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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Holy Week The Mystery and Meanings

It is very easy to follow the story of Holy Week and miss its meaning. I think I have done that for many years as a young Catholic. I focused on the dread, the jealousy, the violence and the torture of a wonderful human being who was the Son of God. By staying with the images of betrayal, scourging, crowning, nails and crucifixion, I think I missed the incredible mystery of this week. So today I want to offer some facts about this week that have made me rethink the meaning of Holy Week for me.

I want to begin on Palm Sunday. We know that Jesus entered Jerusalem from the southern gate, close to the pool of Siloam. We know that he was on a donkey, surrounded by simple people, pilgrims who were glad to accompany this Galilean preacher to the temple. What is less well known is that this procession was timed to mirror another procession that was entering Jerusalem from the opposite side of the city. This procession was led by Pontius Pilate and consisted of soldiers arriving from the coast in order to manage any unrest during the volatile Passover week in Jerusalem. One procession was focused on control and even oppression by a dictatorial leader, the other led by Jesus the Good Shepherd ready to lay down his life for the least of his brothers and sisters. One procession focused on domination, the other on liberation. Looked at this way Jesus week in Jerusalem can be seen as a kind of campaign to challenge the prevailing powers with the reality of the kingdom of God.

Moving to the temple we see Jesus challenging the money lenders and demanding that the temple be a house of prayer. A place where people could meet and speak to their Father in reverence and peace. He calls the temple a den of thieves triggering in the mind of the priests Jeremiah Chapter Seven which speaks of the hypocrisy of those who trust in the temple rather than in a deep relationship with God. Jeremiah also mentions the oppression of widows and it is in that context that Jesus comments on the poor widow who puts in her last coin because she has been told it will win her favour with God. Jesus is not praising the widow but criticizing a religious system that exploits the poor to enrich the priestly class.

The challenge to the pharisees and priests is highlighted in the discussion of taxation. When Jesus asks one of the priests to produce a coin, they give him a denarius with the image of Caesar on it. It was forbidden to carry any graven image for the Jews and so, before a word is said, the leaders of the temple are caught out carrying foreign and forbidden coins in their pockets. They have compromised with an oppressive Roman regime and compromised their faith as devout Jews as well. The Holy Week campaign of Jesus was designed to uncover the oppression of the religious system and the oppression of the Roman system. In its place Jesus wanted to proclaim the Kingdom of God. In that kingdom the mercy and fatherhood of God was central and shaped all other relationships between people so that there was no political or religious oppression but only the spirit of the beatitudes.

Bethany was a quiet day on the Wednesday of Holy Week. With Martha and Mary Jesus could relax after stirring up Jerusalem. He had time to think and pray and talk with his disciples. It was here that an unknown woman breaks open an alabaster jar and anoints Jesus in the house of Simon the leper. Here is a woman of faith, in the house of an unclean leper recognising Jesus as the anointed one. The faith of the woman and her generosity (the perfume was worth a years wages) stand in contrast to the betrayal of Judas and his 30 pieces of silver. It is the poor and the ordinary people who recognise Jesus and the Kingdom he announces. Again, the campaign continues to emphasise the liberation of the poor from the oppression of manipulative religion and the brute force of dictatorships. Instead, Jesus presents God as a loving Father, an intimate friend who reveals all people to be the children of God.

Thursday begins with preparation for the Passover. Jesus sends his disciples into Jerusalem and tells them to follow a man carrying a water jar. Strange. Until you realise that men would not normally carry water in Jerusalem, it was a woman’s task. So, a man carrying water would stand out as odd. The only men carrying water would be part of the all-male Essene community that occupied a small area in southern Jerusalem. Following him would bring the disciples to a place already booked for a meal that night. A place that would leave them untroubled.

The meal would have been like a Passover meal, a ritualized meal with the formal breaking of bread and sharing of cups of wine. The meal commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and their escape through the Red Sea. Jesus refocuses this story around journey he is to undertake, which is also a journey of liberation, achieved by trusting that his covenant relationship with His Father is stronger even than death.

