Reflections on Passion Sunday and Holy Week
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012
By Dennis Ormseth
Readings for Year B 2011-12
Sunday of the Passion in Year B
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
The week we call “holy” traditionally begins with the congregation's Palm Sunday procession: the pastor reads the processional Gospel from Mark 11; as the people go into the sanctuary, they wave palms while singing “All glory, laud, and honor to you, redeemer, king, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.” With the second verse of this hymn, the singers might envision themselves to be joined by “the company of angels,” as “creation and all mortals in chorus make reply” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, No. 344). The procession thus calls forth cosmic expectations for the events of the week thus initiated: All creation recognizes the great significance of the remembrance of Jesus’ “last week.” As the participants quiet themselves for the long reading of the passion narrative that is ahead, however, they will likely have already missed an important point of entry into the cosmic meaning of the day. Their procession has ended, and they begin to grapple with the sudden shift from joy to dread as the reading begins: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. . . .” (14:1). What will have been missed is the strange “non-event” at the end of the processional Gospel.
Jesus “entered Jerusalem” we read, “and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (11:11). The entry of the son of David into the great city might be expected to end in triumphal arrival at the center of power of the Jewish temple-state. As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan describe the importance of the temple, it was “the sacred center of the Jewish world.” The temple in Jerusalem was “the navel of the earth” connecting this world to its source in God, and here (and only here) was God's dwelling place on earth. . . . To be in the temple was to be in God's presence . . . . To stand in the temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand in the presence of God” (The Last Week, p. 6). But Jesus only “looked around at everything,” we are told, and “as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” His arrival at the temple was apparently as unnoticed and, for him personally, as unmoving, as that of a typical modern tourist among the late-hour crowds on a tour of too many churches in a European city, and ready to retreat to the hotel for dinner. From the perspective of our concern with the significance of holy week for the creation and its care, however, his “look around” signals a momentous shift in understanding: The temple's significance as the “sacred center” and “dwelling place” of God has, as far as Jesus is concerned, been vacated.
Jesus' relationship to the temple in Jerusalem is a central motif in Mark's Gospel, as readers from the beginning of this series of comments on the lectionary for year B will recognize, and no less so at precisely this point in the narrative. Indeed, the events narrated between 11:12 and 13:37, namely, from the end of the procession Gospel to the beginning of the passion narrative, are focused almost entirely on Jesus’ relationship with the temple: Jesus curses a fig tree (11:12-13), “emblem of peace, security, and prosperity” associated with the temple-state; the next day, Jesus re-enters the temple, this time to cleanse it of all that makes it “a den of robbers” (11:15-19); looking on the withered fig tree, Jesus suggests that “this mountain”—that is, Zion, the location of the temple—could “be taken up and cast into the sea” (11:23); and, although the temple was, as Borg and Crossan put it, “the only place of sacrifice, and sacrifice was the means of forgiveness,” mediating access to God (The Last Week, p. 6), Jesus instead proposes that “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that our Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (11:25).
Thus is the status of the temple indeed reduced in Jesus' view to the condition suggested by his casual “look around.” Moreover, while “walking in the temple,” he engages its officers in controversy about the authority of their traditional antagonists, the prophets, in this instance represented by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. And he tells against them the prophetic parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard: They are the wicked tenants who would take as their own the land that the presence of God in the temple rendered holy. They should give back the land to God (“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's” 12:17). Obedience to the Great Commandment of love to God and the second one like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he stipulates, is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And, in a final outburst of rejection, he disputes the view that the coming of the Messiah entails the restoration of the temple state: the Messiah is not David's son (12:37) and, as such, will not rehabilitate the old imperial vision. The piety practiced in the temple is, in Ched Myers's phrase, nothing but “a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation,” as is illustrated by the poor widow who gives everything she has to the temple treasury (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 321. See Myers analysis, Chapter 10, pp. 290 – 323, on all the several points summarized here in these two paragraphs). Accordingly, Jesus’ teaching in the temple ends with the announcement of its desecration and its apocalyptic destruction (13:1-22).
