WHICH PROCESSION ARE WE IN?
The Venerable Grant Rodgers, Rector
Everyone loves a parade, or so they say. Whether on St Patrick’s Day, or prior to Christmas in the Santa Claus parade or the Stanley Cup or May Day, parades generate excitement and enthusiasm – they attract our attention, and both physically and emotionally, we find ourselves drawn to them and sometimes going along with them.
Jerusalem at Passover was an amazing spectacle, as people from everywhere, mostly Jewish, but many others as well, congregated there. Numbers are not precise, but some scholars have estimated that during Passover, Jerusalem, whose normal population at that time was probably 30—40,000, could swell to five or six times that!
Passover was a Jewish celebration, a reminder of being liberated from the Egyptian Empire under the leadership of Moses. That had more than a little bitter irony to it in Jesus’ time, because Israel was very much under the iron rod of yet another oppressor, this time in the form of the Roman Empire.
The festival itself was about a week long, so there was a huge number of arrivals, a steady stream of people in every kind of conveyance known at the time – in wagons and carts, on foot, etc. Basically, there were parades going on every day.
Because we view events through the lens of Crucifixion, we often have the impression that Passover was a very sombre event, when in all probability it was a very joyous time, a celebration of God’s providence in providing the first harvest, and of God’s special affection for Israel in delivering them from slavery more than once. I think it was a lot more like Christmas than Lent – a festive mood prevailed, perhaps especially in view of the fact of the Roman occupation, because no doubt Passover raised the morale and the sense of solidarity among Jewish people.
So understandably, the Roman governor (Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus) typically arrived in a great and obvious display of power. In that hostile environment we can assume that Pilate would have made very sure that no one in their right mind could get the idea that his presence could be challenged, or that any sort of riot or rebellion would get anywhere.
Many other important people with their great retinues also paraded into town, and no doubt people rushed to see these celebrities, the rich and the famous, the way they do now when they pull up in their limousines and designer clothes.
It was a simpler time, as they say, and crowds would have rushed to join in the excitement – to allow themselves to get caught up in the excitement, the fun, the sense of connection with what was happening.
People love a parade. But certain kinds of parades have a very different, counter-cultural intention. People getting caught up in such parades may not be entirely sure of what they mean or where they lead — The Pride Parade for instance, or we might think of Civil rights marches in the U.S., or rallies by women demanding equality and justice. There’s more of a sense of: what does this mean, and where is this taking us?
In their book The Last Week, speaking of the contrast between the entries of Jesus and Pilate into Jerusalem, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan say this: “The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in?”
It has been said that the bias of the Gospel is decidedly in favour of the poor, the oppressed, those taken advantage of by the powerful, and small wonder, as that had been the reality of the people of Israel for centuries.
Franciscan Theologian Richard Rohr said: “In Jesus we have an almost extreme example of God taking sides …
“One of the few subversive texts in history, believe it or not, is the Bible! The Bible is most extraordinary because it repeatedly and invariably legitimizes the people on the bottom, and not the people on the top. The rejected son, the barren woman, the sinner, the leper, or the outsider is always the one chosen by God … It is rather obvious, but for some reason the obvious needs to be pointed out to us. In every case, we are presented with some form of powerlessness–and from that situation God creates a new kind of power. This is the constant pattern which is hidden in plain sight . . . The pattern always seems to be that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). This is so consistently the pattern that we no longer recognize its subversive character . . .Without this bias from the bottom, we are hardly prepared to understand the “folly of the cross” of Jesus.” (adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 93; and Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos, The Great Themes of Scripture: Old Testament (Franciscan Media: 1987), 49-50).
So when Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was in a significantly different manner than that of the rich pilgrims and their retinues, and drastically different than that of the Roman governor with his intimidating column of soldiers armed to the teeth.
Some didn’t get the irony – some didn’t appreciate the deliberate connection with Jewish history and character and the contrast with everything that Pilate represented. Some were disappointed that Jesus didn’t ride in like Caesar or Ghengis Khan or Hitler or Kim Jung Un. Understandably, some wanted Israel to be powerful and capable of defending itself against the power of Rome. Baptist theologian William Lane Craig: “The crowd thought that at last God’s anointed king had come, the teacher and miracle-worker from Nazareth, who would cast off the pagan rulers of Israel and establish God’s true kingdom, centered not in Rome but in Jerusalem. And so amid shouting and singing, with the crowds surrounding him on all sides, Jesus rides in through the eastern gate of Jerusalem, into the Temple precincts, and does—nothing!”
Instead, Jesus leaned in the direction of Israel’s identity as victim of many oppressors, not like the oppressing nations relying on power and domination. He comes meek, gentle, lowly, not riding a stallion or even a donkey, but an ass, a mule. It was highly symbolic and also confusing and counter-intuitive. Jesus may have seemed to be more of a jester than a Saviour (but who’s to say jesters can’t deliver us from the power of Caesar and the status quo?).
As his disciples debated and argued about what greatness was all about, Jesus drew a contrast between the ways of the godless who love to dominate and oppress others, and those who are truly servants of God — and Jesus said to all who would be his followers: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
According to Mark, Matthew and Luke, this teaching was among Jesus’ final teachings before facing into his death. These are important words, and it is especially important to recall them during Holy Week.
