Reflections on Quasimodo (Low) Sunday

Quasimodo derives from the Latin introit "Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite",  by which words  the Church closed the octave of Easter with special reference to the newly baptized neophytes, as well as an allusion to the general transformation through the Resurrection.

Vibrant and healthy Christian communities have two key characteristics. Healthy Christian communities have a tolerance for doubt – and also prioritize human pastoral needs over doctrinal beliefs. These, like our own Anglican-Episcopal communities are communities where belonging comes before believing. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.

John the Evangelist gives us the earliest account of Christian community in his description of events taking place over two consecutive Sunday evenings following the death of the man Jesus and his resurrection as the Messiah – the Christ. He begins:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Temple police, Jesus came and stood among them - he showed them his hand and side and said 'Peace be with you'. Then he puffed into them saying 'Receive the Holy Spirit".

It’s not doors with metal locks – but hearts barricaded by fear that Jesus penetrates. In showing them his wounds, Jesus demonstrates to them – look it’s me, Jesus, and I’m real – I’m not an apparition. Despite the obvious – that his post resurrection body seems not to be constrained by the normal material limitations – his wounded and scarred human flesh remains the primary identifier of his resurrection body. His wounds show the continuity between before and after – joining his crucified human body with his resurrected body. The post resurrection Jesus embodies a continuity between the divine and the human. From now on being human is to be most like God!

Jesus then breathes on them. John uses the Greek pneuma for which a better translation in this context is puff or inflate. Jesus puffs the Spirit into them. From pneuma we derive the English adjective pneumatic to describe the action of puffing up or inflating with breath. In Genesis, God puffed breath-wind-spirit into Adam’s nostrils. Jesus puffs the Holy Spirit – the breath-wind-spirit of God into his deflated disciples – inflating them into a pneumatic and dynamic community.

John goes on to depict Jesus’ return visit to the disciples one week later – a visit seemingly to encounter Thomas who had earlier announced his doubt – a need for physical proof before he could believe – earning him the epithet doubting Thomas. The epithet tells us something about the Tradition’s ambivalence towards doubt. But Thomas wasn’t the only one to doubt human hearsay. Remember the male disciples had only earlier in the day refused to take Mary and the women’s word that they had seen the risen Lord.

I think that curiosity is a prime requirement in the spiritual life. There can be no curiosity where there is no doubt. It seems that for Jesus, doubt is not the barrier. The barrier is anxious fear. We might conclude from John 20 that faith’s opposite is not doubt but fear – for the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt.

John 20 relates how Jesus’ breathed into the disciples inflating them with his spirit and propelling them onto the pages of the New Testament as a dynamic community. In John, the inbreathing of the Spirit and the resurrection appear to be coterminous. It is Luke who translates this experience into an ordered chronology of sequential events: death-resurrection-ascension-spirit inflation.

The canonical arrangement of the N.T. books place the gospel of John between the gospel of Luke and Luke Acts. It makes some sense to keep all the gospels together. But it breaks the continuity of the Lukan narrative –for Luke’s is a story in two parts. The first part concerns the life and times of Jesus. The second concerns the life and times of the early community that emerges to continue Jesus’ the mission and purpose in the world.

In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, we have his vivid firsthand portrait of the community of the first followers of Jesus. We are surprised to find that within a short space of time the community emerging from the ragbag band of followers displays the signs of an incredible pneumatic vitality. We are further surprised to note their shared heartbeat -a bold generosity and willingness to risk departing from conventional ways of living – a community where belonging is as important as believing. Matt Skinner notes:

Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs. 

There is no reason to seriously doubt Luke’s overall depiction of a transformation in the followers of Jesus into a community imbued with Jesus’ sense of mission and purpose. They are not just motivated by the memory of the man they loved and have now lost. They are now empowered –pneumatically inflated with the breath of his spirit. The memory of love and loss becomes an-every-moment experience of radical transformation. For the first Christians – as Paul’s letters to his fledgling communities corroborate – because the power of the risen Christ has turned every normal expectation on its head, they’ve become charged with an energy to live in a radically new way. Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs.

