EPPN Lenten Series Part 7: Holy Week Reflection
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this, your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
-- Book of Common Prayer
Dear Fellow Advocates,
As we come to the end of our Lenten journey together, the prospect for peace between Israelis and Palestinians looks more complicated than when we begun, and perhaps more complicated than it has looked in quite some time. This Holy Week, I find myself thinking about two themes – enmity and hope – and imagining how the followers of Jesus during the first Holy Week might have dwelt in those two themes when all was done on Friday afternoon.
Like today, I suspect hope was in short supply, while enmity – the natural human tendency to define one’s self by one’s antagonists or opponents – must have coursed through the disciples’ veins. By the time Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb late Friday, the roller coaster of emotion must have seemed incomprehensible – emotionally numbing – to his followers.
Just days earlier, they had surely relished the majesty and adulation of Jesus’ entry into the Holy City of Jerusalem. Even today, if one stands on the Mount of Olives and looks down toward the now-sealed Golden Gate through which Jesus and his disciples would have entered the city, there is a certain unmistakable majesty in the visage alone. Against this backdrop, the hosannas and homage of the crowd must have emotionally thrilled the disciples: it must have seemed like proof positive that their small movement had “arrived”; perhaps it was vindication for their risky decisions to leave home and family to follow a mysterious Nazarene preacher through the Judean countryside. Maybe it was even proof that God’s purposes were finally being fulfilled, through them.
If ever there was hope, this was it.
But now, as the Sabbath was beginning, the world could not have seemed more different. Their master, hailed as king by the city crowd only days before, had met his brutal end. One of their number had betrayed the master, and each one of them had fallen away from the Lord’s side in one way or another. Not only must it now have seemed clear that their movement would amount to nothing, but they too now feared for their very lives, locking themselves in a hidden upper room for protection from those they now saw as enemies and who likely saw them the same way. In reading the Passion and Easter gospels, there is something so accessible, so identifiably human and even personal in each of the disciples’ disappointing reactions to the events of the week: their sleeping in Gethsemane, Peter’s quick resort to the sword and his palpable grief later when he realizes he had abandoned his master just as Jesus had predicted, the fear in the upper room, the doubts of not just Thomas but also those who questioned Mary Magdalene and the other women, and so on.
We identify so easily with these actions because, as a matter of human instinct, we know that this is what duress produces. Duress drains us of hope. Unless we approach it correctly, duress can strip us of the capacity to love and eventually so disfigure us that we begin to see others as enemies.
At some point, we lose our capacity to discern signs of hope around us. Did the disciples who listened to Jesus cry from the cross hear – truly hear –anything he said? I suspect not. I very much doubt I would have. The words we (who know how the story ends!) now hear as words of triumph and victory – “today you shall be with me in Paradise,” “It is accomplished” – must have seemed like nonsense to those hearing them for the first time. To their eyes and ears, all that must have seemed certain is that hope had disappeared from their world and that they now were in mortal danger of their own.
Their enemies had won. Hope had departed. We have a law and by that law he ought to die. Of course, for what other law is there for human flesh but to spend life cascading to the emptiness of the tomb?
It would be easy – in a cheap sort of way – to turn at this point to Israelis and Palestinians and speculate at the degree to which duress for both peoples can drain hope and produce enmity. I am certain, however, that this is not the day for that. If Christians should have learned anything from the regrettable ways in which we have, through the centuries, projected the events of Holy Week on others – particularly Jews – it is that Holy Week is about us. It is about me.
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus. I it was denied thee:
Holy Week is about my failings, how the grasp of my sin pulls me through my life toward the tomb, and pulls others with me – even God himself made flesh – unless the grace and reconciliation of the Cross, the Atonement, intervenes.
Thus, rather than thinking about how the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians drains other people of hope and leads other people to see one another as enemies, I’d like to think for a moment about what it does to us. What it does to me. How does my identification with one side or another – my defining of one party or another as aggressor or victim, or even enemy – disfigure my own soul?
Pointing a finger with righteous indignation at an act or actor whose moral dimensions seem blindingly straightforward from the comfort of a vantage point seven thousand miles away feels good. It allows me to tell myself that I am calling out injustice, an evil; doing as I imagine Jesus would have done; and finding my salvation thusly. As the disciples must surely have know, it feels good to be part of a movement – especially a movement in which the opposition seems sinister and even demonic – and to define ourselves by this work.
There is, of course, a place for this.
The trouble with this – the dangerous balance we walk when we think like this – is twofold. First, it does not accord with reality. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were as simple as a single aggressor and a single victim, it would have been solved long ago. As our Lenten study has shown, however, it is complex. (In the nearly seven decades since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the power differential between the two sides, the investment of international actors, and the contours of peace have all fluctuated dramatically and continually; this is not what a one-sided conflict looks like.) Multiple realities exist in tension and collide with one another. Both “sides” largely are made up of good people who want peace. But second, and perhaps even more significantly, this way of thinking is dangerous because it drains us of hope and suffocates our capacity to stand alongside both friends and enemies as they work toward peace.
When The Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2012 overwhelmingly adopted Resolution B019 on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I commented that what was unique, even revolutionary, about it is that, for the first time, the Church was seeking to place its witness to the Conflict beyond the limiting fields of us/them, aggressor/victim, and even true/untrue. The Church was urging each of us to look at our own souls and take on the uncomfortable work of listening to those whose narratives, we are sure, are wrong. The General Convention was convinced, and I remain convinced today, that this is the game-changing step of how we build a movement that makes a difference in creating political momentum for peace. This is the movement that will transcend denomination, faith tradition, age, race, class, and so on in working toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.
At the end of the day, only a movement that refuses resolutely to see others as enemies is a movement that can remain filled with hope and bring hope to the world. As Israelis and Palestinians have shown us, in both good times and bad, they will ultimately be the ones who determine how and when peace comes. Until then, it is our role to support both and to support reconciliation whenever and however we can.
In closing, two contemporary thoughts about enmity, hope, and reconciliation seem apt.
The first comes from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby last week at the Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace conference in Oklahoma City:
Let us have no illusions: real reconciliation is never popular. One of the key reasons for that is our liking for the position of having someone to hate. We like our opposition; it’s jolly difficult when you haven’t got an enemy…We like having those whom we hate, we like the comforts of defining and distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’ in order to bolster our own position…Siding with victims is fine, it’s heroic, you get good marks, the press say you’re a nice person. But reconcilers must get alongside the perpetrators. The gospel of peace is reclaimed by loving those who love violence and hatred.
The second is a poem by the contemporary Anglican theologian Ruth Etchalls that imagines the emotion of Jesus toward one particular enemy in the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It is called The Judas Tree.
In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
"It was for this I came" he said
"And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days' time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell"
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first
May this holiest of weeks draw you ever more deeply into love and discipleship of the God who, through his Son’s share in our humanity and death, reconciles the whole world to himself.
We adore you, O Christ and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.