With Jesus, many were looking for something that rivalled or surpassed the pomp and circumstance of the Romans, and of the rich people who paraded in. Many just wanted a parade and so they trailed along after Jesus as they had the other celebrities. As it became obvious that Jesus was not operating on the same level as the rich and the powerful, and as it became clear that the truly powerful had major problems with Jesus, many lost interest, and just days later, many of the same people would be screaming at Pilate to execute him.
Human beings are actually much more like lemmings than lemmings themselves, caught up helplessly and mindlessly in stampedes that lead to our own destruction. Holy Week can serve to remind us how easily our lives get caught up by larger forces, influences that pull us into their wake and influence. Caught up in the hoopla, the outward appearance, we are often pulled along by what seems to be the promise of security, escape from our circumstances, or of power and glory.
Sometimes the parades we get caught up in are much larger, and therefore harder to detect – sometimes rather ominous movements, directions, and trends. In 1930’s Germany the Nuremburg parades and rallies were huge spectacles, drawing as many as 500,000 people, celebrating power, identity and conformity, and the personal influence of Hitler. Other countries like the Soviet Union, and now China and North Korea, know the value of parading out the military and their weapons in huge spectacles, not at all different in spirit from that of Pontius Pilate. Things that start off looking like a parade often end in holocausts and ethnic cleansings and inquisitions.
According to John, Jesus, answering Pilate’s interrogation, said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting.” Think how many times you have seen TV footage of ISIS fighters parading around with their weapons, shouting slogans and threats. It is hard to believe that people could mistake that as something from God, but power is very attractive and insidious that way. As ridiculous as it may seem, young people by the thousand have been flocking to join them. Lemmings indeed.
Good Friday holds up the symbol of a young man on a cross. What would you say about a species that would execute, exterminate, the apex, the ultimate, its very best person? – that would reject a perfectly good, intelligent and moral human life and not only that, would stoop to humiliating, physically abusing, and cheating this singular example of what human life could look like?
“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” There seems to be a collective OOPS! being expressed in the Passion narratives for the way human beings not just then, but in all times and places, fail to see what is good and life-giving and holy, and go along with the collective and conventional wisdom, which is often no more wise or enlightened or intelligent than a drunken mob of soccer hooligans or raging hockey fans or the participants in a WWE event. Let’s be clear: mobs are stupid; and human intelligence seems to drop dramatically when groups of us can be incited to anger and self-righteousness and vindictiveness.
According to Luke, there was a sudden reaction of horror at what had just been perpetrated. “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.” To put it into vernacular, it’s like the people suddenly snapped out of their zombie or hypnotic state –their mob mentality, and said to themselves, “What the hell have we just done?!” And they realized that they themselves were as guilty as the Romans and their Temple officials for this innocent man’s death.
The great irony of Good Friday is that just a couple of centuries later, Christians themselves got caught up in the parade to power and status and respectability.
As Richard Rohr says: [Originally], the Church was largely of the poor and for the poor. The turning point, at which the Church moved from the bottom to the top, is the year 313 A.D. when Emperor Constantine supposedly did the Church a great favor by beginning to make Christianity the established religion of the Holy Roman Empire. That’s how the Apostolic Church became Roman Catholicism. As the Church’s interests became linked with imperial world views, our perspective changed from the view from the bottom and powerlessness (the persecuted, the outsiders) to the view from the top where we were now the ultimate insiders (with power, money, status, and control).” Adapted from Richard Rohr, Scripture as Liberation (CAC: 2002), MP3 download; and Gospel Call for Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom) in CAC Foundation Set (CAC: 2007), CD, MP3 download.
George Orwell famously said “Orthodoxy is unconsciousness,” a comment on the way in which individuals get swept up, unaware, into movements and causes and ideologies, many of which end up being very diminishing and destructive, whereas Christ is about bringing people to full consciousness, as painful and fearful as that may be. Let’s be clear: Christ’s kingdom is not about power and domination and worldly glory. It was never about Christendom.
And the Cross is never the end of the story. As St Paul reminds us in his letters to the church at Corinth, God’s power is revealed, manifested, and perfected in and through our weakness. Ultimately it is not the bullies, the abusers, the oppressors and the manipulators who win, convincing as they may be for a time. That one young man dying on a cross became something much more, through the power of God. As St Paul says, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are trapped in the ways of death, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
He goes on to say: “we proclaim Christ crucified …” believing that Christ is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The reason for this is that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
The voice of Jesus was silenced only for a moment – the deepest silence on the planet since before creation itself – and yet the powers that be could not destroy the life that was in Jesus, the life that comes from God, the only real power.
It is in that silence that we stop and sit on Good Friday. And the hope is that we may hear his voice more clearly and that our own vision may be clarified. Today, we stop all the parades and objectives in our own lives for a moment, to check our own bearings, and make sure that it is Christ we are following,
We may embrace the sorrowful and disappointing aspect of Good Friday, but from the hill of Calvary, we can look beyond, and we can see through it, as we must see through all the false promises, directions and distractions of the world. When we can see through all the pomp and circumstance, we can see the Resurrection, and immediately, Easter begins to dawn.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+