More James Alison, this time from some sermons for Holy Week posted on his website.
In the sermon for the Monday of Holy Week, Dr Alison looks at John 12:1-11. I don’t propose to summarise or replicate his argument – I recommend reading the whole sermon; it’s worth it – but to highlight a few points that particularly struck me as I read it.
The first is on how our participation in the liturgies of Holy Week draw us into the story itself, enable us “to undergo that discovery of moral equivalence with all the people who we don’t like to think of ourselves as morally equivalent to”. During Holy Week:
…we’re brought together to celebrate a murder, to celebrate someone undergoing being murdered. And we’ll be asked, as the days go by, to adopt various parts in that re-enactment of a murder. Crowds shouting, “Crucify him”. Crowds saying, “Give us Barabbas”. Different voices of participation in a murder.
It’s a while since I last attended a Palm Sunday service at which an entire passion narrative was read dramatically. The last time was at Westminster Cathedral a number of years ago, and I recall being struck by how the congregation speaks twice during the narrative: the first to shout “Hosanna to the Son of David!” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem; the next (some minutes later) to shout “Let him be crucified!”
This brought home to me the way the mob turned against Jesus during those few days – and, as Alison reminds us, it also leads us to a realisation of our “moral equivalence” with that crowd; gives us a glimpse of “what it’s like to be people undergoing a murder that’s taking us by surprise”.
The second was the way in which Dr Alison sees Mary’s anointing of Jesus (and wiping his feet with her hair) as being a fulfilment of the Song of Songs. No particularly deep point to make here – it just interested me:
Oh, that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth, for your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant. Your name is oil poured out. Therefore the maidens love you. (Song of Songs 1:2-3)
Your head crowns you like Carmel and your flowing locks are like purple. A king is held captive in the tresses. (Song of Songs 7:5)
The third was Dr Alison’s interpretation of the phrase “the Jews” (if anyone can corroborate or critique what he says here, do please comment). This is worth quoting at length:
A word about “the Jews” because they’ll appear frequently enough during this week for it to be worth getting something right here. The word, literally “Judeans”, should not, by any of us, be read as referring to the people whom we now call the Jewish people. We’re talking probably about what would have been something rather like people who now call themselves Christians, since we’re into moral equivalence. In other words, what had previously been rather a broad term was taken over by a group who wanted it to mean something rather narrower and tighter and more excellent. You know what I mean in that use of the word Christian.
Well, the Hebrew people had quite a multifarious belonging and forms of belonging. And one of the groups, the people who had come back from Babylon with quite a strong religious line, was known by others as the Judeans. They were very keen on Moses and the Law and a particular interpretation of ways of belonging. This is by no means the same as the Jewish people. This is, if you like, much more of a cultural and religious group within the Jewish people. And they were clearly interested in Jesus. They were half tempted by him, hence the Chief Priests’ concern.
And as Alison points out, we need to recognise that “the Judeans” are with us and part of us:
people who want a system of goodness; for whom Jesus is not going to give a system of goodness, but open up heaven.
So Holy Week is a time to “[allow] ourselves to be approached by one who is about to be murdered”, and to be “approached as murderers, not being scandalised”, so that our Lord can lead us towards “access to God, who can only be reached when our hearts are broken”.