Jesus’ repudiation of the temple is complete and total, Myers argues. Noting that Jesus “takes a seat ‘facing’ the temple (13:3) in preparation for delivering his second great sermon, he summarizes the moment's significance this way:
With this final dramatic action, Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system's exploitation of the poor. He now sets about warning his disciples against joining those who would wage a messianic war in defense of the temple (13:14). The ‘mountain’ must be ‘moved,’ not restored. Jesus now offers a vision of the end of the temple-based world, and the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled (Myers, p. 322-23).
And so we arrive once more at the Gospel text with which the Season of Advent begins in this year B of the lectionary cycle, the apocalypse of Mark 13:24-37. Readers joining us only recently or for the first time with this comment will be helped to appropriate the significance of this recapitulation by reading our comment on the First Sunday of Advent. What has concerned us from that beginning is the possibility that with the rejection of the temple comes a displacement of what, beyond its socio-political significance, the temple represented in Jewish cosmology. As we put it then, “the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation . . . were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation.” What, we again ask, are the consequences for creation of the dislocation of God's presence from the temple, if it was indeed regarded as “the navel of the world.”? (See our comment in this series for the First Sunday of Advent.)
In answering this question, we have shown in subsequent comments on the texts from Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, first, that what displaces the temple as the locus of divine presence in the narrative of the Gospel, and indeed, more fully in the experience of the Christian community at worship, is of course the person of Jesus himself. And second, we have argued that the story of Jesus is as fully engaged with the reality of the creation as the temple itself ever was. The Gospel of Jesus the Christ not only provides access to the presence of God in creation, but it also provides a characteristic orientation to creation. “Yes, to be sure,” we wrote already in that first comment, “the ‘heaven and earth’ of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds” (First Sunday of Advent).
In what follows here, we argue that it is precisely in Mark’s narrative of the passion and in the week's associated Scriptures that the church’s lectionary for Year B gives us its most full access to the God of Creation in the person of Jesus, and that this access brings with it a definitive orientation to the creation Jesus was called to serve. The events accompanying the destruction of the temple, Mark has Jesus observe to his disciples, are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” for the new creation (13:8). As we noted in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, “The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the ‘desolation’ of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the ‘fall’ of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins: The Ethics of Israel's Prophets, pp. 78-79).” These cosmic signs will be followed by the coming of the Son of Man with “great power and glory,” as his angels are sent out to “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:26-27).
(It is helpful to note that while this section of Mark concerning the culmination of the conflict between Jesus and the temple-state is not part of our readings for Holy Week, the section of the Gospel of John that tells the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was read on the Third Sunday in Lent, with the same message: the temple will be destroyed, and it will be replaced by the resurrection body of Jesus [see Tom Mundahl’s relevant comments on the readings for that Sunday]. But Mark will be our primary source for what follows. We are primarily concerned to locate and discuss those elements of the narrative that are most important for our concern for creation and its care in each of these sections. We follow the interpretation of Ched Myers in his Binding the Strong Man.)
Myers observes that in the opening verse of our reading of the Passion, Mark “plunges the reader into the deepest heart of Jewish symbolic life: the high holy days in Jerusalem.” It is interesting to note, then, that as important to the festival as the temple was, it no longer figures as the center of action; the story of Jesus' last days unfolds, rather, in “the house of a leper and a Jerusalem attic, the Mount of Olives and an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, and of course ‘Golgotha’ and the tomb” (Binding the Strong Man, p. 357). The first of these settings is the house of a leper in Bethany, ‘a narrative reminder of the way in which Jesus’ discipleship practice continues to challenge the social boundaries of the dominant order” (Ibid. p. 358). Astonishingly, a woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive oil, an action condemned by some present but which receives Jesus' profound approbation as a proper anticipation of his death and burial, as opposed to the inauguration of a triumphal reign. But, as Myers also significantly notes, “her care for Jesus’ body narratively prepares us for the emergence of this body as the new symbolic center of the community in the corresponding ‘messianic banquet’” which follows” (Myers, p. 359).