Matt Skinner further notes that something greater than charity and mission was operating in the community Luke depicts; believers are living out a commitment to belong to one another by addressing the impediments that get in the way of doing so. The key to their solidarity has something – though not everything – to do with their use of money and the reordering of resources.

We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: [that is] distance and boundaries between people.

Willie James Jennings, the current professor of theology and Africana Studies at Yale

It’s worth noting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s comment again- that being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.

At the heart of the early Christian transformation in shared consciousness lay the radical practice of putting being human at the heart of being Christian. In the Classical World this was a radically new approach to living – one that enabled small communities of relatively poor people to become magnets of attraction. Placing being human at the heart of being Christian triggered a second radical shift in the way these early communities organized themselves to achieve what they saw as their purpose in the world. Resources, i.e., money and access to commodities – were no longer the marks of division between the haves and have nots. They became instead, tools for the fostering of solidarity –of a shared investment in community. The early Christian communities emerge as centers where flourishing flows from mutual interdependence – where individual flourishing depended on everyone flourishing.

From each according to gifts – to each according to needs.

The early Christian picture Luke paints for us – amply corroborated by Paul’s letters to his missionary communities may not be exactly a translatable blueprint for us in 2022. But in the challenges facing us today we see how putting being human at the heart of being Christian – together with a more equitable distribution of resources becomes once more a radical manifesto for living.

In 2022, we face three mammoth challenges: pandemic recovery, ecological collapse, and the resurgence of sacred violence. Does the Easter story still empower our transformation? Are we capable of a transformation in consciousness like that experienced by the first Christian communities? Over the next weeks of the Easter Season – some 50-days in all – though seven have now passed – even if definitive answers continue to elude us – we will explore the implications that flow from asking such questions.

The Friday we call Good

Image: Isenheim Altarpiece- Niclaus Hagenau completed by Matthias Grunewald, 1515 commissioned for the infirmary of a local monastery, where patients could be comforted by message that they were not alone in their suffering

Today is the Friday we call good. Good does not mean good as we use the word but great as in significant. This day is a day of such significance for Christians that it warrants the name great. Alternatively, there is some evidence that good is a corruption of God as in God Friday. After all we say to one another good day, which can mean have a great day- as Americans now say or a more ancient form of greeting God be with you.

The liturgies of Holy Week and esp. the service simply known as the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday provide a vehicle – transporting us into the heart of the drama of Jesus last week in Jerusalem. On Good Friday our music is sparse and hauntingly somber as befitting a communal expression of grief and sorrow. Ritual familiarity insulates us in a kind of vicarious dramatic experience. We perform certain rituals and take certain actions dictated by the liturgical protocols of the day as observing participants – watching the action so to speak from the other side of the metaphorical viewing screen – though with livestreaming the screen is often nowadays a literal one. Often the role taken by preachers on Good Friday is to help evoke for the congregation a sense of mood. To encourage those assembled to get into the feelings – to be moved by the pathos of the drama unfolding before us.

Did Jesus feel compelled to journey to his death on the cross? Crucifixion was a form of punishment reserved for political agitators who threatened the fragile stability of the imperial order. Therefore, death by crucifixion was a punishment for a particular kind of treason – thus turning Jesus’ death into a political act.

Did Jesus know how his last week in Jerusalem would end? The gospel narratives depict a degree of intention in Jesus’ decision to journey to Jerusalem. He seems to realize the likelihood of his death there. That he thought he would die by crucifixion is less clear. Nevertheless, his intention was firm because he believed himself to be acting within the drama of God’s dream for the world.

In 2022, Good Friday stands-out in stark contrast against the violence that Vladimir Putin has unleashed upon Ukraine. For me, the connection between the Ukrainian tragedy unfolding before us and Jesus’ death on the cross is so strong that I am impelled to go beyond the traditional pathos of Good Friday.