Gethsemane was a quiet grove on the East side of Jerusalem and on the road back to Bethany. It was probably a regular place for the disciples to stop, pray or talk. Jesus is aware that his provocations in Jerusalem will have led to consequences that would happen before Saturday arrived. He also seemed to be aware that Judas was in communication with the temple. After a good deal of wine, the disciples could not stay awake and did not catch on to Jesus’ extreme distress. From this point on Jesus is isolated and in most of the Gospel narrative he is silent and passive. From now on he is with His Father and ready to keep on trusting.

Trials. It appears that Jesus underwent three trials. The first was an investigation by the chief priest in the night. It failed to produce enough evidence and only Jesus’ affirmation that he was the Messiah gave them illegal grounds to condemn him to death in a short morning session. Then he was tried by Pilate because the Jews had lost the right to execute people a few years earlier. This was a slick operation. It was planned to have the religious court convened at night, the arrest made at night, Pilate contacted late on Thursday night to be ready early morning for a trial. Only the High Priest could have managed all that. They probably also recruited many of the temple traders to be in the crowd to make sure that they got an execution verdict from Pilate. Here we see the two oppressive powers of the week colluding in the destruction of Jesus life and message. Religious and secular domination and manipulation of the children of God crystalized into three trial scenes.

Golgotha. The place of crucifixion was a disused quarry on the northwest side of Jerusalem. At the time of Jesus’ death, it was being landscaped by Herod into gardens and walkways and integrated into that project were a number of new tombs. The uprights for the crosses were set into a raised mound in the middle of the quarry and would be easily visible from the road from Jerusalem to Shechem to the north. The Romans were keen to make their executions visible, brutal and humiliating as a deterrent to others. The mound in the quarry was there because the stone in the mound was unusable for building so the workers quarried around it. It was stone rejected by the builders that became the corner stone. (Psalm 118:22-23) In a similar way it was the ordinary, the poor, the unclean, the women, the lepers and the foreigners that were being rejected that would become the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God. It is not just Jesus that is being rejected but all the simple honest good intentioned people of the world that are subjected to suffering and challenged to trust in their dignity as children whom God loves.

When Jesus dies, at 3pm on Friday, that is the time when the High Priest kills the lamb for use in the Passover celebration on Saturday. Jesus becomes the lamb that protects and liberates the people from oppression just as the lamb was killed before the escape from Egypt and its blood protected the Israelites from death. In a similar way Jesus is seen as protecting and strengthening his people on their journey out of oppression and into the freedom of the children of God.

The resurrection came as a huge surprise. Marks Gospel tells us that Jesus followers ran

away at the thought of it and were scared out of their wits. Part of the reason may have been that they thought that Jesus was a ghost. Another reason may have been that, although they did believe in resurrection, they expected it to happen at the end of time. Another interesting fact is that all the Gospel identify the first witnesses of the resurrection as women. If you wanted to make a solid case based on evidence at that time in Jerusalem, you would never rely on the testimony of a woman which had no legal force at all. The fact that all the first witnesses were women tells us that there is no attempt here to fabricate a story but rather the shock of a true event stares at us through the narrative.

So why did Jesus die? It’s a simple question with a host of answers. He died probably of a combination of exhaustion, blood loss and asphyxiation. At a deeper level I believe that he died for love of his Father. He was being asked in this last week to deny that relationship with his Father by Pilate and the High Priest. He could not do it. He could not deny who he was as God’s own Son and he believed deeply that his relationship with his Father was stronger than any oppression that could be inflicted upon him. He was justified in his faith in God, rewarded in his hope in God’s promises, and embraced by God’s love at every step of his journey through Holy week. It was this faith, hope and love that gave him the resilience to persevere in his covenant relationship with the Father.

I do not believe that Jesus died to absorb the anger of God and divert it away from us. That notion of God does not appear in the Gospel. I do not believe that my own personal sins crucified Jesus I have enough guilt problems without adding that kind of melodrama to my burdens. Instead, I believe that Jesus died to prove that love is stronger than death, that oppression cannot bring life or meaning to our world. I believe that the cross and resurrection together, as one flowing act, define our whole life pattern and give it meaning. There is no growth without disruption, no spring without winter, no maturing without putting childishness aside and no wisdom without failure. The pattern of cross and resurrection is a liberation because it makes us children of a Father who wants us to have life and have it to the full.

Happy Easter!

Our Lady of Lugansk pray for all of Ukraine

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