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Sunday, March 24, 2013

A passion for Christ

Here we go again. 

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have written a riveting book on the last days of Jesus, called The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem. Apart from the fact that my well-honed bullshit detector makes me wary of anyone who wants to tell me what the gospels “really mean” or worse, what Jesus means, or meant to say, the work is really extraordinary in the amount of scholarship and insight that it brings to a reading of Mark’s day-by-day narrative of the eight days that begin with Passion Sunday and end with the morning of the resurrection. 

Hanging over the book is the image of two processions taking place on Palm Sunday, in about 30 CE, in Jerusalem. One of them is a demonstration of Roman “imperial theology,” the civil religion upon which the empire was based. Pontius Pilate would be leading part of the legions stationed at Caesarea Maritima into Jerusalem to reinforce the troops stationed at the fortress Antonia in anticipation of the crowds expected at the temple for the days leading up to the Jewish Passover. This show of force would be made to deter any would-be rioters from disrupting the city. The arms, men, and horses of Rome, representing all the might and determination of Caesar and the “Pax Romana,” with all its brutal implementation history and strategy, represented one piece of the religious drama playing out in the city that day. The other, of course, is the procession being led by Jesus, riding on a donkey, representing a different strategy and a different empire: the empire of God. He arrives riding not on a warhorse, but on a beast of burden, conjuring the prophet Zephaniah: 
Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he,
Meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.
He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem;
The warrior's bow shall be banished, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.
His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Two kings are hailed with “hosannas,” two processions enter the city. One strikes fear into the hearts of the residents, one elates them so that if the mouths of the revelers were stopped “the rocks themselves would start to sing.” Crossan and Borg make the point that Jesus’s ministry has been from the beginning to announce that the empire of God (or reign, or kingdom) is at hand, and that human beings have to go in another direction in order to follow it. The map of Caesar’s empire has borne the motto of “peace through victory,” with all the violence and subjugation that victory entails; the map of the empire of God is “peace through justice,” that is, peace through equality, mutuality, openness, sharing, healing. There is, however, only room for one emperor at a time. In this case, the gentle prophet of God’s empire was, within a week, to suffer the death reserved for enemies of the state: crucifixion. That gallows was not an end, however, but a beginning, as the resurrection of Christ showed that the power of Caesar, the power of death, was not absolute nor the last word. 

The end of the story is being written day by day, year by year, Easter by Easter on the lives of the church and the world. A microcosm of the ongoing struggle, of the two processions vying for the attention of Jerusalem, presents itself each year with the school year and spring break schedule imposing itself on the celebration of the Paschal Triduum and the holiest days of the year. Our little burg empties out during spring break, and in those unhappy years, occurring about 50% of the time, when spring break coincides with either Holy Week or Easter Week (preceded by Good Friday and the Easter weekend), we celebrate the most solemn celebrations of our faith with a decimated choir and ministry pool. That’s just the way it is. 

Borg and Crossan end their book with a stunning paragraph that harkens back to the two processions with which they began it. It seems as good a place as any for me to think about Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion as we try to figure out where our allegiance lies this year, and with what degree of integrity we will renew our baptismal vows this year, wherever we may be on Easter Sunday: 
 “Holy Week and the journey of Lent are about an alternative procession and an alternative journey. The alternative procession is what we see on Palm Sunday, an anti-imperial and nonviolent procession. Now as then, that procession leads to a capital city, an imperial center, and a place of collaboration between religion and violence. Now as then, the alternative journey is the path of personal transformation that leads to journeying with the risen Jesus, just as it did for this followers on the road to Emmaus. Holy Week as the annual remembrance of Jesus' last week presents us with the always relevant questions: Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?” (p. 216)