Those of us involved in the very "ordinary" life of a parish sometimes
have trouble getting caught up in the theological themes
that mark the changes in the liturgical calendar. We have changed
church decorations so many times; we know the hymnal selections
will again change; we know some parts and prayers of the
liturgy will change. Rite magazine helps with all that, but even
then the changes can become so routine that we don't even notice
them. We have been there, and we most certainly have done that.
So what is different about Holy Week and Triduum this year?
Perhaps, we should step back and look at the bigger picture.
This is the year 2007—and everything has changed in our
lives and in the life of the parish. Some beloved parishioners have
died and are now with Christ; some parishioners grieve the loss
of family members and precious friends; some have been diagnosed
with cancer and have begun treatments; some couples have
become pregnant or have new babies at home; there have been
Baptisms, marriages, divorces, and annulments; perhaps parish
staff members have retired or moved on to other assignments or
careers. If we sit down and think for a moment, we realize that
life has changed, a lot. So why do we sometimes think the Church
and the liturgy, year in and year out, do not change?
Perhaps, this is because we have not enough considered the
great theological truth behind the Church's liturgy: the
Incarnation. Many of us learned in catechism that the Incarnation
has more to do with Christmas than Easter. So it might surprise
us to learn that the early Christians thought of Christmas as the
outcome of Easter. It was Easter, the liturgical celebration of the
death and Resurrection of Christ, that was also cast as the
moment of his divine conception as an ordinary human being.
The wor(l)d of God came to dwell within our world and we were
forever changed. And we keep changing because Christ is still
with us, most exceptionally in our liturgy. So while much seems
the same year in and year out, nothing is really the same. We, as
Church and as persons, are in the midst of transformation, and
the beginning of that transformation is the death and
Resurrection of Christ that we celebrate this season.
Try this thought experiment: instead of thinking of the Church's
liturgies this Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Veneration
of the Cross, Easter Vigil) as based on the readings from scripture,
think of the scriptures as coming out of the liturgy. The scriptures
this week tell a story about God that was known deeply, even
intuitively, from both the ancient sacrificial liturgies of Israel and
the earliest Christians' practice of the Lord's Supper. It is the basic
salvation story you have heard since childhood: God created
humanity for relationship with God and each other, humanity
chose to turn from God and so from each other, God in pure
mercy reaches out to take a stubborn humanity back into a relationship
with God and with each other.
The ancient Israelites enacted this story through sacrifice,
especially the Passover sacrifice. The rite is retold in the reading
from Exodus 12 on Holy Thursday: each family is to slaughter a
one-year-old lamb on the night of Passover; blood is smeared on
doorpost and lintel so that God will "pass over" the homes of
Israel as he strikes the firstborn of Egypt. Out of this sacrifice of
the lambs of Israel and the firstborn of Egypt, Israel is created. As
in Genesis 1:6, God divides the waters and Israel passes through
the Red Sea and back into relationship with God in the wilderness
of Sinai. Sacrifice, of course, ritually enacts the moment
where life and death meet, where the chaos of death meets the life
of God and the life of God bursts forth to again establish creation
and community—in this case the community of Israel. The
ancient sacrifices of Israel affirmed two great truths that stand
behind all of the stories of the Old Testament: there is always
chaos and death, often caused by man's inhumanity to man, and
there is life, love, and abundance, caused by man's attention to the
laws of God. Out of chaos, sin, and death, God brings creation,
love, and life—a liturgical story that becomes the wonderful narrative,
laws, prophecy, and wisdom of the Old Testament.
In the second reading on Holy Thursday, we learn from
Saint Paul that the ancient Christians gathered for a ritual meal
called the Supper of the Lord in which they declared "the death of
the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). And this was
quite the meal: Jews eating with Greeks, slaves eating with free
men, women eating with men. It was, quite literally, the enactment
of a human community restored to a right relationship with
God and with each other, a bold vision of a restored Genesis creation.
And while the mention of Christ's death would bring connotations
of the ancient sacrifices of Israel, for Saint Paul and the
writers of the Gospels and Hebrews there was the added fact that
they practiced this meal in one of the most socially stratified societies
in history. Ancient Christians would have known all about
rank and privilege, that social elites "naturally" deserved more
and better food at public meals, that slaves and women were
meant to be seen and not heard, and that seating at meals marked
inferior rank. Add to this the fact that the Jewish followers of
Christ would have hesitated, because of ritual food laws, to eat
with Gentiles, and one has a sense of the enormous hurdles these
Christians overcame just to eat the Lord's Supper as equals. And
so they told the story behind our second reading from Philippians
on Palm Sunday and our second reading from Hebrews on Good
Friday. Jesus Christ, the Son of God and High Priest (Hebrews),
in the form of God (Philippians), in other words the highest possible
rank, came down through the heavens (Hebrews) and took
the form of a slave and died the death of a slave (Philippians).
