I have long understood the Paschal Journey as a universal phenomenon, and not something that is unique to Jesus of Nazareth. It is inscribed into creation at large in the inter-weaving process of creation-cum-destruction, or the recycling pattern of birth-death-new life. It is a paradox visible throughout all creation and at work in our own bodies on a daily basis.
Paradox is the key word here. A paradox may be described as a contradiction with meaning written underneath. How to access the meaning is obviously the big challenge. A helpful example is St. Paul’s observation: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor.12:11). In logical, rational terms, this statement makes no sense, yet, many of us know from life experience that there is a deep truth here. It is the truth of paradox, and amid the current cornovirus pandemic we see it visibly at work around us.
While political leaders, eminent scientists, and dedicated medics work feverishly to hold chaos at bay and resolve the pandemic, there is unanimous agreement that the solution is primarily with us, the rank-and-file of society. As is now clear from the Wuhan province in China, as long as the people adopt social distancing, take hygienic precautions, and abide by restrictions, WE can bring the pandemic under control. Rightly indeed, commentators have been citing the words of Winston Churchill: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Isn’t this the dream that gave birth to the United Nations in the first place? A human community that could empower the conditions for peace and justice to flow for all. And paradoxically, it is to be achieved by social distancing, creating new forms of space-time in a world where we have so cluttered our environment – humanly and ecologically – that we are in danger of choking the flow of real life-energy.
It is an incredibly empowering and liberating moment for humanity, and I pray that the powers-that-be will wake up to this newly released creativity of our communal spirit.
And all this is happening as we celebrate Holy Week, the Christian take on life’s great paradox, and an opportunity to rethink what the week could potentially signify.
It begins on Palm Sunday, with a Gospel narrative – a classical parable – of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, amid a festival atmosphere of deep subversive meaning. The crowd mimics a royal parade, but their king is riding on a donkey, and I suspect they get the message. Many years later the Gospel writers cite the text from Zechariah 9:9, but fail to inform us that kings ride horses, not donkeys, and that the king riding the donkey has been wounded in battle and has had to abdicate his kingship.
This is paradox writ large! It is Jesus who asked for the donkey in the first place, announcing in classical prophetic denunciation that he no longer identifies with imperial divinity. And what is the alternative he is initiating? Scholars seem to have missed this clue for centuries. The donkey is the beast of burden of his own indigenous people. They use the donkey for ploughing, threshing, bearing loads, travelling. The donkey is a key symbol of the people (the crowd), he so strongly identifies with.
You don’t’ need to be a scripture scholar, or preacher, to get the message. The divine imperial power has been collapsed into the community of the people. The individual heroic king has morphed into an empowering communal presence. The late Marcus Borg got it absolutely right in a statement that often baffled his readers: “the community that IS Jesus.”
And at the end of the narrative in Matt. 21:11, the people proclaim Jesus not as some new kind of king but as a prophet! Religious kingship is finished. Empowering prophetic community is the blueprint from here on. St. Paul seems to have got that much right, focussing his mission around small empowering ecclesial communities. It was Constantine in the third century, more than anybody else, that wrecked the communal foundations, reverting to the divine imperialism that has bedevilled Christianity ever since then.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter Sunday. The latter is even more subversive than the former, but once more we must clear away the patriarchal clutter of centuries. Clinging on to divine imperialism, the Gospel writers depict a miraculous heroic revival in which Jesus is perceived to be alive once more. For most Christians, the Resurrection is the primary miracle befitting a supreme divine hero who comes back to life.
Ever since a controversial Anglican Bishop (David Jenkins), in the 1980’s suggested that the Resurrection is about a great deal more than “a conjuring trick with bones” people of adult faith tend to view the evidence differently. Instead of focussing on what happened to Jesus (about which we know nothing), let’s turn to the first witnesses and ask what happened to them. What was the “rising up” in their hearts that transformed them beyond their debilitating grief and trauma into becoming ardent witnesses to the experience that Jesus continued to be alive, even more radically than in his earthly life?
Instead of literalizing the event, let’s bring discerning imagination to the experience, to the Christ who once more morphs into an empowering community (similar to Palm Sunday). And this line of exploration takes us deeper into paradox. We have long assumed that the original witnesses were Peter and the twelve. But not anymore! It seems that none of the twelve were on the hill of Calvary – they had fled lest they too be crucified. So, who was there? Mary Magdalene and a faithful group, consisting largely of women. According to Luke 23:55, they saw where the body was laid, and they are the first to engage with the painful promising breakthrough of the first Easter morn.
