Sunday, March 24, 2013

Holy Week—You're Doing It Wrong

"...But Deliver Us From Unpleasantness,"
by Robert O. Hodgell
One of the most problematic issues with the Christian calendar is the regular skipping over of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday straight to Easter.

We do Advent right. We've got Christmas down (sort of). And Epiphany is a walk in the park. Even Lent, in all its misuse and abuse (I once had a friend who foreswore all music that was not "Christian"—whatever that means) seems to get an adequate amount of attention. But then we come to Holy Week. We are present with our waving palm fronds, we make lots of noise in our normally quiet churches, we shout our Hosannas and then we leave, only to return next week to find that the tomb is empty, the Lord is risen, and we never have to deal with the sticky wicket that was Golgotha.

It is because of this Sunday-by-Sunday structuring that we have finagled the crucifixion right out of our Easter story. We need to learn to take time to see the long shadow of the cross approaching by the end of our Palm Sunday services, and to allow ourselves to be immersed in the deathly chill of the Last Week. The Triumphal Entry gave those in Jerusalem hope that this stranger riding in on a donkey was somehow going to turn the political tables against the Romans and reverse the oppressive occupation that kept the Judeans exiled in their own land. Against expectations, however, he turned tables in the temple, called out the religious and political authorities alike, and was executed as one hated by all.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not advocating for a Passion of the Christ–esque observation of Holy Week that sprays blood in people's faces to "make a point" (My wife and I actually have a Maundy Thursday tradition of watching The Last Temptation of Christ together with friends). But the cross is (or should be) nevertheless at the very center of Christian faith.

I have been reading Jürgen Moltmann's The Crucified God for Lent, and I think that he explains well the reason that the crucifixion has been swept under the ecclesial rug: the cross reveals our own ugliness, the inhumanity of humanity. The Romans themselves viewed the early Christian worship of a crucified Jesus as "unaesthetic" and vulgar (pg. 33). Despite what numerous so-called "Jesus mythicists" say, no god in the ancient world would ever be taken seriously if that god were to die at the hands of mere human beings (as the now-famous Alexamenos graffito reveals). Such a god would be impotent and frail—in other words, not a god at all. Moltmann argues that there's something more than mere aesthetics at work here:
The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God. Where this contradiction in the cross, and its revolution in religious values, is forgotten, the cross ceases to be a symbol and becomes an idol, and no longer invites a revolution in thought, but the end of thought in self-affirmation (pg. 40)
The Church has for too long substituted platitudes for sacrifice, self-involvement for the service of the poor and abased, and theological truisms for true humility. We have effectively neutered the Christian story by whitewashing the cross and placing it on the altar. A deeply moving woodcut by Robert Hodgell entitled "...But Deliver Us From Unpleasantness" hangs in a hallway of my seminary, and features a pious congregation looking on as a preacher stands before an altar with a crucified and bloody Jesus hanging in the background. The crucifix, though, has been covered with a white sheet, and a massive bouquet of flowers hides the suffering Messiah. This congregation, like so many today, is doing Holy Week (and moreover, the Cross itself) a grave disservice. Moltmann goes on:
To make the cross a present reality in our civilization means to put into practice the experience one has received of being liberated from fear for oneself; no longer to adapt oneself to this society, its idols and taboos, its imaginary enemies and fetishes; and in the name of him who was once the victim of religion, society and the state to enter into solidarity with the victims of religion, society and the state at the present day, in the same way as he who was crucified became their brother and their liberator (pg. 40).
This Holy Week, let us remember our strange liberator, our crucified God, who submitted himself to the inhumanity of human religion and by culture, and let us go and do likewise.

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