Now Christians, of whatever social rank, gender, and ethnicity,
have the supreme example of the divine humility that literally
creates the possibility of a new human community.
It stands to reason that the new reality of equality surrounding the ritual meal found its way into how each evangelist tells the story of the Passion of Christ. On Palm Sunday this year we proclaim Luke's version of Jesus' trial (Luke 23:1 - 49). Prior to the trial, the account Luke gives of the Last Supper helps us understand what is proclaimed while Jesus stood before his accusers. Throughout his gospel, Luke emphasizes that Jesus eats with and is found among sinners and social outcasts (5:27 - 32; 7:31 - 34; 15:1 - 2). Now here he is sharing a meal with Judas and Peter, far from perfect disciples who will betray and deny Jesus.
By describing the ritual of drinking the cup as, "take this and share it among yourselves," Luke establishes that the center of the Eucharist will be the disciples' sharing the meal with each other until such time as Jesus returns: "for, I tell you, that from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:17 - 18). After supper Jesus declares that this is the cup that is "shed" as the new covenant in blood, which here can only mean that the disciples, too, are to pour themselves out for each other in response to this meal. How? By realizing that the fundamental quality of leadership is service to one another. Luke has moved the story in Mark 10:35 - 45, in which the disciples dispute who is the greatest, to the Last Supper account. The disciples are told that that greater one, the one who would be a leader in the community, is the one who serves, who pours himself or herself out for the sake of others. Jesus is just such a person, and this is the fundamental perspective Luke uses to tell the story of Jesus' Passion and death.
So when we come to Luke's story of the trial on Palm Sunday this year we should listen with ears tuned to this perspective. The fundamental contrast that Luke lays before us is between king and king, between king as the world would know a king and Jesus as the example of Christian rule, the one who is king because he pours himself out in service to others. Notice how carefully Luke develops this contrast. The first charge in the trial scene is that Jesus taught that one should not pay taxes to the Roman emperor (king). In the ancient world, "taxes" were a form of tribute that conquered nations paid to their conquerors. Not to pay taxes was an act of rebellion. The second accusation, that Jesus had declared himself king, would have meant that Jesus claimed the tribute for himself. In effect, the first two accusations amount to just the opposite of what Jesus has taught his disciples about the meaning of the Eucharist, "the kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those with authority over them are called benefactors, but not so with you" (Luke 22:25 - 26a). The claim against Jesus is false, because Jesus is not that kind of king. Those who follow him, rather than paying tribute to him, serve each other in the same way Jesus has served them throughout the gospel. What is on trial in Luke, therefore, is not Jesus' claim to be Messiah (Messiah here means the anointed king) but what it means to be the Messiah and the subject, or disciple, of this king. The kingdom, the Christian community, is one of self-gift and service to others.
When Pilate, the Roman governor, hears that Jesus is from Galilee, he wants to get rid of the "problem" and sends Jesus over to Herod, the puppet king of Galilee (this Herod is the son of Herod the Great, Luke 1:5; Matthew 2:1 - 19), for judgment. Interested in Jesus as a spectacle, Herod wants to see a "sign" (Luke 23:8) performed. However, there has already been a sign: "and this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12). The child is literally wrapped up in spare cloth and lying in a trough used to feed domestic animals. Not the royal glory of fine clothes and soft bed, attended by slave nursemaids, but absolute poverty and the most humble of settings. This is the sign of humility and love which, as Simeon predicts when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple for circumcision, will one day be opposed by the powerful and social elite (Luke 2:34). Simeon's prophecy comes to pass at the trial scene. Herod hopes to see a sign, but he completely misses the sign that is in front of him. He dresses Jesus in a fine robe and sends him back to Pilate (Luke 23:11).
As Pilate gives in to the crowd and sends Jesus out to be crucified, the contrast between Jesus' form of kingship and worldly kingship comes to a dramatic conclusion.
Jesus the king should not carry his own cross! Rather they press a bystander, Simon of Cyrene, into service as a slave, to carry the cross behind Jesus. Simon, ironically, becomes the model Christian subject to this king, responding to the need of a stranger and taking on the neighbor's burden (Luke 23:26). Those who taunt Jesus at the foot of the cross admit that he saved others, but they now expect the "king" to use his power selfishly to save himself. They miss the fact that salvation, the new kingdom, comes only through selfless service. Were Jesus to save himself, he would save no one (Luke 23:27). Finally, by posting over the cross the inscription, "This is the King of the Jews," those who crucified Jesus admit the truth of the gospel, that the true king is one who gives of himself completely and so becomes the food of the Eucharist, the body of Christ. This is the kingdom we become in the Eucharist, the kingdom of loving service.
