the past, none is more than a shadow to what Jesus is doing.
His body lies in a tomb while Adam and Eve are freed from their curse. And he himself gets up from the slab and emerges from the tomb alive, transformed, transfigured, the same Jesus but more so, human but freed to be human, God the Son effecting the exodus of humanity from death to life.
And we are still unpacking this all. Still behaving like Holy Week disciples, Holy Week Jews and Holy Week Romans. We, too often, find ourselves in our own week from hell, caught up in our schemes, our lies, our willful ignorances, our small-sighted fields of vision.
In the Orthodox Church, we are walking through Holy Week this week, very slowly, very laboriously through services every day, and as the week progresses, multiple services every day. This is intentional. We need to slow down, we need to open our eyes, we need to experience anew what was really going on, that last week in Jerusalem. We need to see ourselves in the disciples, in the Jews, in the Romans even. Because only then will what Jesus says, what Jesus does, who Jesus is begin to penetrate anew.
I more than anyone need this. So that when, at midnight, early Sunday morning, the announcement comes, Christ is risen! I can, with the disciples, with the women, with the Jews and Romans who would hear and believe, start to rebuild my life, too.