As we once again start down the path of Holy Week, it is a good opportunity to ask ourselves what assumptions we bring along with us. What narratives are shaping the ways in which we hear these readings and experience the liturgies?
These narratives are often operating in the background in ways that we may or may not notice. They shape the theology and the practice of our communities in all kinds of ways that reinforce themselves over time and through repetition. We can easily approach the well-known story of this week without being aware of the ways that they shape our experience.
Some Narratives Must be Rejected
As one clear example of a narrative frame that we have rightly learned to reject, for much of Christian history, the story of Holy Week was told in terms of an supersessionist and anti-Jewish narrative. We told ourselves that in these stories the Jewish covenant came to its end and was replaced by the new covenant in Jesus’ blood. This narrative was reinforced through preaching and art (like the well-known medieval artistic trope of “church and synagogue” in which the church is young, beautiful and crowned while the synagogue is blind and rejected.
These ideas built on aspects of the Gospel narrative in various ways, and was further reinforced in official texts of the liturgy and in preaching. Over time the assumption that this was what the Gospels had to mean became more and more fixed in the European Christian imagination. Despite some major improvements in both official theology and liturgical texts, Christians are often still unaware of how deeply these tropes are fixed in our inherited imagination. Their now-buried history still sends up shoots that we need to be careful to prune away lest they re-infect our understandings of these central events of the Gospel.
Other Narratives to Notice
Other narrative structures are not dangerous in the same ways that the supersessionist story is. But we still do well to notice when they are active and attend to whether they are becoming overly deterministic of our readings and our experiences.
Ah, Holy Jesus!
One standard way of approaching Holy Week is to meditate on the suffering of the Beloved. Much of our beloved music takes this tack. Consider Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, with its series of arias, chorales, and choruses, meditating on the love between the soul and Jesus. The listener is invited to adore, to wonder. The love demonstrated by Jesus for me is a central concern.
There is much to be appreciated here; not least the wealth of musical and other artistic outpouring that this narrative has produced. But there are some things to be attentive to. The emphasis is often on the individual, rather than the community. The implications of Jesus’s actions can sometimes be reduced to an other-worldly salvation which loses sight of Jesus’s own preaching about the kingdom. Gratitude and horror may not give way to the needed response to take up the cross and follow.
Jesus, Holy Warrior
Another narrative we have inherited is that of Jesus as the holy warrior battling sin, death, and the devil on our behalf. We can think of the medieval passion plays or their very modern reinterpretation in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. In this story, the Christ we meet is fully aware of all the implications of his mission and goes forth to do battle. He fulfills the requirements laid down by his Father and either tricks the Devil into losing, or overcomes the Father’s wrath (or both.)
Here again, there is much that has affected how we tell and receive our Christian story. It has led to a powerful sense of Jesus’s divinity. And also to the rightful insistence that salvation is a gift that none of us can ever earn. And yet, it also can foster either an image of the devil as God’s equal-and-opposite, or of the Father as a vengeful God in need of blood and revenge. In our contemporary versions, it can turn Jesus into a superhero who conquers through superior might. It tends to hide central pieces of the gospel story from us, such Paul’s insistence that Christ’s salvific action proceeded from a mind that “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6).
Another Narrative to Consider
While I was listening to Luke’s Gospel this morning at Mass, it struck me just how often Luke speaks about the Reign of God in the Gospels appointed for today. Jesus is greeted by the crowds: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” At the Passover, he speaks of its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God, before having to once again describe what leadership in that reign looks like
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them
and those in authority over them are addressed as ‘Benefactors’;
but among you it shall not be so.
Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest,
and the leader as the servant.Luke 22:24-27 (NABRE)
After telling the disciples that they will need swords, they repair to the Mount of Olives. And when the disciples use the swords he told them to bring, he stops them from fighting and heals the one act of violence they have managed to inflict.
In Luke’s version of Jesus’s trials, there is quite a bit of discussion about not only the coming Son of Man, but what God’s kingdom is like. And this is continually contrasted with various forms of human rule, including both the council of elders, Pilate, and Herod. Then even the criminals crucified with him get into a debate about proper governance and this man called “King of the Jews.” And then one of them asks to be remembered in Jesus’s coming kingdom.
This is only a sampling. But how does it change our listening this year to attend to the ways in which this is a story about God’s salvation of the world, including its ways of being ruled. What would our Holy Week look like if we attended to Jesus’s words about what his Father’s kingdom looked like in both our approach to the church’s structures and all of our participation in the structures of power. Where is the passion narrative calling us to pick up the crosses of others, follow Jesus, and risk dying for others who are in need?