This reality is brought into high
relief in the readings for Holy Thursday's
Mass of the Lord's Supper. In our reading
from 1 Corinthians, Paul's recitation of the
words of institution, "this is my body . . . this cup is the new
covenant in my blood," comes in the midst of his response, not
included in our present Lectionary, to a problem that has arisen
in Corinth concerning the Supper of the Lord: some of the social
elite have rich food and drink; some of less social status have very
little. Paul responds to this situation with our reading, the climax
of which is the proclamation of the "death of the Lord until he
comes." What we eat is bound up with the death of Christ, not his
death per se but how he died, the humility of the slave's death.
Simply put, it is not the Lord's Supper, it is not our Eucharist,
without the humility and generosity
that creates the new human
community that will endure until he comes.
John, too, understands the meal in this way, so much so
that he replaces the story of the Last Supper from the other gospels
with his story of the washing of the feet. And the juxtaposition
of high to low, the absolute model of humility and
compassion, could not be clearer. At the beginning of John's
Gospel, Jesus as the Word is literally next to God, before all that is,
and the author of creation itself. Now he removes his outer garment,
he removes all of his majesty and status, he girds himself as
an ancient slave and performs the task of a slave, washing the feet
of the disciples, and only then does he put his garment and majesty
back on. Of course, the allusion to Baptism in the washing is
also clear, forecasting here the humble death of the exalted one.
Jesus' command to wash feet, "to do as I have done," is like the
command to eat the body and drink the blood. It is both literal
(we need to do these rituals) and deeply suggestive of what creates
a redeemed human community, the capacity to use status
and power to serve others, the humility to be one with brothers
and sisters, and the mindfulness to care for practical needs.
John's Passion narrative is read on Good Friday. And the
irony abounds, for Good Friday is the saddest of our liturgical
days, the day in which smiles are fewer and mood a bit dour. If we
sing, there is little levity; we pray with serious tones. Yet John's
Gospel is the lightest and most hopeful of the Passion stories.
Jesus' status as king and God is unmistakable (the soldiers and
guards who have come to arrest Jesus fall
down to worship him when he identifies
himself as God, the "I Am" of the burning
bush of Exodus) but it is so in order that
the humiliation of a slave's death on the
cross can be brought into even higher
relief. John's Gospel, and especially his
Passion narrative, is like the deeper contrast
of green foliage marking an oasis in
the midst of a white desert. The movement
from high to low, from God to humankind,
from King of Israel (John 12:13) to slave
washing feet, is steep. Yet this is not the
remarkable thing. What is remarkable is
that in order to be high—to be exalted as
God and King—one has to descend and
serve as human and slave. When one serves—when one gives his life for one's friends—one is exalted. In John's Passion, Jesus dies
for his friends and is exalted so that they might also serve each
other and the world, and so become the community that manifests
the exalted Christ, the body of Christ in the world.
The Easter Vigil readings tie together all of the readings of
Holy Week and the Triduum, and indeed all of scripture, by reading
scripture through the lens of Baptism. As the reading of
Romans 6:3-11 tells us, the early Christians thought of Baptism
as ritual immersion into the death of Christ. But as we have seen,
the death of Christ was thought of as a singular sacrifice, the
moment at the beginning of time when God and chaos meet and
God forms creation itself out of the watery "stuff" of chaos.
Hence, the moment of Baptism, watery immersion, places one
with Christ's death at the dawn of redemption. The question
posed at that moment is "will God create?" Is there to be nothing
but death? Will God raise Christ? Will the universe be born? The
response comes in our first reading at the Vigil, God does create.
The universe is born, but in Christian eyes the universe was born
out of the death of Christ itself. Christ emerges as the life of the
world, there from the very beginning. His story can be traced
through the whole of the Old Testament, from the first humans
of Genesis, to the patriarchs of Israel, to the birth of Israel in the
sacrifices of Isaac and Passover and the emergence of Israel from
the waters of the Red Sea, and in the words of the prophets as
they describe an Israel that one day will rightly worship the God
of life and creation in a community of love and compassion.
These Vigil readings tell us the story of Christ, but it would be a
story that would make no sense without the presence of the
Christian community then and now enacting the story of Christ
through the rituals of Baptism, foot washing, and Eucharist;
enacting the community of love and compassion that is Christ in
is professor of New Testament and Patristics
at St. John's School of Theology Seminary, Collegeville, Minnesota.
He is also a permanent deacon in the diocese of St. Cloud.