01 April 2012
This has been a long and difficult Lenten season. In other years, I have felt out of synch with the liturgical year, unable or unwilling to enter into a season of penitence just when the sky is beginning to show light as I walk to the gym in the early morning, and my spirits are lifting after the long, dark, cold of winter. This year, however, Ash Wednesday seemed to coincide with a deep, inner need to repent, to re-examine my motives and behavior, to renew my commitment to the spiritual disciplines that keep me connected to the Divine. In the weeks that followed, I have found my prayer life richer, my awareness of my failings sharper, and my compassion for the failings of others much greater.
Today, the warm, spring sunshine illuminates redbuds and cherry blossoms as if from within, and banks of tulips open their red and yellow cups to the soft air. This morning as I woke up, the birds were singing like mad in the new serviceberry tree that only a short while ago was a bunch of bare, lifeless sticks in my front yard. Whatever it may indicate about long-term climate change, I am grateful for this early spring, even as it stands in ironic contrast with our liturgical entry into the darkest part of the Christian calendar.
In today’s Gospel accounts from Mark, we heard first of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a colt. In the parallel passage in Matthew 21, the author is more expansive, showing that this event
to fulfill what was said through the prophet:
Your Sovereign comes to you without display,
riding on a donkey, on a colt—
the foal of a beast of burden.
In his blog, “Jesus’ Subversive Donkey Ride: A Progressive Christian Lectionary for Palm Sunday”, Carl Gregg points out that the Matthew’s Jewish readers – and probably Jesus’ Jewish followers – would have connected this with the passage in Zechariah 9:9-10, which reads (in the Inclusive Bible translation):
Look! Your ruler comes to you:
victorious and triumphant,
humble, riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The ruler will banish chariots from Jerusalem;
the bow will be banished.
The ruler will proclaim peace for the nations;
the empire stretching from sea to sea,
from the River to the ends of the earth.
Zechariah wrote in the sixth century BCE, during the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem. While the Jewish people had been allowed to return to their ancestral land under the reign of Darius of Persia, they were still a subject people, and the memory of war and destruction were still alive among them. This prophecy is a promise of hope to a people who live in fear, an image of universal peace in a time when the surrounding nations were continually at war.
For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Roman occupation was just one more instance of the recurring nightmare of foreign invaders demanding tribute and obedience. Zechariah’s promise of hope in the darkness of post-exilic Jerusalem must have glowed like a beacon to those who lived in the shadow of Roman military might.
It is tempting, today, to read the passage as the account of a triumphal parade, with everyone in town coming out to cheer. It is more likely that, although some were cheering and shouting Hosanna, many more were jeering, laughing at the foolish guy who thinks he looks like a victorious general mounted on a noble steed.
But, unlike the delusional Don Quixote, Jesus knows what he is doing. He is undermining the commonly accepted values, turning our ideas of power upside down, bringing the promise of hope to those who saw only darkness ahead. Drawing on the work of John Dominic Crossan, Gregg notes that Jesus is not riding
… a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even [just] a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.
I love this image of Jesus, comically subverting the culture of militarism and oppression. Imagine how different our society would be if every CEO walked to work or took the bus instead of driving an SUV. Imagine how different war would be if soldiers rode old, beater bicycles instead of armored tanks. Imagine if every time we thought we’d been cheated or cut off in traffic or disrespected in any way, we simply said, “thank you.”
It’s all unrealistic, of course. And making fun of oppressive power tends to lead to a bad end – at least in the short run.
But Jesus doesn’t let up. As Mark recounts the events in the days that we now commemorate in Holy Week, we see Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple courtyard; asking the religious leaders whether John the Baptist had divine authority or was only working on his own; talking about some violent tenants who kill every representative the landlord sends, up to and including the landlord’s own, beloved child; chiding some Sadducees who ask him about marriage in heaven; and even predicting that the Temple will be torn down.
It is as though he is taunting the authorities, like so many non-violent protesters in our own day, daring them to arrest him. When they finally do, he is questioned by Pilate, who asks “Are you the king of the Jews?” But Jesus refuses to acknowledge anyone’s power to compel him to do or say anything, replying only “if you say so” and then remaining silent.
