Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday in Holy Week: Good Friday

The Annunciation by Gloria Ssali

Why on earth do Christians call a day on which Jesus was brutally tortured and executed by the Roman Empire "good"?

It's complicated.

At 9:00 in the morning on the day before the Sabbath, so the gospel of Mark tells us, Jesus was nailed to a cross- probably a crossbeam, actually, which was then attached to/ suspended from a more permanent pole.

Crucifixion was the preferred form of capital punishment for those the Roman Empire deemed especially dangerous criminals. Though some of our translations speak of those crucified alongside Jesus as "bandits," the truth is, they wouldn't have been crucified for simple theft. They must have been, like Jesus, considered insurrectionists, or worse. They must have done something the state was convinced was a crime against its security.

One of the advantages to crucifixion, for Rome, was the fact that it was so horrifying. Jesus was one of the lucky ones, dying within a matter of hours. Many lingered for days. It was the custom to leave the body on the cross after death, so that birds could eat away the flesh. No burial for those crucified-- not normally, anyway. Jesus seems to have been an exception. The advantage was, the punishment was a deterrent to those who looked upon the executed. The roads into Rome were lined with crosses. The message was clear: Threaten the empire, and this will be your fate. Make no mistake: the crucifixion was a political act.

So far I'm not making much of a case for calling the day "good."

This year Good Friday falls on the day many scholars believe was the actual date of Jesus' crucifixion.  It also happens to be the date much of the church marks the Feast of the Annunciation, the occasion when the angel announced to Mary that she was to be a mother (and, if the gospel of Luke tells it true, gained Mary's consent).

According to some scholars, this is not a coincidence.

It is commonly thought that we do not know the date of Jesus' actual birth, but that December 25 was chosen to coincide with the Roman feast of Sol Invictus (the Unvanquished Sun), a celebration whose name  dovetails neatly with certain theological language often used about Jesus. However, the earliest writings addressing the date of Jesus' birth connect it, not to the Roman holiday, but to the date of the crucifixion. The logic goes, the date of the crucifixion is the date of salvation of humankind by God's gracious self-emptying, in Jesus. But salvation can also be dated to the conception of Jesus in his mother's womb. It stood to reason, to the early church, that the date of salvation was the same in any case-- Jesus' crucifixion must have taken place on the same date as his conception. This is how December 25 was arrived at, as the date of Jesus' birth.

We call this day "good," because it is the date on which God's love for humanity was demonstrated by Jesus' death on the cross. God so loved the world that God came in Jesus, to live as we live, and to suffer the worst of what human sin had to offer. God did not and does not leave us alone and unloved, but goes through it with us, and for us.

It just so happens that this year Good Friday falls on March 25, and we have double the reason to call it "good."

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thursday in Holy Week: Last Supper Thursday/ Maundy Thursday/ Judas Kiss Thursday/ Arrest Thursday/ Cock-Crow Thursday

Scripture can be found here...

Many, many things happen on the Thursday my church calls "Maundy" (from the Latin "mandate," meaning "commandment." From John 13:34.)

For me and my house, due to the nature of my work, I will confine myself to commenting on the supper, and that meditation can be found here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wednesday in Holy Week: Prophetic Anointing Day (Formerly Known as Spy Wednesday)

"Alabaster Cup," by P. Raube, 2014
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” 

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” 

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. 

~ Mark 14:1-11

The traditional (though, apparently, not really well-known) name for the Wednesday in Holy Week is Spy Wednesday. I know this because when I was in college one of my professors published a book of poetry called "Spy Wednesday's Kind." The title poem is cryptic in the extreme... I probably understand it less well today than I did when I was 18. But the professor, a lovely odd-duck of a Jesuit, explained it to me. Wednesday was the day when the religious leadership sought a way to arrest Jesus, and also when, later on, Judas presented himself as the solution to that problem.

In Mark's and Matthew's gospels, those two passages form the outer scenes of an "inclusio", i.e., a sandwich-shaped story. In this case, the parts about needing a betrayer/ finding a betrayer are the bread.

The 'filling' of the sandwich is the story of a woman anointing Jesus.

There is a story in each gospel about a woman anointing Jesus, but they are not all the same story. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is in the home of a Pharisee, and the woman who anoints him is said to be a "sinner." She anoints and kisses his feet. The gospel of John gives us a name for the woman: Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus; the anointing takes place in their home. Mary also anoints Jesus' feet, in gratitude, it would seem, for his raising her brother from the dead. (Fun Fact: It is from the misguided conflation of these stories we get the idle tale that Mary Magdalene-- a different Mary altogether-- is a sinner.)

Matthew and Mark tell the story in much the same way. In both the anointing takes place at the home of  Simon the leper. In both, the story is surrounded by the material about the search for and finding of a means to arrest Jesus.

In both the woman is unnamed.

In both the woman anoints Jesus' head.

I love all these stories.

I love how the women interrupt an all-male gathering to perform a startling action honoring Jesus.

I love how the nature of the action prohibits anyone from not noticing--spikenard ointment is highly aromatic/ fragrant, and the scent would have permeated the room.

I love how in each instance the woman is scolded for her wastefulness-- the ointment is too costly, couldn't we have helped the poor instead?

I love how Jesus responds by paraphrasing a well-known verse of scripture (well-known to the people in that room):  'Since there will never cease to [there will always] be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”'  I love that he doesn't in any way disparage or downplay the needs of the poor (as some would interpret it), but extends a both-and possibility: He can be anointed and the poor can be cared for. These are not mutually exclusive occurrences.

