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Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Great Friday reflection

 'You will all fall away,' Jesus told them, 'for it is written: "I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered."' (Mark 14.27)
'Then everyone deserted him and fled' (Mark 14.50).
According the the gospels of Mark and Matthew, when Jesus is arrested for blasphemy and treason by the temple police, all his disciples flee. That includes not only the wider group who cried 'hosanna to the Son of David' upon Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and not only Judas the betrayer, but also the Twelve who were apparently closest to Jesus. On this Great Friday, I want to risk some observations about one of the many ways in which Christian disciples of the modern era, those who claim to be followers of Jesus today, also abandon their namesake at the point of his greatest human need and vulnerabilty.

One of the ways in which modern disciples abandon Jesus is to opt out of the rites and rituals of Passiontide.  Passiontide, also known as Holy Week, is the week immediately preceding the celebration of Pascha (or Easter).  From at least the 2nd century, this was the most important week of the Christian calendar, the week in which Christians commemorated the last week of Jesus' life, and especially his suffering, torture and execution (his passion) at the hands of the Roman and Jewish authorities.  These events are recalled in a series of rituals, or embodied stories, in which worshippers are invited to journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, through his anointing by Mary, his last meal with the disciples, his arrest, interrogation, torture and crucifixion. 

I have personally participated in the rituals of Passiontide for many years now, and find them to be continually capable of producing everything from tears to bewilderment to joy as I am invited into their visceral and profound mode of meditation upon Christianity's most holy mystery: the death of God in Christ.  Being close by Christ as he walks toward his death - not just in mind and thought, but in the profoundly tacit and bodily way that ritual makes possible - I find that I am confronted with both my spiritual poverty and the gratuitous love of God in ways that truly get under my skin and make a really big difference to the way I do my relationships, my ethics, my worship, my politics.  Those of us who walk this way to the end are perhaps more like the women in Mark and Matthew's accounts of the passion, the women who stay with Christ to the end even as they live through moments of incredible anguish, grief and bewilderment. Having passed through the passion of Christ, having lived it 'up-close-and-personally', they learn how to recognize resurrection when they see it and feel it, even if they do not understand it entirely (those who think they completely understand the event of the resurrection are kidding themselves!)  The men, who fled at the first sign of danger, must later learn how to own and live the life of resurrection from the women!

I notice, however, that very few modern protestant Christians share my enthusiasm for a womanly Passiontide.  In every parish in which I have served as a minister (with one clear exception), less than a quarter of the usual congregation showed up between the last Sunday of Lent and the Feast of the Resurrection.  For the most important week of the Christian calendar, in other words, most of those who own the name of Christ went missing in action. 

Now, over the years people have given a great many explanations for why this is so.  And the explanations and excuses are very revealing. Here are a few of the most common . . .
  • 'I was tired and needed a rest'.  I'm all for resting. Indeed, we Jews and Christians are told by God to give a seventh of our life to resting, and on a regular basis.  But why do so many Christians choose the most important week of the Christian calendar to do their resting? Why then?  And why isn't Holy Week understood not only as a legitimate form of rest, but at the paradigm example of what 'rest' can really mean? Why is Holy Week not understood to be a primary means by which the peace and reconciliation of God is made real in our lives?  As much as it pains me to say it, the answer is probably this: that most people who call themselves 'Christians' are actually pagans underneath. Their identities have been formed, in other words, not primarily by the Christian story and by their baptism into that story, but by the prevailing values and stories of contemporary Western culture.  In that culture, 'rest' has a very different meaning.  It means self-indulgence.  It means doing whatever you like. It means being free of responsibilities in general, and free of the responsibility to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in particular.
  • 'Easter is a time to spend time with family'.  Again, I am all for family. Indeed, the faith tells us to honour our parents and treat our children with respect and dignity.  But why do so many Christians choose family over Passiontide?  Why is Passiontide seen as less important than family? I would never dream of skipping the events of Holy Week to visit family.  Does this mean that I love my family less than others? No. It simply means that I make a priority of learning how to do family from Christ and from the events described in the rituals of Holy Week.  The washing of people's feet, for example.  Or staying with someone in their inexplicable suffering, even if I feel entirely powerless to do anything about it. Or dying that someone else may live.  That kind of thing.
  • 'I don't really go in for all that ritualistic stuff'.  This one usually comes from old protestants (both liberal and evangelical) who believe that faith is a private world of ideas and values that can be sequestered off from the rest of life when it is expedient to do so, rather than a public embodiment of the very life of God in ritual storytelling (worship), ethical practices and participatory politics (community).  Again, I would argue that old protestantism has little to do with the apostolic faith we receive from the bible and from tradition, and that it has considerably more to do with a contemporary privileging of the individual sense of self over and against communal realities such as ritual, tradition and story.  When people object to ritual, I know that their Christianity is only skin-deep.  It lives in their minds, but has barely begun to penetrate into their bodies, their loyalties and their communities. Ritual, for them, is a threat to this sense of the inviolable self. It calls such a self into question, the rituals recalling the suffering of Christ especially.
Having said all that, I am not of course arguing that people should attend the worship of Holy Week even if they are genuinely prevented by things like illness or accident.  Nor am I saying that people should never go away to another church or ecclesial community to share in these things.  If some time away from home and work can be combined with participating in the rites of another Christian community, well and good. The beauty of the ecumenical rites is that they can be celebrated almost everywhere!  Neither of these circumstances comes into the ambit of my central thesis: that Holy Week is that time of the year when those who call themselves Christians are stripped of their external presentation and trappings and thus revealed for what they truly are.

Can skin-deep Christians who abandon Christ at the moment of his deepest humanity be redeemed? Not by my rantings, nor by even the most sincere efforts of any evangelical soul. But even the men who abandoned Christ and resisted sharing in his sufferings were welcomed into the grace of the risen Christ. Nothing, it seems, is impossible for God . . . And I rejoice that it is so.

Holy Saturday 2013

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