Tonight, I’m compelled to try to communicate the stark realities of courage in the face of a particular kind of imperial violence. Through the lens of Ukrainian courage we see the stark contours of God’s purpose through the death of Jesus on the cross. Imperial violence is always a form of sacred violence – that is the defense of political, cultural or religious values through violence. By the manner of Jesus’ death on the cross – with all its political significance – God demonstrates the nature of courage in the cosmic confrontation with human sacred violence.

There are two kinds of courage. The first is spontaneous courage – we simply react without time to think in the face of a threat either to ourselves or to others. The second kind of courage is deliberative – we have time to review the situation before deciding to act or not act – we have a choice. Jesus’ journey to the cross is the second kind of courage – deliberative courage. He always had a choice not to do so. Once in Jerusalem he had a choice to shape events towards a different outcome. He made the choices he did because through his deep rapport with God – he understood if not the manner – certainly the purpose of his death.

So, what was that purpose? In the example of Jesus, God demonstrates for all of humanity the ultimate victory in the cosmic confrontation with sacred violence. In the example of Jesus, God breaks sacred violence’s spiritual and psychological stranglehold over us.

Sacred violence is as old as humanity. It’s so instinctively programmed in us that we cannot imagine any alternative to its cycles of endless repetition. Violence becomes sacred when we come to believe that through it we are protecting God or some other supposed higher principle like national honor. Our propensity to remake God in our own image knows no bounds. Voltaire quipped that in the beginning God created man in God’s own image and ever since humanity has been returning the favor. Caught in sacred violence’s repetitive grip we are blind to the ironic paradox that it’s our sacred violence that killed Jesus – and continues to strike at the heart of God.

Our propensity to remake God in our own image means it is counter intuitive for us to believe in a God whose victory is through dying – even when the ultimate promise is resurrection.  To break the instinctive grip of sacred violence upon the human heart – Jesus knew that he – as God’s agent – must first demonstrate the victory that comes only through sacrificial death. 

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. The Jerusalem Temple lay at the heart of an anxious and fragile Roman peace. It’s only by going to the heart of empire – that the roots of sacred violence as the ruthless projection of unrestrained power- that God, in Jesus, finally and for all time – breaks its power over us.

The nation of Ukraine – personified to an extraordinary degree in their President, Volodymyr Zelenski , is showing the world the nature of deliberative courage. We are transfixed in the headlights of the Ukraine crisis because for us – on Good Friday in 2022 – their refusal to be turned aside from their moral sense of destiny is showing us what sacrificial walking on the way of the cross looks like.

We all hope and pray that the courage of the Ukrainian people to confront the sacred violence being visited upon them will result in their victory – not despite of but because of the enormous material and human costs.  But there is a more important truth. Ukrainian courage and resolve – is a courage that courts a terrible vulnerability – a vulnerability through which they have already won a significant moral victory for humanity whatever the military outcome.

On the cross, God broke the power of sacred violence’s grip on the human heart. Jesus’ death on a cross demonstrates that the repeating cycles of sacred violence are no longer inevitable. The victory of God over death means the choice or refusal of sacred violence is now a matter of deliberative courage. Something to bear in mind as we stand in the shadow of the cross.

Holy Week Snapshots

In my address for Palm Sunday, I offered two metaphors – clashing storylines and snapshots – for thinking about the events of Holy Week and Easter.

Two themes have been running around in my head this Holy Week: the distinction between the holy and the sacred, and does Jesus know as tensions rise how his last week will end? 

The world is a holy place, and God’s holiness pervades every part of it. Human experience of God’s holiness is an enticing and infuriating experience of the numinous.  What is enticing about the numinous is that it can only be intuited or sensed. What’s infuriating about the numinous is that it can only be intuited or sensed – diffusing everything and yet remaining beyond out of our reach to grasp, capture, and control.

