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Holy Week: Cling to Hope

This is a lot nearer than we think; it happened yesterday, it's happening now.

For most Christians this is Holy Week, the Week of Christ’s Passion, encompassing four of the most important events in the life of Jesus: his triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) a few days before Passover; his last supper, the seder of Passover, which he transformed into the Sacrament of His Body and Blood (Maundy Thursday, including washing his disciples’ dirty feet); his execution nailed to a cross (Good Friday); and his returning to life, the Feast of the Resurrection, or Easter Day.

It’s a difficult week for people who take this seriously. It ends well, but getting to the end is hard work.

Late last night David, a member of my Daily Office prayer group on Facebook, sent me a wonderful message. He’s an elderly fellow, a Gay guy in Texas by way of New England, and he’d been to the Palm Sunday mass that morning. He wrote:

12:55 am CDT 04/02/012 I hope you are resting…Just had to BLAB….After all these years , I finally “GOT” what Palm Sunday is all about…The music was awesome…not the point..The processing with the children was awesome…NOT the point…when we all read the gospel, OUT LOUD, and in unison…I realized that I was there that day, throwing palms down, demanding that Jesus be crucified, watching Him die for me…. I was there just as certainly as the whole human race..That’s so neat..Praise God..!

I replied,

I remember where I was (Church of Our Saviour, Cincinnati) the first time I had to shout, “Crucify him!” It was shattering.

I’m very glad for your experience this year, and happy you told me about it. “Music awesome… not the point.”

It really is a privilege to receive messages like David’s – one of the unanticipated side benefits to me of running the group.

He’s referring to the practice in many Episcopal churches of making the congregation read aloud the Gospel lesson, recounting the crucifixion. Normally a deacon or priest reads the lesson from one of the Gospel books, but Palm Sunday is different: everyone reads together. This year the reading was from Mark. The climactic verses (Mark 15:12-14) are these: picture the congregation acting as a mob.

Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”

The point David referred to is this: we’re the ones who crucify Jesus, and we do it every day, every year. Sin crucifies him; sinners do, and that’s us. We’re not always the active ones with the hammer and nails, but, y’know, we employ “little people” for that. Politicians, for instance.

It’s a very difficult thing to realize we are sinners – partly because the term has been so corrupted, narrowed and dumbed down by fundamentalist preachers that everyone thinks “sin” mostly amounts to whatever kind of sex somebody else doesn’t like. Sexual sin is real, but it’s not always consequential, and God is a lot less concerned about our sex lives, or that mean thing you said to Aunt Mildred last Thursday, than about the economic, political and military injustices we participate in. The prophets of the Old Testament were horrified by the injustices they saw in the world around them – especially the complete abandonment of women whose husbands had died, leaving widows and orphans to beg in the streets.

Judaism is a patriarchal religion. But God’s condemnation of Israel’s sexism is 3000 years old. The very first stirrings of “feminism” arise in the Hebrew Bible (and Jesus was a Jew).

(Sidebar: you can see the same mistreatment of women in other religions; Hindu widows used to throw themselves on their late husbands’ funeral pyres, not just to mourn them publicly, but to spare themselves from a life of beggary and degradation. Fortunately this is illegal in India now.)

Don't do this at home.

Thus sin is mostly about the destructive behavior of human institutions, though it also has a personal aspect that must never be discounted.

Put it this way: a Wall Street banker makes decisions, motivated by greed, which result in destroying 40% of the world economy. Meanwhile he’s also having an affair with his secretary (or his gym buddy). Which sin do you think matters more?

If the only religious mistake fundamentalists made was being anti-Gay, we could be allies on everything else. But no, they’re also gung-ho for war and the Greedy Old Party.

So this year on dailyoffice.org, I’m showing contemporary “sin pictures” for Holy Week. This morning I started with the murder of Shaima Alawadi, the Iraqi-born mother of five who fled Saddam Hussein in 1994, only to be bludgeoned to death in her California home last week by a Muslim-hating American.

Here’s her husband in mourning.

(Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)

This evening we’ve got a picture of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. I’ll reproduce the caption just as I wrote it on dailyoffice.org.

Sin: Blasting the top off a mountain by a coal company in West Virginia, USA, the most sacrilegious act I can imagine on God's green earth.

Tomorrow we get two horrors of the war in Afghanistan. The pictures aren’t gory, but they’re dramatic. And each time I let the guilty parties have it, in the words I write. I’m no prophet, these are strictly my opinions, but I’ve got so fed up TO HERE that I can’t keep quiet anymore. If anyone doesn’t like it, I don’t care.

But I have had to make one adjustment to hang onto my sanity and cling to hope: no more commenting on political news, anti-Gay or otherwise, on the websites of my home state newspapers. I’ve read them both since I was knee-high to a grasshopper (thank you, Mom, for making sure we were a newspaper-reading family), but I can’t take it anymore, so I’ve removed both sites from my bookmarks. Going there isn’t good for me. I write my comments to be very punchy – they usually get a lot of responses, pro and con – but they lead to feelings of bitterness in me, and they drain my energy.

The world is a screwed-up place. Get used to it.

Sin is all around us. Pray about it, repent of it, and learn to forgive the perpetrators, difficult though that is.

We are all perpetrators; here’s a chart, also running this evening, about mountaintop removal – and I benefit from cheap electricity too.

