Monday of Holy Week: re-enacting a murder

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”.

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5 Responses to Monday of Holy Week: re-enacting a murder

  1. Phil Walker says:

    On the Jews: Interesting. I’d always been told it was the Jewish leaders, which kind of half-fits with Alison’s point but not quite. They certainly were bothered about the Law, insofar as they could use it to legitimise their (ab)use of authority.

  2. Dan says:

    Not to go down a rabbit trail here, but isn’t that what the law does anyway? We are called by Christ to obedience to the “spirit” of the law, above and beyond the “letter” of the law, and there is no excuse. The letter of the law (because it can’t cover everything) leaves us with many openings for temptation. In a sense, the law is a set of excuses for not doing what we know we should be doing anyway. I find when people want to make a lot of laws, what they really want is to know what the boundaries are so they can go around them to their own advantage.

  3. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Wednesday of Holy Week: the banality of the passion

  4. nicktheowl says:

    The interesting point above about the people we describe as “the Jews” in the Passion story is really interesting, and chimed with my own view that it’s entirely wrong to “blame” a modern people for an ancient wrong.

    I’ve been learning the Evangelist role for a performance of the Bach “St John Passion” on Good Friday. It’s a work which has occasionally been accused of anti-Semitism, given the ferocious, mocking way in which Bach sets the words attributed to “the Jews” in the choruses. But I’m always struck by one of the chorales at the very centre of the work, after Jesus is struck by one of the High Priest’s servants. It’s unusual amongst the chorales in that it’s one of the few with a full da capo (“from the top”) repeat and it’s in two parts – the first verse is full of indignation “Who has struck thee thus?” (seemingly begging the answer “the Jews”); but the second turns this on its head: “It was I, I and my sins, which are as numerous as the sand on the seashore.” So Bach seems to get the distinction too.

  5. John H says:

    Nick: fascinating. I spent last night sorting out the St John & St Matthew Passions on my iPod so I can listen to them properly. I know the bit you mean in the St John, and will listen out for it with fresh interest.

    Hope your performance goes well, too. 🙂

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