I’m writing tonight on Holy Saturday during the Christian commemoration of Passion week, the last days of the life of Jesus. Although I no longer personally follow closely the liturgical observance of Easter, I find the Passion story a powerfully inspirational narrative, and I would like to share my version of it this evening. I want to quickly explain, however, that I recognize and respect a wide and complex range within the wider Christian tradition about just how central and significant the story is in terms of defining the heart of one’s faith and practice. In orthodox Christianity Jesus sacrificial death is very personal and the account of his rising from the dead is understood as the assurance of life beyond the trials of our time on earth and, most importantly, as a expression of God’s mercy and compassion, and I understand and honor how deeply meaningful this interpretation is for many Christians.
Over the years, however, my personal understanding of Passion week has led me in a somewhat different orientation to the life and death of Jesus. I am inclined to believe that the final days Jesus’ life emphasize his compassion for humanity and his faithful and courageous commitment to create a vision of humanity that included the profound sacredness of each human life, no matter how marginalized, undeserving, criminal, or offensive that person may be (in biblical terms, read tax collector, enemy soldier, prostitute, and any otherwise unwelcome and offensive soul we can imagine, even including an enemy). His radical faith envisioned the possibility that the compassion he lived and taught would create a world of inclusiveness and reverence inspired by the God-given life force we call love.
In the short term, of course, his mission failed, and his immediate social/political teaching and organizing got him killed. His ministry upset the centers of privilege within his own Jewish community, he threatened the peace of the public status quo, and he made the Roman occupational government nervous about a possible insurrection. But through what I consider practically a miracle, the life and teaching of this radical young rabbi was responsibly recorded, and his legacy has established an ethical reference point in human history that has inspired a model for a beloved community that continues to call out to not just the prophetic voices of our time, but to all of us who seek a world of peace and justice. And I am profoundly grateful for that gift to me personally and to the ongoing challenges of human history.
But on this Holy Saturday, the dreary day traditionally commemorated as the sad time between Jesus’ execution and his coming back to life, we are reminded of the heavy price for proclaiming the redemptive power of love over our fears and greed that lead us to do so much harm to each other and to the earth.
For what inspiration and reflection it may offer (perhaps in addition to being possible offensive), I will close with my very brief summary of my historical interpretation of the meaning of the events in Jesus' last week. I envision Jesus as a gifted and charismatic (some consider holy) leader whose ministry of God’s love for all was being well accepted by multitudes of followers. But his success was making the established leaders within Judaism and the overseers of the Roman Empire more and more wary and suspicious about how far they would allow his movement to go. He chooses not to back it off but to face his detractors, not in a mood of antagonistic confrontation but in a model of nonviolence, to declare courageously his conviction that God intended a compassionate world that transcended the barriers of religion, caste, position and favor. His last days included a moment when he dramatically realized how difficult it was to persuade the people away from their complacency and spiritual lethargy as he is said to have “wept” over Jerusalem in some level of discouragement. And then his life included a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey while on the other side of town the Roman authorities had organized a contrasting military parade to demonstrate their political control. Jesus senses his fate, surrounds himself with his disciples, and is ultimately captured and brought to trial. During his trial he is ridiculed and tortured, but he refuses to assertively to defend himself but instead nonviolently lets his life and faith speak for itself. The defense fails and he is executed as a criminal of the state.
The orthodox narrative from here has Jesus not only resurrected from the dead but appearing to his followers with encouragement and assurance. And he is then lifted bodily into the heavens.
But the story doesn’t end there, of course. His vision for a compassionate, nonviolent, inclusive world somehow then came to inspire and motivate a heroic movement of people who believed Jesus’ message was so compelling that they continued to preach and practice his ministry also often at great personal risk. And then throughout history the Jesus story and his teaching of compassion and nonviolence rises up in equally courageous movements that call for equity, peace and justice only to be challenged again and again. But the compelling quest for seeking the Beloved Community, does persist, and, as Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The final act of the Jesus narrative, then, will be the continuing struggle for the ultimate acceptance of humanity to observe an established practice of Jesus’ call to compassion. We are invited right now, as part of the Easter promise of a resurrection beyond death and despair, to dedicate our lives with courage and hope to live into the life affirming faithful practice of kindness and compassion in our daily and ongoing lives.