Beloved People of St. Martin’s,
This weekend, we begin the final week of Lent with our observation of Palm/Passion Sunday. The very fact that we telescope the reenactment of the joyous welcome of Jesus into Jerusalem with the recitation of the Passion Narrative has always fascinated me. That’s a broad range of emotion to pack into one Sunday– from “Hosanna!” to “Cruxify him!” shouted with equal insistence within the span of an hour.
The decision to combine these two different observations into one service stems partly from the suspicion that many worshipers might not hear the Passion narrative at all if it was not observed the week before Easter. There is an assumption that a sizeable proportion of Episcopalians do not attend Holy Week and in particular Good Friday services—and honestly, that might be true. I am hoping, however, that all of you will decide to fully observe Holy Week as much as you can—Palm/Passion Sunday; Maundy Thursday, with its commemoration of the birth of the Eucharist; Good Friday, recounting Jesus’s trial and execution and our meditations before our Stations of the Cross; and the Great Vigil of Easter, the holiest commemoration in our calendar (even more holy than Easter Sunday, in fact).
Another concern, however, needs to be addressed. The Passion Narrative includes language that blames “the Jews” for the death of Jesus. At the time of the gospels’ composition, those hearing this narrative were themselves likely Jews, and they understood this to be shorthand for “the authorities.” Those authorities at the time of Jesus’s execution were both Roman and Jewish. BOTH.
However, as Christianity spread among gentiles in the centuries that followed, the highly emotional language used in these gospels was often used to justify extreme anti-Semitism as this context was no longer understood. It is interesting that the Passion Narratives don’t inspire anti-Roman sentiment—but then again, the Romans were never an oppressed minority, and the conversion of Emperor Constantine made it convenient to forget that crucifixion was a Roman punishment used particularly against rebels, NOT a Jewish punishment. In the Medieval period in Europe, Passion Plays were very popular, and unfortunately some of those Passion Plays so enraged the audience that they would then engage in acts of violence and repression against their Jewish neighbors, conveniently segregated into ghettos in most parts of Europe. Even in our own time, the director of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, a modern Passion Play, raised fears of goading anti-Semitism. It didn’t help that Mel Gibson, the director, faced controversy not only for the extreme graphic nature of the film (one could argue being true to the gospels’ accounts), but for his occasional anti-Semitic comments.
Let us be clear, beloveds. Jesus was Jewish. Most early Christians and all of the apostles were Jewish. And as we re-enact the Passion narrative, it is all our voices that cry out, “Crucify him!” And the observation of the Palm Procession and the Passion Narrative actually help us to remember that the same people who cheered Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem probably also were crying out for his death a few days later. This reminds us of how hard true discipleship can be, and for myself, helps me to think about how many times I have resisted the call of Jesus in my life.
For more information, I invite you to read Amy-Jill Levine’s essay, “Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews: Avoiding Anti-Judaism in Holy Week.” Dr. Levine is an Orthodox Jewish New Testament scholar, and an authority on the intersection of our two great faiths of Christianity and Judaism.
I also invite you to the full observation of Holy Week, to sit with both the joy and the suffering, as we continue to discern what it means to live a resurrection- shaped life shaped by the Cross of Christ and the amazing gift of love made there.