So the scene shifts quickly to what Myers suggests is “an attic room”: Jesus instructs his disciples to make preparations for their meal in a place that will be identified for them by a man bearing water. Myers thinks that this is an appropriately inconspicuous signal that helps conceal the whereabouts of Jesus as they “celebrate the meal after the manner of the original Passover.” They will eat the meal “as those in flight,” seeking escape from oppressive exile (Myers, p. 361). And the notion that the attic room is a place to which water must be carried reminds us that water itself is important to the gathering of Jesus’ disciples. Indeed, from the beginning, the gatherings of this community have taken place in the presence of water. A river of water, we recall, was the site of Jesus' commissioning by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10). His first disciples would be called from their work at the side of the sea (1:16). Those he healed followed him to the sea, where the unclean spirits identify him as the Son of God (3:7-11). After he stilled the storm while crossing the sea with his terrified disciples, he sent the Legion of unclean spirits crashing down the bank into the sea to be drowned (5:13). He fed five thousand by the sea, and walked on the sea, imploring his disciples to “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
So if all of these references are to the flight through the water at the Red Sea, remembered in the festival, they also point to the fact that water in each of these events is a touchstone for the very presence of God, and that its use is instrumental to God’s gracious and redemptive purposes. Just so here: the water carried in the jar to the hidden space marks the divine presence in the midst of those gathered and so confers on the gathering the high significance of what happens there. Furthermore, if we pick up on the tradition of foot washing from John 13, the primary reading assigned for Maundy Thursday, we note that Jesus will use this water to wash the feet of his disciples, an expression of his service to them as the very Servant of God (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). As the woman in Bethany cared for his body, anointing it with oil, so does Jesus in turn freely care for the bodies of his disciples, with water made very precious, not only by its scarcity, but also by its use according to the will and purposes of God. Jesus models for his disciples that holy use: “So if I, your lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
We have in other places discussed the significance of water for an ecologically oriented faith, most pointedly in our comment on the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob in the gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary. As we asked there, “Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation,” as it is increasingly seen and treated in the world? “Or is it more properly an ‘object of awe,’ calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its maker?” We would refer our readers to that discussion, and it seems appropriate to repeat the main point of our conclusion: What faith calls for is an orientation that appreciates the presence of water as essential for all life on our blue planet, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. “As an essential part of God's creation, water is to be served and protected.” (See also Tom Mundahl's comment on the flood story in his commentary for the First Sunday in Lent and on baptism as “an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and creation amplified to become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation”). It was only a jar of water that alerted the disciples to the place where they should prepare for their meal according to Jesus’ instruction. But, as we noted on the occasion of the Baptism of our Lord, whether there is a bowl of it, a pool or a river, water will come to provide a center not just for the rites of Christian worship, but as a “a center to the world,” a “spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people.” (The quotation is from Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 105-06)
If the bodies of the disciples must be washed, these bodies must all the more be fed. And so, when they had gathered, Jesus “took a loaf of bread,” we read, “and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’” The bread, Myers observes, “that sustained the hungry masses ‘on the way’ (8:2) has now become Jesus’ ‘body’—which body has just been ‘prepared’ for death.” “Then he took a cup,” we read on, “and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” And again, as Myers notes, the covenant will “be ratified in the shedding of Jesus’ blood (14:24).” What becomes clear about this meal, Myers concludes, is that Mark is portraying Jesus here as the “eschatological paschal lamb,” and we realize suddenly “that Jesus is not after all participating in the temple-centered feast of Passover (note that Mark never mentions the eating of lamb). Instead he is expropriating its symbolic discourse (the ritual meal) in order to narrate his new myth, that of the Human One who gives his life for the people.”
The displacement of the temple is now complete, Myers observes. “Through the symbolic action of table fellowship,” he notes,
Jesus invites the disciples/reader to solidarity with his impending arrest, torture, and execution. In this episode, Mark articulates his new symbolic center, and overturns the last stronghold of symbolic authority in the dominant order, the high holy feast of Passover. In place of the temple liturgy Jesus offers his “body,”—that is, his messianic practice in life and death. It is this very “sanctuary/body” opposition that will shape Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 364).