I love how Jesus names her action as prophetic: "She has anointed me beforehand for my burial."

I love how Jesus commends her to the memory of the community: "Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

We have failed at that last one. I don't much love that. It is reported that Elizabeth Shussler Fiorenza, when beginning her theological studies, came upon Mark's version of this story and was stunned that, in fact, this story has not been told in memory of this woman, and titled her seminal work of feminist theology accordingly: In Memory of Her.

In fact, I would suggest that the prophetic nature of this action by a woman made the early church so uncomfortable, other reasons for her action were substituted in Luke's and John's versions. She must have been a sinner. She must have been really grateful about her brother. Apparently, it was very difficult to live with this anonymous woman simply seeing Jesus clearly, and responding with a bold and intrepid gesture.

The unnamed woman saw Jesus clearly, on Wednesday, in the middle of Holy Week.

The unnamed woman performed a prophetic action, a bold and intrepid gesture: she poured incredibly expensive and fragrant oil on his head (like you might for a king or a prophet or a dead man). 

Submitted for your approval: Changing the name of Wednesday in Holy Week to Prophetic Anointing Day.

It's not like the whole world will miss Spy Wednesday.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tuesday of Holy Week: Challenges, Parables, and Staying Woke Day

Christ Pantocrator ("Almighty"), Hagia Sophia Monastery, Istanbul
Scripture can be found here...

At three full chapters and 121 verses, Tuesday is the longest day in Holy Week... or perhaps, the most thoroughly described/ busy.

It begins with Jesus' walking again past the (poor) fig tree he cursed on Monday, and, when his disciples say, "YIKES! It withered!", replying with what feels like a non-sequitur. He speaks about faith and prayer. Mark's gospel never offers us a version of the Lord's Prayer (that can only be found, in two different forms, in Luke and Matthew). But he does end his words on prayer with an echo of the Lord's Prayer as we know it:

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (11:25).

Jesus connects God's forgiveness of us to our ability to forgive others.

Forgiveness flows in both directions. In all directions.You might say, forgiveness is the heart and soul of Jesus' mission among us. You might say that.

Jesus returns to the Temple, where he is promptly questioned by the religious authorities as to where, exactly, he gets his authority. He demurs, but then tells a scathing parable that seems designed to portray those authorities as wicked tenants of the Father's vineyard, and ends with the promise of retaliation and destruction.

Which is very interesting, given his just-moments-earlier words on forgiveness. 

It continues like this, all day Tuesday, with question after question being lobbed at Jesus.

“By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?”(11:28)

"Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (12:14)

"In the resurrection whose wife will she be?" (referring to a woman who had married seven brothers in turn, in accordance with the law).(12:23)

“Which commandment is the first of all?”(12:28)

But Jesus asks some questions, too. And in the end, when all the questions have been exhausted (and after some scathing words about religious professionals), Jesus enters prophetic mode and begins to speak about the future of Jerusalem and the Temple.  He sees destruction everywhere. At the same time, he calls it "the beginning of the birth pangs." which leads me to believe he is describing, not a death, but a birth-- a messy, difficult, painful, even frightening birth, but a birth nonetheless.

It cannot be a coincidence that Jesus speaks of the end of all things when he himself is facing his own death. I have wondered for a while whether Jesus' tone in all these disputes-- the anger that breaks through-- is connected to his very human dread of what will truly be the longest day, beginning after supper on Thursday. 

I find it consoling to know that Jesus was anguished. But in the end, his message isn't "hide." It's "Stay woke."

Stay woke, Jesus says. Through the mess. Through the difficulty. Through the pain, and through the fear. Be on the lookout for what God is doing because, trust me (says Jesus), God is doing a new thing-- a splendid thing. A beautiful thing. And God will be with us through the mess and pain and fear. 

God is doing a new thing.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Monday of Holy Week: Flipping Over the Tables Day

Many thanks to Peg Corwin for her suggestion that I send out an email telling about what happened each day of Holy Week. This short series begins today, with Monday.

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “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.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.              ~ Mark 11:12-19

The day after Jesus entered Jerusalem to the sounds of people singing Psalm 118 and receiving him as king, he traveled back to that city from Bethany, where he was staying (maybe at the home of his friends, Mary and Martha?). On his way, he was very displeased with a fig tree, and let it be known.

But the thing we remember most vividly about this day is Jesus’ response to what he saw as economic abuse at the Temple, the holiest place for Jews to worship.In "The Last Week" by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the authors emphasize the tremendous love the Jewish people of the first century had for their Temple: they showed a willingness to both support it financially and to defend its integrity with their lives. When Herod installed an enormous gold eagle in the Temple (to show allegiance to Rome, of which the eagle was the symbol),  two Jewish teachers instructed their students to remove it. They did, and they paid with their lives (about 40 were executed). Borg and Crossan stress that the people could love the Temple and revere it, while at the same time disagreeing with particular practices. Jesus sees in the buying and selling of animals for sacrifice an emphasis on commerce (and an exclusion of the poor) that is obscuring the Temple's true function: the worship of God.

The incident brings to mind another passage of scripture:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. ~Amos 5:21-24

On the second day of Holy Week, Jesus both demonstrated and taught that worship is meaningless unless those who worship are committed to justice. The purpose of worship is to prepare us,  strengthen us, and equip us to do God’s work in the world.