It started with ashes...

The journey began with T.S. Eliot for Ash Wednesday:

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost 
lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates

And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

It began with ashes and waiting - confession and quiet - it began as a journey should: with expectation, commitment, gentleness and the awareness that we were getting into something greater than ourselves even if we weren't yet sure what that was. As the journey ripened into the forty penitential days, I came to realize that I was only paying attention some of the time. Yes, I started with the best intentions - T.S. Eliot, ashes and all - but there were days when I forgot about it completely. Of course there were days when I prayed and pondered, and for those I give thanks. But more often than not I let myself drift back into worries and fears about loved ones and money - the state of the world all around me and within me - without once stopping to consider that I had promised to walk patiently with Jesus towards the Cross. Truth be told, that's more often the truth about my journey - and not just at Lent. I am so easily distracted.
So now we are at the start of Holy Week - and I am reading James Carroll's Constantine's Sword. Brilliant, troubling, clarifying and heart-breaking all at the same time. I kept hearing his insights as we shared the Passion Narrative today in worship. He makes the point that in the earliest days of the Church, there was an internecine battle between Jews who chose to follow Jesus and those who did not. In first century Palestine there were many such theological challenges within Judaism  During this time, it should be noted. it was the Roman Empire that was the common enemy of rabbis, priests, scholars, zealots, Essenes and more. Rome was a vicious, brutal and unrelenting occupying army,
The Roman armies had swept through many of the towns and villages of the country raping, killing and destroying nearly everything in sight. In Galilee, all centers of rebellion were brutally suppressed; the rebel-held town of Sepphoris was burned to the ground and all its surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. Thousands of Jews were killed. Villages in Galilee were laid waste. In Jerusalem, were rebels had briefly taken charge, the Romans showed the lengths to which they were prepared to go to maintain control by swiftly executing anyone even suspected of collusion in the rebellion -- Josepuhs puts the number at two thousand. The Roman means of execution, of course, was crucifixion, and Josephus makes the point that indeed the victims were crucified. This means that just outside the wall of the Jewish capital, crosses were erected - not three lonely crosses on a hill as in the tidy Christian imagination - but perhaps two thousand in close proximity. On each was hung a Jew, and each Jew was left to die over several days the slow death of suffocation, as muscles gave out so that the victim could no longer hold himself erect enough to catch a breath. And once squeezed free of life, the corpses were left on their crosses to be eaten by buzzards. This grostequery was its own justification. Its power was magnified because for Jews, coming into contact with a corpse made one ritually impure... the shadows of those crucifixes, in other words, were also the point. The Jews who'd been left alive were being reminded whom they were dealing with in Rome, reminded for weeks by the sight ans trench of the bodies. The image of those scores of crosses would stamp Jewish consciousness for a generation.

After making the horror of the Roman occupation clear,  Carroll goes on to suggest two other insights that warrant prayer and thought for Christians during Holy Week:

+ First, during the early years of the emerging Jesus movement the common enemy of the oppressed was Rome. Yes, there were aggressive and harsh theological challenges taking place between the competing Jewish camps of the time - and this would include emerging Christianity. There were ugly and cruel words spoken and written, but there was no inherent  anti-Judaism in these squabbles This is the Middle East, after all, where arguments are heated, personal and vitriolic by bourgeois Western standards. (And if you think I am exaggerating, read some of the barbs being traded back and forth in the aftermath of Israel's most recent election.) To quote Carroll, this "was a sectarian conflict among Jews" and not evidence of anti-Judaism in any way, shape or form within Christianity.

+ Two or three generations later,  however, when these same words and arguments of early Christianity have become normative for a community that is no longer primarily Jewish their impact changes.  Where once they reflected a sectarian conflict within Judaism, now they pit mostly Gentiles of the Roman Empire against a common Jewish enemy - and real enmity against the Jew takes off like wild fire.  In fact, Carroll asserts, not only do those who come to write Matthew and Luke begin to diminish the impact of Roman oppression on the Jews in these gospel stories, but they also begin to direct their legitimate fear and hatred away from Rome and onto the isolated Jewish people. "As Christian Jewish communities are steadily more alienated from their fellow Jews, so the 'enemies' of Jesus expand to fit those new situations. By the time John's (gospel is written) in the 90s, those enemies are now "the Jews" - that is, all those other Jews except us few right ones. If we had understood the literary genre gospel, we would have understood that. If we had understood gospel, we would have expected that. It is, unfortunately, tragically late to be learning it. Just as the original fate of Jesus was shaped in part by intra- Jewish disputes, the communal memory of how that fate unfolded was itself shaped by those disputes, especially when Roam domination of Jews started to unravel."

For the past 10 years, we have been aggressively reworking the once anti-Jewish polemic embedded in our gospel readings concerning the Passion of the Christ. Over time they have driven us to the Shoah and have made Christian Antisemitism normative even in the 21st century. Our retelling of the Passion today was therefore appropriately and thoroughly scoured because: "in John's gospel, Jesus (comes) to identify the evil one with the Jewish people" and that is something that NEVER could have happened. What we emphasized - and what the story shows in archetypal fashion - is how easily our fears of "the other" can become violent when we believe the propaganda of our leaders and seek to dismiss our reponsibilites through the destruction of a common scapegoat.  As Gerard makes clear: the gift of Jesus to the world is showing us what happens to everyone when we murder the  scapegoat. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, is crucified and his ugly death cannot be ignored or excused.

So today we gathered once again in community, not with ashes and silence but with palms and songs. It was cold outside but the sun was bright and stunning. Four congregations in our small city gathered to "bless the palms."  And in an unexpected gift of humor, each of these  four different theological traditions embodied their respective histories as we gathered in a public parking lot for this liturgy:  the Episcopalians made a single, straight line and waited for the pastor and crucifer, the Methodists arrived first so that we might gather around their humble wooden cross, the Lutherans showed up last carrying wild, liturgical poles and banners, and the Congregationalists sort of wandered over willy nilly as the spirit led them - or didn't.

 It was really too funny and all too true: apparently we process even as we do theology and unconsciously practice our governance.
I pray that I might be more attentive now we are on to Holy Week 2015...


Peter said…
And God said, "It's like herding cats..."
RJ said…
Ain't that the truth!

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