And the narrative of the Gospel of John no less so, we might add, noting the frequent mention of temple authorities in the section of the narrative appointed for Good Friday, John 18:1 – 19:42 (See especially 18:13-14, 19; 19:14, 31, and 42).
As Jesus leaves the meal and goes out of the city to the Mount of Olives, one senses that not only the temple but the city itself is no longer the sacred center of Jewish life for him or for his disciples. It is left entirely in the control of those whose collaboration will destroy it, even as they conspire to capture Jesus and kill him because he has spoken against them. Who can save this city from its leaders? But the disintegration of the community is felt most palpably in the reality that Jesus’ own community is also being torn apart: even as they share the meal, the betrayer is at hand. Later in the garden, the three leaders of the disciples cannot stay awake to watch with him, their bodies enacting, as Myers puts it, “the mythic moment of struggle” between “staying awake” and “sleeping” (Myers, p. 368). Their spirit may be willing, “but the flesh is weak.” Judas has betrayed Jesus for money; his bodily embrace will mark the target for the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus. Rejecting violent response, Jesus is led away, as “all of them deserted him and fled” (14:50). The crowing of a cock will signal his complete abandonment—the non-human creation, we are reminded, is keeping watch.
Thus does the narrative of the last days of Jesus with his disciples end. There is only the curious episode of the young man who “was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (14:51-52). Myers suggests that he is “a symbol of the discipleship community as a whole, which has just itself fled (14:50). He escapes naked (gumnos), indicative of shame, leaving behind a cloth that becomes the “burial garment” for Jesus.” He comes back at the end of the Gospel, however, as the young man “’sitting at the right’ and fully clothed in a white robe—symbols of the martyrs who have overcome the world through death.” The figure suggests to Myers that “the discipleship community can be rehabilitated, even after such a betrayal. The first ‘young man’ symbolizes ‘saving life and losing it,’ the second ‘losing life to save it’” (Myers, p. 369).
Helpful as Myer's discussion is, as far as it goes, Gordon Lathrop offers the more creative insight that the young man represents something much more dramatic: He is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus, a literary allusion to Plato's Timaeus, a resource of great significance for Western cosmology. The point Lathrop would advance is that Mark's gospel fundamentally challenges that cosmology, in which the “wise man follow[s] the thoughts and revolutions of the universe, learning the harmonies of the sphere, so that having assimilated them he may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind, both for the present and the future.” It was a world view “marked by the privilege and domination of certain upper-class, physically intact males.”
Once he is given new sight, Mark’s “son of Timaeus” instead follows Jesus to his death, to reappear as the first witness of the resurrection. He represents an alternative cosmology in which there is “a hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere, then the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” In this new cosmology, the blind who have come to sight are “associated with the word about the death of Jesus and with the bread, cup, and baptism that hold out that death as a gift of life” (Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 26-38). And we might add, where the movements of earthly bodies have more to tell us than have all the stars in heaven. The idea that the young man ran off naked, it occurs to us, is not so much a symbol of shame as a sign of readiness to be baptized into a new creation.
Along with water, we accordingly note, bodies and their care are of crucial significance to the passion narrative. Indeed, we would suggest that they provide the basis for exploring the fullest meaning of this narrative for creation and its care. Jesus washed the bodies of his disciples as would a servant, and yet he feeds them as one who can give them new life, even his very own being. He is, as it were, both source and sustainer of the life that is theirs in community. Norman Wirzba argues in his recent excellent book on Food and Faith that their own bodies are where humans become most immediately and irreducibly aware of their relationship to the creation that sustains them in life, as one of interdependence and responsibility:.