Naturally, things only get worse. Jesus is condemned, stripped of his garments, whipped, and nailed to a cross, where he dies crying out to God.
Of course, we know that the story doesn’t end there. But I’ll let Marjory talk about that next Sunday.
For now, I’d like to back up a little bit, because I left out a crucial part of the story. It’s the part where Jesus has dinner with his friends, on the night before he was arrested. In Mark’s telling, not much happens. No foot washing. No dispute over who will be the greatest. No discussion after the meal. No command to “do this in memory of me.” Just this:
As it grew dark, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. They reclined at table, and in the course of the meal Jesus said, “The truth is, one of you is about to betray me—one who is eating with me.
They were very upset at these words, and one by one they said to him, “Surely it’s not me!”
Jesus replied, “It is one of you Twelve—one who dips into the dish with me. The Chosen One is going the way the scriptures foretell. But woe to the one by whom the Chosen One is betrayed. It were better had that person never been born.”
During the meal Jesus took break, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them saying, “Take this and eat. This is my body.” He likewise took a cup, gave thanks and passed it to them, and they all drank from it. Jesus said to them, “This is my blood, the blood of the Covenant, which will be poured out on behalf of many. The truth is, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until the day I drink it anew in the kindom of God.”
After singing songs of praise, they walked out to the Mount of Olives.[Inclusive Bible]
Once again, Jesus says something strange and enigmatic, something completely counter-intuitive. How can ordinary bread be a person’s body? How can a cup of wine be the blood of the covenant, let alone the blood of a human being?
Over the centuries, there has been a lot of controversy about what Jesus meant. While the Church in the East, those we call now Orthodox, remain content to simply call it a mystery, the Western Church wanted to pin down the exact moment and method in which the bread became Christ’s literal body. Words like “transubstantiation” and “consubstantiation” were invented to encapsulate entire arguments about essence and accident, form and substance – philosophical distinctions that make little sense to most of us, even when they are explained. In the Reformation, a lot of people said it was all absurd, that the bread and the cup are simply memory-aids, a way to follow Jesus’ injunction to the disciples – found only in Luke’s version, by the way – to remember him whenever they broke bread together. In the early days of the church, that meant at every meal, not just at what we call “Holy Communion.” I keep hoping we’ll bring back that understanding, but that conversation, too, is for another day.
We are the heirs of those Protestant reformers, yet – like our Orthodox and Catholic brothers and sisters – seem to believe that the bread and cup are more than simple memory aids. When we pass the elements, we say to one another “the body of Christ” and “the cup of the new covenant”. And, for many, this is a somber and even mournful moment, a time when we live into the brokenness of Jesus on the Cross, a time when we confess that we, too, have crucified Christ.
But maybe we’ve got it wrong. If Jesus was a joker when he rode a nursing donkey instead of a noble stallion, maybe the joke is on us when we think that Communion is about death and sadness. Maybe calling the bread on the table his body, and the wine in the cup his blood, Jesus was making the same kind of serious joke that calls us to love those that persecute us, to forgive our enemies, to give to anyone who asks us, to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile.
Because when you think about it, none of that makes any sense, either. At least, not in the world that glorifies revenge, rewards greed and selfishness, and sees wealth and power as a mark of God’s favor. In the upside-down reign of God, the ordinary rules don’t apply.
As we follow Jesus into the events of Holy Week, I invite you to think about Jesus as a jokester. Perhaps, instead of commanding us to remember his death with sadness and despair, Jesus was inviting us to an ongoing celebration, a foretaste of the heavenly feast, at which everyone will have enough and no one will be turned away. I like to think that Jesus was making us a promise when he said that the bread was his body – a promise to be with us in the most intimate way possible, no matter what happened next. I like to think that the fruit of the vine is nothing more than the divine, energizing River of Life that courses through each of us. I think that he was asking us not to mourn, but to celebrate, to remember that God is always in us and around us and among us, no matter what.
After all, you are what you eat. So, maybe in breaking the bread and calling it his body, Jesus was inviting us to become what he was for so many in his time, what he continues to be for so many today, the Bread of Life. In eating the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ – a promise of hope in a dark time. And that’s no joke.