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eHolyWeek – Palm Sunday (read Mark 11:1-11)
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their excellent new book, The Last Week, set the scene for Palm Sunday: “Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives. On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire.”
Indeed, Pilate marched in troops from his base in Caesarea to quell any chance of revolution, since 2 million pilgrims who chafed under Roman oppression thronged the city’s streets. He had reason to be nervous.
The palm branches and the shout “Hosanna!” stirred up patriotic memories among the Jews: 200 years earlier, the courageous Maccabeans had thrown off the pagans who had ruled over them. Would Jesus lead a new cadre of freedom fighters and expel the Romans?
But Jesus did not ride in on a war stallion, the way Alexander the Great rodeBucephalus. He came in humble, on a mere donkey, quoting Zechariah 9:10 to the effect that his was a kingdom of peace, not violent force. No one understood – and the powers of this world have never understood. Pope Pius XII once ordered Josef Stalin to remove his armies from eastern Europe; Stalin scoffed: “How many legions do you command?” But the Gospel always appears to be foolishness to this world.
So we are a long way from our prettified Church images of children in pastel outfits singing the hymn: “Tell me the stories of Jesus… Into the city I’d follow, waving a branch of the palm tree high in my hand.” Interestingly, the mounting tension of Palm Sunday was captured pretty well in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar’s catchy song, “Hosanna, Heysanna.”
Mark 11 1: And when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, 2: and said to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat; untie it and bring it. 3: If any one says to you, `Why are you doing this?' say, `The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.'" 4: And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door out in the open street; and they untied it. 5: And those who stood there said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" 6: And they told them what Jesus had said; and they let them go. 7: And they brought the colt to Jesus, and threw their garments on it; and he sat upon it. 8: And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. 9: And those who went before and those who followed cried out, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10: Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!" 11: And he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple; and when he had looked round at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
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eHolyWeek – Monday (read Mark 11:12-19)
Jerusalem was so crowded with Passover pilgrims that Jesus stayed every night with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus in their home in Bethany, less than 2 miles from the temple. I’ve taken tour groups on the walk he made daily – a tough walk, steep, rocky, up to Bethpage, down the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley, up into the city.
After the tumultuous visit on Sunday, we may wonder what residents and pilgrims, much less the political and religious authorities, were anticipating. Surely not what transpired! Jesus walked up the steps from the south and in a boisterous rage drove the moneychangers out of the temple precincts. Odd: we think Jesus is issuing a memo prohibiting fundraisers at Church. But worshippers were required to exchange their foreign coins for shekels to pay the temple tax.
Jesus was less interested in tables with money on them than with the soul of the temple itself. Jesus is acting out, symbolically, God’s judgment on the temple. The powerful priests, Annas and Caiaphas, had sold out and were in cahoots with the Romans. Jews took immense pride in their temple, and yet King Herod – while beautifying and expanding it into virtually one of the Wonders of the World – placed a large golden eagle, symbol of Roman power, over its gate.
The prophet Jeremiah, six centuries earlier, had walked into the temple and denounced people’s faked religiosity that presumed God would bless and protect them simply because they went through the motions of showing up at the temple and making sacrifices, yet while their lives were unholy, and their nation unjust. Like the fig tree Jesus cursed on his way into the city, the temple has failed to produce “fruit.” Religious life becomes a superficial façade.
Jesus shuts down the temple, and forecasts – correctly – its destruction; just 40 years later, that supposedly eternal temple was no more. No wonder they wanted to kill him… Jesus in a way becomes the temple; the temple was supposed to be humanity’s access to God, and now Jesus in his life, death and resurrection is that access to God!
Mark 11 12: On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13: And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14: And he said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it. 15: And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; 16: and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17: And he taught, and said to them, "Is it not written, `My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." 18: And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. 19: And when evening came they went out of the city.
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eHolyWeek - Tuesday (read Mark 11:20 through Mark 13:37)
After the drama of Palm Sunday and the ruckus of Jesus’ Monday morning rampage through the temple, we sense that some terrible fate awaits Jesus. Perhaps he should have stayed home in Bethany, or fled during the night to safety in the north where he’d come from.