Bodies are not things or commodities that we have or possess. In the most fundamental sense, every body is a place of gift. It is a vulnerable and potentially nurturing site in terms of which we come to know and experience life as the perpetual exchange of gift upon gift. The realization inevitably leads to the conclusion that bodies are therefore also places of responsibility. How have we received what we have been given, and what have we done with the gifts of nurture? Through our bodies we learn that who we are is a feature of where we are and what we receive. Through our bodies we discover that what we become is a feature of what we have given in return. Bodies are the physical and intimate places where we learn that life is a membership rather than a solitary quest (Food and Faith, pp. 103-04).
In terms of our interest in the relationship of humans to creation, our bodies, we suggest, are where we are oriented fundamentally to the rest of creation as members of the great body that is creation itself, and to our responsibility to care for that creation as part of ourselves.
There is an inherent anxiety about this membership in the larger creation, Wirzba suggests, namely, what he describes as “the fear of interdependent need and responsibility” that
compels us to see bodies (in some extreme cases even our own bodies) as alien and as a threat. We worry that the fragility of life will be the occasion for someone else to take advantage of us. Recoiling before our own vulnerability and need, we come to view others with suspicion. We become filled with the desire to control every body that we can” (Ibid, p. 104).
This anxiety results in various forms of exile, both forced and self-imposed—ecological, economic, and physiological—that constitute a state of alienation from full membership in the creation, characterized by “the belief that we can thrive alone and at the expense of others” and that fundamentally denies “the fact that we eat, and so depend on each other for our health and well-being. Because of this denial we forfeit the hope of communion” (Ibid. p. 109).
In this perspective, we see that the narrative of the meal is about Jesus’ most essential work. In it he addresses just this denial and provides its remedy. On the one hand, as Myers suggested, the need for the disciples’ retreat to the attic room is an expression of this alienation and its impact of human relationship. The gathering of disciples in the Jerusalem attic was pervaded, it seems, both by deep “anxiety of membership” in their society and by a “fear of interdependent need and responsibility,” which compels their suspicion in others as alien and as a threat to their life. The washing and feeding of the disciples bodies, on the other hand, is an expression of restoration of human solidarity in membership both with other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.
At stake here is the interpretation of Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice. We note that the readings for Good Friday place particular emphasis on this theme. Jesus, the reading from Isaiah 52 reminds us, is God's suffering servant who “shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; and for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which had not been heard they shall contemplate.” Psalm 22 offers, after its dreadful lament of forsakenness, the hope that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.’ Why? Because “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,” as the reading from Hebrews 10 puts it, “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God.” Or alternately, from Hebrews 4 and 5, because “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. . . . In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . .” (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5: 7-9.)
Key to understanding the significance of the meal that Jesus shares with his disciple as a re-orientation to creation is that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God. As Wirzba explains, citing David Bentley Hart, as a replacement of the temple, Jesus' sacrifice effects
‘a miraculous reconciliation between God, who is the wellspring of all life, and his people, who are dead in sin.’ Christ's blood, like the blood sprinkled in the Jewish temple, is not a substance of terror reflecting violence and death, but the medium of reconciliation healing division and renewing life by putting it on a divinely inspired, self-offering path. Christ is a continuation of the temple because it is in him that heaven (the place of God’s life) and earth (the place of creaturely life) meet. By participating (through Baptism and Eucharist) in his sacrificial life, Christ's followers taste the fruit of heaven” (Ibid. pp. 124-25).
Accordingly, “when Christians declared Jesus to be the final and complete sacrifice who atones for sin (see Rom. 3:25, Heb. 2:17, and I John 2:2), they were not simply making a statement about the man from Nazareth. They were saying . . . that a sacrificial logic of self-offering has been at the heart of the divine life from all eternity” (Ibid., p 125) and “also characterizes created life” Why? “Because there is no life without sacrificial love, and no love without surrender, the destiny of all creatures is that they offer themselves or be offered up as the temporal expression of God’s eternal love” (Ibid., p. 126). Jesus’ life and death are finally about the “transformation of all life and the reparation of creation's many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed” (Ibid. p. 147). And as members incorporated into his body, we are privileged to share in that ministry of restoration—of all creation!