Well, here we are. Holy Week. Back in late November we began the great liturgical journey that took us from expectation (Advent) to arrival (Christmas) to learning how to see and live with the Light (Epiphany) to inaugurating the great annual return to God (Lent). All of that comes to a climax this week as Christians throughout the world – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and a handful of evangelicals 😉 – commemorate the last days of Jesus’ life. We begin the spiritual descent with Jesus to the Cross.
Over the past few years, one of the things I’ve noticed in myself is that I often get so busy putting on Christian calendar type stuff for the people I serve that somewhere along the line (usually about halfway through Lent) I find myself feeling a bit personally disconnected from the journey. My Lent tends to end with exhaustion rather than the deep worship and feelings of gratitude that I think it should.
So I’ve decided that this year – novel concept – Holy Week is going to be really holy for me. I’m going to try to reflect deeply on traditional Holy Week texts as a way of journeying deeply into the spirituality of this week and then write down those reflections here. I hope you’ll join me.
Monday: Old Testament texts: Psalm 51, Lamentations 1:1-2, 6-12; New Testament text: Mark 11:12-25
Holy Week of course commences with Palm Sunday – the so-called “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem. The crowds welcome him on Palm Sunday, laying their cloaks and palm branches on the road shouting “Hosanna!” – a traditional Hebrew expression of longing for salvation. The actions of Jesus here are political theater… here at the culmination of his ministry, he rides into Jerusalem like a king (a different kind of king to be sure, but a king no less), and the crowds recognize it. The scene takes place during Passover, in which the city of Jerusalem was swollen with Jewish pilgrims; nationalistic fervor was always at its height during these times, so it is not surprising that the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem caused, in Matthew’s words, a “seismic shaking” of the city.
But there is still more going on here. The British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in his masterful (and massive) book Jesus and the Victory of God claims that when Jesus rides the donkey into the Jerusalem, he is doing more than signaling the arrival of a new human king… rather, Wright declares that Jesus is embodying the long-awaited return of Yahweh to Zion. The Psalmists and Prophets envisioned a day in which Yahweh-God would march triumphantly to Jerusalem after laying waste his enemies, saving his people and establishing his universal reign on Mount Zion. Jesus, the Gospel writers seem to be saying, is staging much more than political theater; he is staging THEOLOGICAL theater. Yahweh-God is going to be crowned king, in Jesus.
With that in mind, it is incredibly noteworthy what Mark has Jesus doing FIRST, immediately following his arrival in the city. Beginning in verse 11, Jesus’ actions are as follows:
- Temple visitation
- Departure out of the city to Bethany, where he spends the night
- March back into the city the next morning
- Cursing of the fig tree on the way in
- “Cleansing” of the Temple
- Departure once more from the city in the evening
- Return in the morning, observing the withered fig tree along the way
In Jesus, Yahweh-God heads first to the Temple. It is His, and he would like to know what has been going on there. What he will find will not please him.
On the way into the city, Jesus curses the fig tree. Though on the surface this appears to be an act of frustration (Mark tells us that Jesus was hungry and was disappointed not to find figs on the fig tree, despite the fact that it was “not the season” for figs), there is something much more profound going on under the surface, for the fig tree was often used by the Old Testament writers as a symbol of Jewish religious and national vitality (or lack thereof). Jesus’ actions here in cursing the fruitless fig tree would not have gone unnoticed by the disciples, and Mark lets us know that they did not – “And his disciples heard him say it” (v14). The cursing of the fig tree is a DRAMATIC statement…
…a statement that is made all the more explicit in what Jesus does next: he makes a bee-line for the Temple, and, arriving there, GOES APE. He flips over the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves, dramatically interrupting the “system” at work there. But then more… he “drives out” those perpetuating the system. The Greek word for “drive out” is “ekballo”, which interestingly, is what the Gospel writers say that Jesus does to demons. He “ekballo’s” the demons. Here, he is “ekballo-ing” the people, announcing that they have turned Yahweh’s house into a “den of thieves” (v17). The Vineyard Owner has returned, and what He sees appalls Him – the tenants have co-opted his Vineyard and thwarted his purposes. That the fig tree the next morning is withered makes the point all the clearer: the Temple and those perpetuating its now-corrupted system has set itself against Yahweh, and as such, it will be judged.
What do we draw from this? As with anything with Jesus and the Gospels, the meanings are many-layered. Three “layers” stand out to me…
1) We remember what it is that Yahweh-God is really after, and it is not religiosity as such. Jesus’ frustration at the most obvious level was that the Temple and those perpetuating its system simply had not born the fruit that Yahweh-God desired from it: justice, mercy, and a humble walking-with God. It is not religious or ritual observance that Israel’s God was after; no, it was that his people would embody his character and ways before the watching world, and that they would do so out of a genuineness of heart that flowed with an obedience in response to Yahweh’s goodness, as the Psalmist bore witness in Psalm 51: “The sacrifices of God,” he wrote, in a stunning relativization of the temple cult that all-too-often goes unnoticed, “are a broken and contrite heart.” Fig trees are for bearing fig-fruit. People are for bearing Yahweh’s image into the world. God let us remember…
2) We remember that in these actions, Jesus is announcing the end of every human attempt to bring about “perfection”. As we talked about at Bloom last night, what the writer of Hebrews perceives is exactly what the Gospel writers perceive in the demonstration of Jesus… “one greater than” the Temple has arrived. The Temple, that old way of approaching God, was limited and finite in its purpose and ability. It could never bring about the completion of the human project, nor was it intended to do so; and as such, its time was up (echoes of the Lamentations text ring in our ears here). The human project could only be completed by the One who inaugurated it in the first place. We don’t climb the ladder of human achievement to God. He descends the ladder of humiliation to us, drawing us up into himself. May we abandon ourselves to the “one greater than” every human attempt to achieve transcendance…
3) Finally, we remember that our solidarity with Jesus will often lead us into clashes with the systems and structures of this world. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus said in John 12, “and where I am my servant will also be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” It was John Howard Yoder in his book “The Politics of Jesus” who first drew my attention to the fact that when Jesus calls his disciples to “carry the cross”, he is not first talking about enduring general hardship; no, he is talking about following him in costly discipleship, in confrontation with “the powers” – a confrontation that will often result in pain, rejection, hardship, humiliation, and great loss for us. To follow Jesus is to embrace the way of the kingdom; and that will mean conflict, for the kingdom of God is advancing in the presence of the counter-kingdoms of this world, and they will not go quietly. May we perceive the joy of standing with Jesus against every counter-kingdom, and when the time comes to make that stand, may we do it with grace and courage.
Appropriately, the prayer for Monday of Holy Week is as follows:
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Make it so Lord God.