But instead, Jesus walks right back into the temple where he certainly had shocked and mortified clergy and laity alike and began talking – at length. We picture him moving about within the temple precincts (scroll down and click on these virtual images!), standing under porticoes, moving then toward the large stone staircase, standing for a while near the gate, probing, questioning, listening and yet ruminating at length.
These 95 verses in Mark (and Jesus’ talk becomes much longer when we consider all he said in Matthew chapters 22-25, running to 212 verses!) include some of Jesus’ most famous teachings. And don’t his words carry a much heavier freight since we know he is in the final couple of days before his death? Since he knew ominous clouds were gathering, why then did he choose to talk about whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus was not joining Thomas Jefferson in sealing off the separation of Church and state. Instead, he looked at a coin with Caesar’s image on it, a coin proclaiming that Caesar was divine – a blasphemous chunk of money – and he said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” What does Caesar possess? Blasphemous coins, and soldiers with swords. What belongs to God? Everything – including Caesar’s life, and Jesus’ life, which he is in the process of giving totally to God.
The disciples are awestruck, as are tourists today, but Herod’s temple: “Look, Teacher, what large stones!” Herod’s masons were brilliant, and the largest smoothly cut stone excavated so far measures 44 feet long, 10 feet high, 16 feet wide, weighing 570 tons. How indestructible! And yet Jesus foretold a day when not one stone would be left upon another.
Some clever chaps tried to trick him with a question about a woman with several husbands: to whom would she be married in heaven? Jesus, who despite recent hype probably wasn’t married, is about to find himself in heaven, and for him the glory of hope is too large, too wonderful to be spoiled by earthly limitations. How poignant is it that on his last day of teaching, Jesus cuts through all the complexity of spiritual matters and simply tells the people to love God, and to love each other?
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eHolyWeek - Wednesday (read Mark 14:1-11)
The name Judas, the most popular in first century Palestine, has become synonymous with duplicity and betrayal. Jesus had a traitor among his closest friends. But was the only one? Weren’t all the disciples bumblers, thick in the skull, Judas being simply the one who most blatantly acted out the incomprehension and failure they all shared.
Yet at least one person understood Jesus and his destiny – and loved him. At dinner, this woman cracked open a pottery flask containing rare, expensive ointment, worth a full year’s salary! But she isn’t counting the cost: she simply loves, extravagantly, not in a measured, calculating, careful, self-protective way. No gift is too grand to give to Jesus.
She alone senses that Jesus is about to die. In ancient times, instead of embalming or cremating, bodies were washed and prepared for burial with oil lotions; so this woman lavishes the finest burial treatment on Jesus – and he’s not even dead yet. He would die late Friday afternoon, and in the rush to bury him before the dusk beginning the Sabbath, there would be no time. Did God bless her with foreknowledge? Or was she simply paying better attention, with a deeper, more intuitive sense that Jesus was not a violent revolutionary but a Savior about to pour out the very heart of God? Her “beautiful” act is the gold standard for us who more often slide by on the cheap instead of expending boldly in the life of faith.
Judas recoils against a Jesus he did not comprehend. He “betrayed”: the Greek word paradidomi means to “hand over.” InExploring Christianity, I wrote that “In the first half of each Gospel, Jesus is in command, boldly striding into new territories, conquering demons, healing diseases; he is a doer, in control of everything, even the wind and the sea. But then the mood changes abruptly. Jesus becomes reflective, darkly hinting at his fate. He ominously walks straight into danger. He is “handed over” by Judas, to the authorities, and he does not fight back; he says nothing. He is no longer active, but passive. In a sense, this is hopeful for us, for our lives often traverse that same ground, as we grow old or sick and are increasingly forced to be dependent on others. We fear our identity is lost if we are not active, productive. But Jesus shows us that who we are, who he was, is found not in our activity but in what we suffer, in what we receive.”
Henri Nouwen gave a wonderfully insightful lecture on this, called “The Spirituality of Waiting,” which you can read online, or hear via a recording of Nouwen himself!
Mark 14 1: It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him; 2: for they said, "Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people." 3: And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4: But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, "Why was the ointment thus wasted? 5: For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor." And they reproached her. 6: But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7: For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. 8: She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. 9: And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her." 10: Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11: And when they heard it they were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.