Coal mining companies are the most corrupt industry in the United States. They'll do anything; buy politicians, bribe judges, endanger their workers, ignore safety laws, poison the air and the water, cause cancer in their neighbors. There's no limit to their ruthlessness - all for cheap electricity that powers the economy. (Touch to enlarge.)

If you want to see crucifixion, you don’t have to go back 2000 years. Just look around you, it’s everywhere.

But remember that God has redeemed it all. Cling to hope. In a way this isn’t even about religion; it’s a beautiful world we live in, despite all our efforts to destroy it.

As a commenter said, more cleverly than I, on one of those newspaper sites:

My dog is pretty good most of the time, and he doesn’t even read the Bible.


8 Responses

  1. Very nice reflections here, Josh, I do like the way you write. But I must take exception to one point: that mean thing I said last week to Aunt Mildred, I believe, might be a trivial thing to me but an enormous sin in God’s eyes.

    The thing is, just a single unkind word can lodge in someone’s soul and hurt them forever; and as it festers, can cause them to behave in ways or make choices that are not as good as other things they might have done. A single hurtful word can affect them their whole life long, and never be forgotten. Thus, what I spat out heedlessly can have grave, far-reaching consequences.

    And as C. S. Lewis has written somewhere, the little mark on the my own soul that anger, cruelty, or callous indifference leaves is not without consequences for me, either, in the long run.

    Somewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that virtue is a habit. And this is true also in the practice of a Christian life. We have to remember that Our Lord said that men shall be judged for every idle word they have said.

    It may be that every stranger, friend, and relative in our life is there not for our benefit, but because God knows we have something we can minister to them for their good. I’m not saying that I always keep this thought uppermost in my mind – my own self-centeredness is strong and hard to push back – but in moments of clarity I do recollect that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve; and of course, that is what we are called to do, in His footsteps.

    Even if it means listening patiently for half an hour and biting our tongues. It might be that on the other side of this our life, that silent thirty minutes of attentiveness to a lonely, irritating old lady will be seen as an act of heroic virtue, as the phase goes, if we do it for Christ’s sake – seeing Christ in her – and willing suffer on our part, as Christ did for us.

    Does that make any sense?

  2. It does make sense, Russ; thank you for saying it.

    My point was that if we focus only on sin in our personal interactions, we fail to take responsibility for demanding cheap electricity, even if it causes mountaintop removal. The prophets said sin is collective and corporate, as well as personal, a message we don’t hear too often.

  3. Your point is well taken, there is corporate sin as well as individual; and both demand our corrective attention and repentance. The difficult part is deciding what things really don’t make a damn, and what things do – which is not always obvious at first glance.

  4. I’m not saying I’m right; it was a controversial series, as you know. Somehow I just had this fed-up reaction to the idea that church people think if we’ve given up chocolate for Lent, we’ve done something. So I probably went overboard the other direction. Between the shooting of Trayvon Martin and this awful war in Afghanistan, the collective “we” have an awful lot to repent about, even though no one in my congregation pulled the trigger. The best way to support our troops is to get them home! So I picked on poor Aunt Mildred to try to get people to think. It’s sort of my job, even if I don’t do it very well.

    The racist reactions I got to the mere mention of Trayvon were eye-opening. You don’t see that very often on an Episcopal Church site. It made me wonder who linked to the post, since the commenters weren’t any of our regulars.

    I suppose when I die and have my judgment interview at the pearly gates, I’ll have two interrogators reading my chart. One might say, “Publicly opposed the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan,” while the other one says, “Was mean to postal clerks every chance he got.”

  5. Hahaha. Well in that case, let’s hope Aunt Mildred puts in a good word for you when they start to weigh the scales. Personally, I’m sure I will need all the good words I can get just to get in the door.

    But I agree, little trivial observances unbacked by sincere motives are of little value. “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” you know?

    Sometimes – perhaps I should say oftentimes – or even most times nowadays – all the madness and cruelty and utter stupidity of the world is just too much for me, too, and I simply have to tune it all out for sanity’s sake. The old idea, still current when you and I were kids, that the world is always progressing onward and upward is sadly not much in evidence now. I have my own griefs to contend with, I can only bear so much bad news from the world beyond my garden wall.

    But still, we can try to brighten the spot where we are, even if that’s just a tiny pinpoint of light in a vast sea of gloom. I think the willingness to do what we can, be it ever so small and puny, counts for a lot.

    Love covers a multitude of sins. Corporate or solo.

  6. You’re right about the old idea, Russ; it wasn’t true at all. In a way I think I’m still stuck in the past, wishing the world was like The Donna Reed Show.

  7. I used to like that show a lot. She was so pretty and emotionally warm (unlike, say, June Cleaver, whose only job in life was bitch-bitch-bitching at the kids, it seemed). And Donna’s husband – what was his name? – he was studly, woof.

  8. “Pretty and emotionally warm,” that was Donna. Her TV husband was Carl Betz – who later starred in, and won an Emmy for, “Judd… for the Defense.” He was a goodlooking man. I’ve always figured the Emmy voters were glad to see him in his own star turn, after all those years of kissing Donna’s cheek on his way out the door.

    I also remember that Donna was a horrible flop as Miss Ellie in “Dallas” after Barbara Bel Geddes got sick. Fans of the show complained that Donna was too darn nice. Well, what did you expect when you hired Donna Reed? Was she sposedta acquire a snarl? Some thanks she got, filling in at the last minute for somebody out with a heart attack. I hope she cashed the checks, then went and got her hair done.

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