Not merely are these the primary witnesses to the Resurrection (as is clear from all Gospels). It is in and through them that Jesus rises into the empowering community that in time became the Church. Here we encounter a range of complex issues which contemporary scholars wrestle with, and are beyond the scope of this Reflection.
How did this group become so empowering – to a point where a later patriarchal Church felt it had to severely suppress their unique witnessing? Once again, we are into paradox! It was their ability to negotiate deep pain and trauma through rituals of grieving and lamenting that enabled them to become the catalysts for the breakthrough. (The Gospel writers miss this point completely). The Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann takes us straight to the heart of the matter:
Only grief permits newness. . . . Where grief is silent, the newness does not come and the old order survives another season. Jesus’ main conflict is with the managers of the old order who do not know of its failure and who will do whatever is necessary to keep the grief from becoming visible. For if the grief does not become visible then the charade of the old order can be sustained indefinitely - and newness will never come! If the hurt is fully expressed and embraced, it liberates God to heal.
And not merely to heal, but to empower! In the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in John 11:18, understandably Mary desires healing by clinging to her supreme lover, but in what may initially strike the hearer as rather cruel, Jesus says: No more clinging on to imperial gurus! Go instead to the brothers and sisters; get empowering community up and moving – and there you will encounter me. Therein you will find your healing, your comfort, and consolation!
This foundational group (both women and men), inspired by Mary Magdalene, carried forward the mission of empowering community, probably into the mid 60s. Nobody seems entirely clear on what suppressed it, but the Jewish Roman war (66-72) was probably the major cause. Throughout the centuries, the brutality of war consistently undermines women’s creativity.
It may come as a surprise, maybe even a shock, that I have omitted Good Friday. As happens in the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, we grossly inflate the martyr-like suffering, and undermine the empowering message of Jesus. In that movie, the flogging of Jesus takes about 40 minutes, whereas the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to 40 seconds.
I respectfully acknowledge that Good Friday, and the devotion to the Cross, is enormously important for millions of disenfranchised people in our world. It can, and does bring comfort, consolation, and the resilience to retain some hope and meaning in the face of appalling conditions. But what has all that martyr-like spirituality achieved in terms of creating empowering community, whereby people would not have to stare in desperation at a crucified guru, but instead look to one another, and our empowering earth, to bring about transformative justice and liberation?
Several years ago, the theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether expressed it well:
It is not Jesus’s suffering and death that are redemptive, but his life as a praxis of protest – against injustice, and solidarity in defense of life. Suffering is a factor in the liberation process, not as a means of redemption, but as the risk that one takes when one struggles to overcome unjust systems whose beneficiaries resist change. The means of redemption is conversion, opening up to one another, changing systems of distorted relations, creating loving and life-giving communities here and now, and not getting oneself tortured to death.
Isn’t this exactly what the Covid-19 crisis is helping us to reclaim: “opening up to one another, changing systems of distorted relations, creating loving and life-giving communities here and now,” What a grace-filled time we are living through, despite all the anguish and struggle that is involved!
This virus has the potential to change our entire way of being, in and for one another, and for the suffering Earth as well. But will we Christians allow it to change our distorted spirituality, and the several ways in which we have betrayed the empowering communal vision of Jesus and the Gospels?
The message of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are one and the same. Forget about the heroic patriarchal Jesus. He is merely a figment of our centuries-old patriarchal projections. We have all been indoctrinated into emulating heroes, divine and human. In this paradoxical time, several deeper truths are invading our consciousness, perhaps most central of all is that the God we believe in is one of unconditional love. It is a love however, that remains vague and nebulous, until we – the body of Christ on earth today – begin translating it into empowering communities.
Jesus has given us the blueprint – nowhere more vividly than in the narrative of Palm Sunday and in the empowering story of Mary Magdalene and her co-disciples through their Resurrection experience. Perhaps, it is fortuitous that the Churches are closed this Holy Week. Instead, let’s give discerning attention to the deeper message that is involved, and pray for the grace to engage with empowering communities that will help to heal and restore our broken human civilization.