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eHolyWeek - Maundy Thursday (read Mark 14:12-72)
Passover, that sacred evening when Jews celebrated God’s salvation of Israel from Egypt, remembered by eating lamb, unleavened bread, and drinking wine. Jesus, looking at that bread, saw in it a powerful symbol of what would happen to his body very soon, and staring into the cup of wine, a profound image of his own blood being spilled. We still use the words Jesus spoke when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper now.
Artists have done well with this moment: the famous DaVinci, but also works by Jacopo Bassano, Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Holbein, Salvador Dali, and a modern African.
The meal ended, Jesus walked out of the city to the Mount of Olives to pray in the garden called Gethsemane. Kneeling in anguish, Jesus prayed “Not my will, but Your will be done.” Is he being fatalistic? Don’t we in resignation believe our fate is something we must just bear? But Jesus isn’t resigned. He actively seeks and embraces God’s will, which isn’t some dark luck, but is when we with trusting faith go where God leads us.
In a different sense, Jesus went where we cannot go, for only he could save the world! He did so not by swatting the soldiers aside as evildoers, but he let them do as they wished to him. He let himself be “handed over,” embodying the vulnerability, the suffering of holy love, so determined to win us, to be loved by us, that he gave everything for us.
Artists have risen to this moment as well, as we may consider the old painting by El Greco, a more modern, profound view of Jesus’ agony by Paul Gauguin, and a good African painting. Caravaggio (who’d been arrested a few times himself!) painted Jesus being seized by the soldiers. Rent “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the ultra-controversial Martin Scorsese film: Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Christ in Gethsemane is perfect and unforgettable.
Jesus was arrested, the charges are trumped up, witnesses are compelled to lie, the proceedings are highly irregular… Who was responsible for Jesus’ death? The Jews? The Romans? You and me? The Jews hand him over to the Romans, the Romans hand him back to the Jews, the disciples hand him over. Hans urs von Balthasar noticed the truth in this careening handing over of Jesus: “No one wishes to be responsible. That is why they are all guilty… He rolls like a ball between the competitors, thrown from one to another, held by none, undesired by all.”
Through the dark night, Jesus is abused, mistreated, his fate now sealed. Holy Thursday waits for the day with the paradoxical name: Good Friday.
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eHolyWeek – Good Friday (read Mark 15:1-47)
Between 6 and 9am, Jesus was tried by Pilate in a contest between the powerful and the powerless, between searching questions and silent submission. Jesus was mocked, whipped, made a laughing-stock: “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Surely he has borne our grief, and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, with his stripes we are healed. He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter; they made his grave with the wicked, although he had done no violence” (Isaiah 53).
Beginning mid-morning, and extending through mid-afternoon, Jesus was crucified, a horrific form of capital punishment, an excruciating public humiliation designed to intimidate the rabble and keep the peace. The Romans alone wielded the legal authority to crucify. Pilate had crucified quite a few himself.
In the throes of death, Jesus cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Doesn’t this leave us space to cry out in the darkness when we seem forsaken by God? God did not remain safely aloof in heaven, but God entered into human suffering at its darkest. Just as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, so God envelops us in a love that even death could not defeat.
Good Friday is a day to check your watch, at 9 in the morning, at 3 in the afternoon, and as it grows dark, and consider the sufferings, death and burial of our Lord. You might contemplate artist’s renderings of Good Friday – Nicolaes Maes of Christ before Pilate, Mattia Preti of Pilate washing his hands, Caravaggio of Christ being crowned with thorns, some images of the “via dolorosa,” the “way of sorrows,” the path Jesus took toward the cross and events along the way (the “stations of the cross”), and my favorite crucifixion painting by Matthias von Grünewald.
