It’s not often we get theatrical in church. But during Holy Week, Christian congregations all over the world do. On Palm Sunday, for example, many hold a palm parade, or they read a gospel story together with sound effects. The kids generally take to these little dramas easily. Adults are a different story—especially Protestants, who are often more than a little reluctant to leave the safe confines of their sanctuaries and march around outside, waving palms and singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”
What is the meaning of all this tramping about and shouting? Why, from the mid-4th century onward, have Christians practiced their faith in Holy Week by staging palm processions and dramatic readings of the passion story and carrying large crosses through city streets?
Dramas like these are one solution we create to the problem of distance. They are meant to erase the millennia between Jesus’ life and our own time. If we enter them wholeheartedly, they help impress past events upon our senses in such a way that that story and this one—Jesus’ story and ours—become one continuous story of faith.
When we dramatize events in Holy Week, are not “pretending” in the ordinary sense; we are remembering in an immediate way, such that when on Good Friday the beloved spiritual asks us, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”, we can reply not only that we were truly there with him then, but also that he is truly here with us now.
Our liturgical dramas signify that there is no such thing as a safe distance from the old, old story of Jesus and his love. None of us is a mere spectator to the unfolding of his fate. None of us can hang back and dispassionately observe the goings-on as if we were uninvolved, as if we were not implicated in the events we are commemorating. At one time in the church’s history, this immediacy was experienced with such conviction that the ritual “passing of the peace” was forbidden during Holy Week for fear that one of the stylized kisses believers exchanged might turn out to be the kiss of Judas – for fear, in other words, that someone in the congregation might betray the Lord again.
Now, Holy Week is a tricky time. The scriptural texts we read during this week pose many serious difficulties. In our eagerness to experience the Passion we could slide over them to our peril. For example, I find myself increasingly pained by the New Testament’s caricature of first-century Judaism, a damning portrait we may unthinkingly take as “the way it really was,” thus perpetuating anti-Judaism, even among enlightened liberal Christians.
There are also difficulties in the traditional theologies of the meaning of Jesus’ last days. For example, I am no longer able to accept the notion of a God who sent Jesus into the world only to die, who indeed demands his death as past-due payment for human sin. This God regards innocent suffering as somehow glorious and desirable, and is pleased when the world’s victims meekly accept their crosses as Jesus accepted his. For centuries, it has been all too easy for the world’s blood-thirsty powers to co-opt this God for their own oppressive purposes.
And of course there are dangers in even the most innocent and fervent of the rituals we stage to help lodge the meaning of Holy Week under our skin. Those of us who love these spectacles must always be careful not to become overly-enamored of mere aesthetics, losing our way in the trappings and choreography, confusing the rituals that are meant to embody our relationship to God, the gospel, and each other with those relationships themselves.
All these pitfalls make “acting out” in Holy Week a slightly dicey prospect for thoughtful, faithful people, and for conscientious preachers. But even in the face of these difficulties, I remain persuaded that we are not meant to appreciate the events we commemorate this week primarily with our critical faculties, at a cool, removed, intellectual distance. Our lives will not be changed by rational appraisals of the passion of Jesus. I believe we are meant to wade in over our heads, to lose our ordinary bearings, and to let these events soak into our bodies and souls by way of all our available human emotions.
If we open up all our emotional valves this week, however, there is one additional pitfall we should guard against, and that is the error of thinking that what Jesus goes through is special. We must not remember and cherish these events only because they happened uniquely to the Son of God, but also because what happened to the Son of God happens to so many children of God. His suffering is horrifying, compelling and sacred beyond telling precisely because it is prosaic, commonplace, and despairingly ordinary.
When Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus with expensive perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, it wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time a woman offers a radically-humanizing gesture in a radically-dehumanized world. When Jesus was misunderstood by his friends and misjudged and threatened by his enemies, it wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time that honesty, personal authority, vision, difference and spiritual depth are mistaken for insanity, social deviance, fraudulence and malice.
As we joyfully enter Jerusalem with him, it cannot be lost on us that we are entering an occupied city. And we know that occupation was not invented by the Romans and that it did not die with their Empire. We know also that it seems an inevitable turn of the dreary demonic cycle of human fear that the oppressed become the oppressor, the once-occupied become the occupier. We know from intimate experience that the flip side of adulation is contempt and disdain, that the line between failure and success is paper thin, and that there is no stable truth in crowds.
Employees of Enron, investors with Bernie Madoff, and folks who placed their trust in big banks and mortgage brokers know that it is hardly out of the ordinary to be betrayed for 30 silver coins. It is not as if before Jesus was led to the slaughter no innocent was ever crucified by the collusion of national pride, expedient politics, narrow morality, and assorted vested interests; and it is not as if no innocent ever suffered like that again, after he was taken down. Ask the disappeared of Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras. Ask the refugees of any war-torn nation you can name. Ask our own children shuffled about in the vast gulag of the foster care system, the enslaved and brutalized people of North Korea, the victims of a bizarre government AIDS policy in South Africa, death row inmates in US jails, and every person who will die too soon because of disparities in our health care system.
If we let ourselves go emotionally in Holy Week in order to experience the collapse of distance between then and now; if we enter the drama with our hearts vulnerable to the impact of the Passion, fully-open and receptive, we may find ourselves blown back and pinned to the wall by the pitiless everydayness of those ancient horrors. We have to brace ourselves not for the incomparable nature of Jesus’ suffering, but for its shocking banality.
Easter will put a new spin on all human suffering, of course, but if we hope to believe in Easter at all—if we hope, rather, to experience it—we need to dwell here first. We have go through sacred motions that bring us close not only to Christ, but also to each other. We have to go through them until, like that Human Being on the cross, our capacity for solidarity grows large and deep, until the world’s sorrow and suffering become much more fully our own, until our own pain is more vulnerably shared with others. Then on the third day, like him, we too might truly rise.
With this hope in mind, let us act out with all our hearts. Let us really be overwrought disciples, certain that this is the day Jesus will finally play the trump card and claim the throne of his ancestor, David. Let us really be donkeys, clip-clopping our modest way into the Holy City, bearing the peace-loving messiah. Let us really be a dizzy, cheering, chanting crowd hailing with sweet hosannas a king upon whom we want to pin all our misguided revolutionary, nationalistic and selfish hopes. Let us really be angry authorities, sick with anxiety about what the Romans will do if this thing gets out of hand, and coming to the reasonable conclusion that we need to get this fellow gone, the faster the better, before all hell breaks loose.
And yes, let us even try to be King Jesus, who, as it turns out, enters the Holy City not to conquer anyone, not to establish anything, but to do what he has been doing all along – to teach, rebuke, restore, welcome, reconcile, heal— and eventually, in the face of our unflagging insistence on being deadly, to reveal in his own helpless flesh the compassionate and stubborn presence of the suffering God who does not will our pain, but teaches us in Christ to bear each other’s, until the day when there is no more dying, and every tear is wiped away.