Our human response to the tease of the numinous is to create boundaries and name the space within them as sacred. Once created, boundaries need protecting and the sacred space within, policed. The very act of policing requires mechanisms of control and domination. In sacred spaces and places – there are two kinds of persons to be found:  those who police and those who are policed; those who control and those who are controlled.

Thus, the Jerusalem Temple was a sacred place, within which grace and violence formed the two sides of the same coin. In driving the sellers of cheap grace from the Temple, Jesus is clarifying the distinction between two distinct storylines – one sacred and one holy. Jesus must clarify the distinction between them because from the human perspective they are easily and often confused.

Throughout Holy Week, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the storyline of the holy -and in doing so – he presents himself as a danger to those who police and protect the sacred against contamination by the holy.

In the Holy Week snapshot we glimpse three clashing Messiah storylines.

  1. The disciples and those who gathered around Jesus to listen to him. They are still in the Palm Sunday storyline of hope in which Jesus is the Messiah – the long-promised figure of Jewish national liberation.  

2. The Temple authorities inhabit a variation of this storyline – but in this variation hope for the Messiah is replaced by fear of the Messiah. They fear Jesus. If he is the Messiah, then all is about to be lost.T

They fear the loss of their power to police the boundaries of the sacred space. They fear the loss of their political power as the quisling Jewish administration tasked with keeping the people compliant under the Roman occupation.They fear the loss of their economic privilege as a 1st century IRS and Wall Street rolled into one – the Temple, at the center of the complex web of taxation, insider trading, and profiteering.

3. Then there is the storyline of the Messiah as God’s agent.

The question about what did Jesus know or not know i.e., his omniscience, is sparked by a comment of Viktor Frankl’s: if you find a why, you can bear any how.

Does Jesus know how his last week amidst escalating tensions will end?  Of course, the gospel narratives portray him to varying degrees as omniscient – knowing ahead of time what was to happen and moving through events rather like the star actor in a well scripted play – the outcome of which is known by all in advance.

There is a theological rather than a literal purpose for the Evangelists in presenting Jesus this way. Yet, I feel this robs Jesus of his human limitation – for after all, isn’t the point that he is like us? The question is not – did Jesus at this point know the manner by which he would die? But how did Jesus understand his role in the storyline of the holy –i.e., God’s vision for the Messiah?

Jesus knows and has always known that his path is as principal agent in God’s unfolding storyline of a promise made to the whole of creation. This is the storyline that has been guiding and leading him to this week.

In other words, it’s not necessary for Jesus at this point to know the how of the future, only to know the importance of the why the future must flow from his deliberative courage – courage born of choices he has the power to make or not make. Viktor Frankl again: if you find a why, you can bear any how.

Jesus is in the Temple because it’s here and only here – where the final confrontation between the holiness of God and the violence of the sacred must begin!

Please remember in your prayers over the coming days:

The cause of peace – remembering the people of Ukraine. We pray for them as they undergo this terrible national and personal suffering. We remember and give thanks for the example of their courage and resolve in facing down Russian sacred violence. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem – still a symbol of conflict and division.

The plight of all forced to flee from their homes to become strangers in a strange land.

The oppressed peoples of the world. For Russians dreaming of freedom from tyranny – esp. remembering Alexei Navalny; for China’s persecuted minorities; for the peoples of Myanmar, Yemen and Palestine.

For those among us suffering from loneliness and isolation; for the distressed in body, mind, and spirit; for those nearing death, and others facing different kinds of loss.

I look forward to seeing you, preferably in person or otherwise online for the Great Three Days of Easter.


Perils of Choosing The Wrong Story

History does not [exactly] repeat itself but it [certainly] rhymes. 
To paraphrase Mark Twain.

As human beings we construct stories to explain the world we experience to ourselves and to one another. This is the way we build meaning and purpose into our lives.

But there are always competing stories to tell – there are always -to use a current slogan -facts and then there are alternative facts.

To add complexity there is also more than one way to tell the same story – again there’s news and then there’s fake news. We construct meaning and purpose into our lives as we make choices between competing clashing and conflicting storylines – each vying for our attention and allegiance.