One of the most interesting characters in all the Bible, Joseph of Arimathea, insures Jesus’ burial. The location of Jesus’ tomb is debated. Picturesque, but unlikely historically, is the “garden tomb” tourists visit. More likely, Jesus was buried in a tomb beneath what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And now we have the recently televised and much-hyped “Jesus Tomb” to consider…
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eHolyWeek – Holy Saturday
We know the crucifixion, Jesus’ suffering and dying, the broken heart of God pouring out immense love; and we know Easter, the astonishing news that the tomb was empty, Jesus is risen, life and light unquenchable. But what about the darkest pair of nights and the grief shrouded day in between, when Jesus was “dead and buried”?
Alan Lewis called that Saturday “a significant zero, a pregnant emptiness, a silent nothing which says everything.”
We live our lives – don’t we? – in-between, like Holy Saturday. Talk to the widow whose husband died of cancer last year. She has seen Good Friday. She may believe the Easter Resurrection is coming – but for now she is in between. Talk to the husband reeling from his wife’s exiting their marriage. We live in-between.
Why didn’t God just raise Jesus up immediately? The moment they sealed the tomb, God could have crushed the sealers and rolled the stone right back where it came from. But God waited. God did nothing for a time. Perhaps God knew we would experience life, and loss, and love in just this way. We have hope – but the waiting can be a silent nothing. And we have to wait. We live in between.
But there’s more. Through history, the Church has taught that Jesus “descended into Hell.” Between his burial and his resurrection, Jesus went down into the underworld to save those awaiting judgment. Such a journey suggests that all people, in this life and even beyond this life, are offered the love of God. Even the grave does not silence God’s call.
Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote, “What is to happen to the multitude who lived before Jesus’ ministry? And what will become of the many who never came into contact with the Christian message? What is to happen to the people who have certainly heard the message of Christ but who – perhaps through the fault of those very Christians who have been charged with its proclamation – have never come face to face with its truth? Are all these delivered to damnation? Do they remain forever shut out? The Christian faith can say ‘no’ to this urgent question. What took place for mankind in Jesus also applies to the people who either never came into contact with Jesus and his message, or who have never really caught sight of the truth of his person and story.”
God is relentless, unfazed by time, space, or death itself. Even the pit of Hell is owned by the unquenchable love of Christ; the abyss is not bottomless, but has an opening to heaven. Or so many thinkers have argued, unable to make sense of the idea that God could love everyone with infinite power and wind up losing even one. Time will tell – and in the meantime, we wait, like the disciples and women that first Saturday after Good Friday.
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eHolyWeek – Easter Sunday (read Mark 16:1-8)
On the third day, Sunday, women came to the tomb, but Jesus was not there, and then he appeared to people over the next few weeks. Easter, constantly doubted, forever yearned for, the vortex of our faith.
An empty tomb. Conflicting accounts. Rumors of meetings. Doubts, surprises, but a powerful message – too big, so contradictory to life as we know it that the stories seem crazy, just as Luke characterizes the reaction to the women’s breathless report of the empty tomb: “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:12). Doubt is as old as Easter itself.
When we speak of the resurrection, we do not mean that Jesus’ soul survived the death of his body, and yet we do not mean the mere resuscitation of a corpse. The risen Jesus is not recognized, but then is recognizable. He can be touched, but then he pulls back. He materializes, and then he vanishes. Paul spoke of the resurrection as involving a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15). A body, yes, but spiritual, not merely a spirit, but a body, totally transformed, animated entirely by the Spirit, not liable to disease or death.
A reporter asked me, “Do you believe the resurrection really happened?” I do not believe a corpse was resuscitated, but I most certainly believe Jesus was resurrected by God, that he was transformed into a spiritual-bodily existence and appeared to the disciples, and lives today.
Frederick Buechner said it beautifully: “We may try to say that the story of the Resurrection means the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven. Or we can say that the Resurrection means the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he lives the way Socrates does in the good he left behind. Or we can say the language of the Gospels is the language of poetry and that it is not to be taken literally but as pointing to a truth more profound than the literal. We try to reduce it to the coming of spring, or the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. They are all miracles, but they are not this miracle. If I believed this was all the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or at least I hope I would have the courage to. The Resurrection is proclaimed as a fact: Christ is risen! Unless something very real took place, there would be no Church, no Christianity.”
Mark 16 1: And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2: And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3: And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" 4: And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; -- it was very large. 5: And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. 6: And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. 7: But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you." 8: And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.