Sunday, March 27, 2016


Of all the celebrations in Christendom, Holy Week has the most significance as it defines the very essence of the faith, that is, God's love for his people. It also presents problems, confusions, and preposterous assumptions that make some people run away from the faith as fast as their legs can carry them.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, where throngs of people welcomed him into that city as the chosen one of God, whom they hoped would free the people from the bondage of oppression. In the minds of the people of Judea, that bondage was political, and the hope was that legions of God's army would follow the Messiah and free them from the bondage of their oppressors, at that time the Roman Empire. Quickly it became apparent that Jesus's agenda was not the same as their own. The first thing he did was enter King Solomon's Temple, and smash the tables of the merchants who set up shop inside the most sacred place of the Jewish people, saying "this is the house of God but you have made it a den of thieves." If that weren't enough, he then said, "destroy this Temple, and I will rebuild it in three days." Iconoclastic talk to be sure, especially for the elders of the faith who were always skeptical of people with Messianic claims who in those days, were a dime a dozen. This Jesus character it seemed, was particularly dangerous, as by attacking the goings on of the Temple itself,  he threatened the very core of their most sacred tradition. Clearly he had to be dealt with. Meanwhile the people themselves became disillusioned with Jesus as it soon became clear that he had no intention of toppling the government; heck he even dined with the most reviled representatives of the State, the tax collectors.

Given all that, it should come as little surprise that when Pontius Pilate gave them a choice, the people chose to spare the life of Barabbas, a tried and true zealot willing to fight for liberation, rather than Jesus, whom by then they considered a fraud. Thusly, Pilate washed his hands of the crucifixion of Jesus as he cynically claimed he was carrying out the will of the people. According to the Gospel of Matthew he told them: "I am innocent of this man's blood. The responsibility is yours!" To which the people replied: "His blood be on us and on our children!"

Sadly, as a consequence of those three sentences, for two millennia in the eyes of some, the culpability for the death of Jesus, to Christians the Son of God, has been laid at the feet of the Jews.

This is the clearest, most painful, and egregious example of the destructive power of taking scripture out of context. It represents a complete misunderstanding, misrepresentation and perversion of the entire meaning of Christian thought. Yet there it is in black and white, "the people..." (in some translations, "the Jews") "...replied: His blood be on us and on our children."

In order to put those words into proper perspective, you have to go to the beginning, back to the Gospel passage we often see referenced in the end zones of football games when a kicker attempts a field goal, John 3:16. You probably know it:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
And the following verse:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
That message of hope, the promise of eternal life is what lies at the heart of Christianity. It is from the bondage of death, of eternal darkness, that Jesus promises to free us. This message applies to all who believe in him, no matter the race, gender, or ethnicity of the believer. But there is still trouble with those verses. What about the non-believer?  Is he or she condemned to the dreaded eternal darkness of death?

I have a very unsatisfying answer to that question, I don't know. The truth is, none of us know. You can check Christian scripture in its entirety and come up with an answer to justify any point of view. We've been debating that point among others for two thousand years. To support your POV you can quote passages from the bible until you are blue in the face and someone will counter it with another passage that will support their quite different POV.

The good news is that we mere mortals have no say over who gets the thumbs up and who doesn't, it's God's job to sort it all out, pure and simple. Our job as believers is to live our own lives on earth as best we can and hope for God's favor. Unfortunately, there are many believers on this planet who willfully take on the responsibility of being the judge and jury over the souls of others, something the Bible explicitly forbids.

To Christians who take their faith at all seriously, the culpability for Jesus's death lies at the feet of all humanity, not just the Jews. It is our collective sinfulness, yours, mine, and everyone else's that is the reason for his death and resurrection. From a particularly Catholic point of view, it is our continued sinfulness that necessitates re-living the Sacrifice of Christ at every Mass. 

In his remarks at the Temple, unknown to anyone at the time, Jesus was referring to himself, his death and resurrection when he told them to destroy the temple and he would rebuild it in three days.  From that point on, Jesus would become the true Temple of God, not an edifice of brick and stone. Indeed the Word of God, first proclaimed to the Jews, would now be proclaimed to all.

Simply put, to the Christian mind, Jesus's death and resurrection was the will of God, it was pre-ordained and there was nothing any living mortal soul could do to stop it, as his disciples found out in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Of all the readings during Holy Week, the one that stirs my soul more than any other is this one, read during Good Friday service. These are the beautiful words taken out of Hebrew scripture, from the book of the Prophet Isaiah:
See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him—
so marred was his look beyond human semblance
and his appearance beyond that of the sons of man—
so shall he startle many nations,
because of him kings shall stand speechless;
for those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.
Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him,
nor appearance that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom people hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
but the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.
Though he was harshly treated, he submitted
and opened not his mouth;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
or a sheep before the shearers,
he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away,
and who would have thought any more of his destiny?
When he was cut off from the land of the living,
and smitten for the sin of his people,
a grave was assigned him among the wicked
and a burial place with evildoers,
though he had done no wrong
nor spoken any falsehood.
But the LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.
If he gives his life as an offering for sin,
he shall see his descendants in a long life,
and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.
Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the great,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked;
and he shall take away the sins of many,
and win pardon for their offenses.
These words were written hundreds of years before Jesus, and Christians the world over believe they prophesize the death and resurrection of Christ.

Despite his suffering during the Passion, shortly before he died on the Cross, Jesus looked up to heaven and said: "Father forgive them, they know not what they do."

If the entire meaning of the Easter season could be condensed into a few words, those words would suffice.

Anyone who finds the need to place the blame for Jesus's death on a particular group of people, misses the point entirely.

Easter of course is the most joyous of Christian holidays because it represents for us the ultimate victory of light over darkness, the eternal hope for ourselves, our family and our world. Yet it is impossible experience the joy of Easter without first experiencing the suffering of Good Friday.

Over the years, the absolute joy of Easter has somehow alluded me. Try as I might, often participating in the full litany of Holy Week services, including the extremely poignant (and equally perplexing for the uninitiated) tradition of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, my expectations of being swept away in Easter rapture, courtesy of the Holy Spirit, has always seemed to have fallen short.

This year was different. For reasons too complicated to go into, Good Friday, two days ago was a particularly painful day for my family and me.

Then on Saturday something wonderful happened. Easter joy this year blindsided me in the most unlikely of places, a Patti Smith concert. The legendary rock star/artist confessed her longtime love for the holiday of Easter. After the concert it occurred to me that the title of one of her early albums was in fact "Easter." She confessed that may sound unlikely, coming from someone who wrote the line: "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." She went on to say she wrote those words back when she was 20, (she's now pushing 70), but that despite a distaste for organized religion, faith plays a big role in her life.

In honor of the holiday, much to the surprise of the crowd, between songs she read this story of Easter as found at the end of the Gospel of St. Matthew:
Now late on the sabbath day, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled away the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was as lightning, and his raiment white as snow: and for fear of him the watchers did quake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye; for I know that ye seek Jesus, who hath been crucified. He is not here; for he is risen, even as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples, He is risen from the dead; and lo, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring his disciples word. And behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then saith Jesus unto them, Fear not: go tell my brethren that they depart into Galilee, and there shall they see me. 
The eleven disciples went into Galilee, unto the mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.
The experience of real suffering on Good Friday combined with hearing those words of healing in the least expected of places, gave me a sense of joy and solace I could not possibly have found in church.

He is risen, Hallelujah!

Happy Easter.

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