Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Reflections Upon Holy Week - Life Made Sacred

So I'm sitting with my Andrew watching TV last night (it's a "24" thing), and during a commercial he asks, "Dad, why do we have to go to church so much this week?"

And then, ticking off the nights we'll be at church for "extra" services and the like, he lamented how our worship schedule will put a crimp in his social life this weekend, especially considering that he doesn't go to school on Friday.

"Do you know why you're not going to school on Friday?" I asked.

With an eye roll and a Napoleon Dynamitesque exhale, which, I must say, I'm getting really tired of (even as my parents smile in a sweet justice sorta way), he says, "Yes, Dad, Jesus died on Good Friday.

But why do we call it Good Friday? Jesus being killed isn't a 'good' thing."“ You know,"

I said, "if we don't get what we do this week right, not much else of the 'Christian' thing matters."

That all left me to thinking--what are we to do with a story we think we know?

A week like Holy Week is full of homiletical challenges.

And that's surprising given that I'm at no loss for good material.

And that's the problem - we think we know this story.

And, we've assigned characterizations of who did what and when, and worst of all, we adopt a presumptive "why" for everyone's actions, and we reach conclusions based on Passion plays of varying kinds be they on stage or on film.

When Mel Gibson's movie came out a few years ago, as some of you who would have read my newsletter articles back then would know, I went on a tear. My biggest problem with Gibson's version, and there are too many to count, was, at first blush a visceral response from which theological considerations would spring forth.

Why, for the love of God, do we have to have Jesus literally ripped apart? Why must he suffer so horribly? Moreover, why must we have to see it? Wasn't that Gibson's point? Not only must Jesus suffer for the sins of the world, but I'm going to show you in the most graphic detail what that looks like.

Movie reviewer Roger Ebert called the movie the most violent film he'd ever seen and thought it merited an X rating due to the extremity of the violence.

The responses to the film were in one of two camps. Either you found the whole exercise anti-Semitic, a poor reading of the text and needlessly violent (which is were I landed), or, you were moved beyond all imagination at the pain Jesus would endure to "prove" he loves us.

As John Dominic Crossan so aptly put it, if you approach this whole thing from a standpoint that Jesus is up there on that cross instead of you, then darn right, you are profoundly thankful that he went through that so you don't have to.

This Lent, I've spent most of my study time with Crossan and Marcus Borg's collaboration, "The Last Week, A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem." I've found this text an extraordinary resource.

As a minister, I cannot count how many times I encounter questions around substitutionary atonement. We find that we spout it's presumed truth with such certainty that we don't really ever stop to question whether or not this "doctrine" captures the character of God.

I've come to the conclusion, and now have better language for it that ever I have before, that, in no uncertain terms it does not. But in the absence of explanation, we take it at face value that it's one of the Christian quirks we have to put up with.

From time immemorial, humanity has sought to be in relationship with the Divine. The Hebrew Scriptures indicate that God has sought that relationship, too. The most fundamental way for being in relationship, humans with each other, has been the gift and the meal.

Think about that for a moment. Gift-giving and meal sharing. Is there anything more essential about human interaction than that?

How then, Borg and Crossan ask, did humanity come to understand ways to be in relationship with God?

Does the gift and the meal apply here, too?


That's where animal sacrifice came into play.

In the time of Jesus, animal sacrifice was the norm. Not a matter of whether we like it or not. It was what it was.

And we need not judge that.

The hope was to reach a deeper relationship with the Divine.

Is that not what we all seek?

In that moment, someone would offer an animal of great value to them to the Divine. It was offered as a gift, and in the burning of that offering, it was shared as a meal. The gift was offered by a human seeking to be in relationship with God, and the meal was God's gift to humanity to give expression to the strength of that relationship.

Borg and Crossan translate sacrifice from its etymological beginnings - sacrum facere "to make sacred." Two points that are crucial to our understanding. "Sacrifice" in this context, does not mean suffering or substitution, and it never did.

As sacrifice, it would have never been considered that the animal being brought must suffer in it's death. Rather, "it was done swiftly and efficiently--ancient priests were also excellent butchers."

Neither was this sacrifice thought of as substitution.

The one giving the sacrifice never thought of the animal being brought as dying in their place. Or, that in their sins God expected somebody's blood to be shed and the animal would do.

It just never was a part of the norm of the people in the time of Jesus. Substitution and suffering came later, much later as a part of belief system that devalued the role of humanity in the Divine-Human relationship.

We pray that Jesus is the Paschal Lamb, the One who takes away the sins of the world.

That does not mean substitution, but more aptly put, it is the expression of Jesus as those who would execute him raised him on the cross, "Father forgive the, they know not what they do."

Does God suffer? Did Jesus? Of course. And God still does when our inhumanity to each other overshadows the Divine that dwells in us all. But this suffering for us in our injustice we do one another bespeaks God's character, and is not a prerequisite for making even the score brought by our sins.

Jesus’ life, as sacrifice, is a life made sacred not only by what he taught, but by what he did, what he does, and the Kingdom of God he announces. His life is made sacred by and through his giving, for us, and his invitation, if not expectation that we, who are his companions, go the way of the Kingdom.

The sacrifice Jesus makes is indeed sacred and saves us from the domination of the principalities and powers of this world into a community of grace. It is gift, and it is expressed in a meal - the Eucharist.

So, too, may our lives be made sacred in the ways we give of ourselves for others.

Sacrum facere - to make sacred - is that not our prayer always?

If we don't get this week right, think of how much we miss in our relationship with God through Christ. Think about how much "church-stuff" gets in the way of something so basic.

Use us God, to make our lives sacred through our living and giving - in the name of the One whose life made sacred makes us citizens into the Kingdom of God, even Jesus the Christ, we pray. Amen.

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