Wednesday of Holy Week: the banality of the passion

In the third (and final) of his sermons for Holy Week (see previous posts 1 | 2), James Alison looks at John 13:21-32. He begins by observing that this passage contains “two ‘boo’ words”: “Satan” (in v.27, the only time the word is used in John’s gospel), and “Judas”.

Alison argues that the resonances that these “boo” words have for us are so strong that they make it difficult for us to “hear the banality of what’s going on”:

Judas does something terribly banal. A reward notice has gone out … the ruling authorities had let it be known that anyone who provided them with information as to where this person might be found would be rewarded. The notice had gone up. And Judas thought “Hmm. I might take advantage of that”. And then he does. That’s all.

We know nothing of his motives: maybe it was money; maybe it was an attempt to “provoke Jesus into doing something grandiloquent”, to “produce the final clash of powers, in which the Holy One would be vindicated”:

And guess what? In the real gospels, as opposed to the Gnostic gospels, it doesn’t matter, because what Judas did is utterly banal. All he has done, in fact, is give someone away, give a friend away.

All that Judas has done is fall pray to “the prince of this world, the principle by which social order is maintained”, in an attempt “to try to create spurious meaning, to try and produce something exciting, meaningful, advantageous”:

And guess what? Nothing is going to happen. Jesus is not going to rise to the bait. He’s going to go quietly, having handed himself over to occupy the space of the one whom the lynch mob get.

This emphasis on the banality of events links in well with an interesting post at Whosoever Desires warning of potential dangers in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. In particular the writer criticises the way in which the film exaggerates Satan’s role, depicting him as directing the behaviour of Jesus’ Jewish opponents, when in fact:

The Chief Priests were simply trying to protect their law and customs. Or, if we want to impute demonic influence on them, we must impute it of everyone else as well, and that should be made clear in the movie.  To simply highlight the Jewish leaders is to miss the fact that a nuanced reading shows they had their own religion and indeed possibly existence as a nation at stake.  They weren’t just being intentionally evil.

“Simply trying to protect their law and customs”, their religious and national existence – even if that made it “better … to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Again, utterly banal: no need to exaggerate the wickedness of those involved.

Jesus’ actions, as his lynching is “inexorably set in motion” by Judas’ departure, are not going to be spectacular, but invisible (“it was night”, v.30). But in allowing himself to be handed over into that space, Jesus undoes “all the power of darkness and death to give meaning”; hence it is at that very moment that he declares, “Now is the Son of Man glorified”:

The Greek fathers … saw it as though Satan thought he had sprung a trap for Jesus, but Jesus was in fact undoing the trap from within. The quiet handing over which cannot be heard, the one who occupies the space, who does not allow themselves to be given identity by the crowd, by the pressure (“give us meaning”, “give us signs”, “give us wisdom”).

The one who occupies that space gently is the one who will explode the whole system of meaning from within, which is the promise of glorification. And it can only be done as the trap tries to close down and finds that it’s been stuck half open.

In his conclusion, Alison once again seeks to emphasise the “banality” of what is happening, in contrast to the grand ritual with which we tend to invest these events:

In the face of the quietness of Jesus what we typically dress up as a particular form of wickedness is banal, it’s meaningless, it goes nowhere. We need to let that music out of our ears if we are to hear the deeper, slower, quieter, music carrying us towards Good Friday.

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8 Responses to Wednesday of Holy Week: the banality of the passion

  1. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Auden and the Victim

  2. frank sonnek says:

    Yet another gay and christian writer in addition to wh auden whom you post about. Is it´possible that their station in life as gay and christian gives them some unique christian insights?

  3. John H says:

    Frank: yes, I think that’s right. I’ve been reading James Alison’s “Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay”, and what’s striking about it is that (as the blurb points out) it is not a book of “gay theology”, but a book of catholic theology (with both a large and small “c”) written from the perspective of a gay man.

    In Alison’s case, what this leads to is him writing as a true theologian of the cross, as someone who has experienced the full force of the “victimary mechanism” (as he has been driven from jobs and forced to move home, even country, repeatedly) but who has been able to let go of personal resentment, see his own complicity in those mechanisms, and witness to Christ as the only truly innocent victim who can explode those mechanisms from within. He’s having a huge impact on me, as someone who is neither (Roman) Catholic nor gay.

  4. frank sonnek says:

    Interesting John. So now you can begin to understand exactly why the Holy Gospel is so very important to me as a confessional Lutheran as yet another someone…

    “who has been able to let go of personal resentment, see his own complicity in those mechanisms, and witness to Christ as the only truly innocent victim who can explode those mechanisms from within. ”

    for all the same identical reasons. This is why WH Auden I suppose is also so vivid to me.

    I wonder how much the LCMS is losing in terms of contributions that could be made, by taking their current tack vs the ELCA and ECUSA.

    People like Auden and this man and me will simply not go away. Where would we go? Only Jesus has the words of eternal life, and He tells us he can only be found in the company of fellow christians in the church. God does have a sense of humor doen´t he? He is probably english. My english friends are always so deadpan in their delivery of humor that I can´t tell when they are joking and when they are not. Like God. There should be alot of room to make room and still not be antinomian about sexual sinning.

    Your summary is an excellent one. Since I also live in Brasil, I am going to make a point now of seeking this man out and trying to make his personal acquaintance. I will keep you posted!

  5. John H says:

    Frank: should you succeed in your quest, I’d be honoured if you could introduce me to him!

  6. frank sonnek says:

    hehe! Maybe the fact that we share a common faith along with a common station in life might make him want to respond to my email. Let´s see! It would be interesting huh?

  7. frank sonnek says:

    in that case you would need to come to brasil and share a good cold brasilian beer!

  8. John H says:

    Hah! Well, in the meantime maybe he’s on Facebook. 😉

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