So, the question is: which stories will we choose? From among a bewildering choice of possibilities which stories matter most to us?

Palm Sunday offers a snapshot of a clash of storylines. Palm Sunday is the beginning of a series of snapshots from Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. On Good Friday we will arrive to stand before the image of a dying man on a cross.

Each Holy Week snapshot is like a prism refracting our associations into countless mirror images of our lives.  The snapshots of Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem before his death at a particular turning point of history are also timeless mirrors of the clash of history’s repetitive cycles of sacred violence – a storyline as old as human memory.

From Palm Sunday to Good Friday, we experience the repetitive cycles of human inhumanity.

Sacred violence is the violence inflicted to protect a storyline of empire. I’m defining empire as any unrestrained exercise of power in defense of a set of deeply held cultural, political, or religious beliefs. Usually, the motivation to sacred violence drinks from an intoxicating cocktail of all three.

From Rome to Rule Britannia and Europe’s legacy of colonial violence; from the revival of Putin’s dream of the Russian imperium or the legacy of American manifest destiny; history does not [exactly] repeat itself but it [certainly] rhymes.

Emotionally and spiritually bloodied by our passage before the snapshots of Holy Week’s violence we will eventually arrive at a different story – a new story – a bigger and better story – the unlikely story of Easter. Yet, we’ve some way to travel before arriving here.

In the snapshot of Palm Sunday we witness a clash and confusion of storylines.

The first is a Jewish storyline of national liberation. The waving of palms is a significant echo from the crowd’s Jewish collective memory – a particular echo to an episode in their ancient national story.

For some 160 years before, the triumphant Judas Maccabeus, the last leader of a successful Jewish rebellion against foreign domination, led his victorious partisans into the Temple – which the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes had defiled by placing his statue in the Holy of Holies.

Using palm branches, the Maccabean partisans cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary after its defilement. On entering the sanctuary, they discovered miraculously the last light of the Menorah still burning – an event Jews, today, commemorate in the festival of Hanukkah.

This more recent Jewish story of national liberation found a powerful amplification in the more ancient story, Israel’s founding story of liberation – the Passover.

Inhabiting the story line of national liberation, the crowds ecstatically welcome Jesus into the city. But they are in the wrong story – as they will quickly discover – resulting in their disillusionment and anger. Jesus may be the Messiah – but his storyline is God’s not theirs.

At the same time as Jesus was entering from the East, another storyline was unfolding as a second triumphal entry procession wound its way into the city from the West. The Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the head of his Roman Legion had also come up to Jerusalem for the Passover.

Pilate much preferred the sea breezes and all mod-cons of Herod the Great’s former coastal capital of Caesarea Maritima – now the administrative center of the Roman occupation of Judea.

Pilate loathed and feared Jerusalem’s ancient rabbit warrens seething with civil and religious discontent. He most feared the pilgrim throng crowding into the city for the Passover swelling the city’s normal population of between 20-30,000 to over 150,000. The stability of Roman imperial rule required Pilate to come up to the city with a show of preemptive force to forestall any potential for insurrection.

Passover was Israel’s founding story of liberation from slavery. Pilate’s arrival was indeed a wise move, for the crowds hailing Jesus’ arrival saw him as the Messiah, but a Messiah from the wrong story. 

In the week leading to the celebration of Passover we see with hindsight the lethal intersection of competing storylines.

There’s the storyline of imperial domination and political violence intersecting with the storyline of populist resistance and longing for national liberation. Both are confronted by a third storyline concerning the next installment in the epic narrative of God’s love and vision for the world-through-Israel. This clash of storylines results in a chain of events that takes an unexpected turn – rapidly spiraling out of anyone’s control.

On Good Friday, we will revisit the twin themes of deliberative courage and the confrontation with sacred violence – the violence of empire. But on Palm Sunday, that is still several snapshots along.

History does not [exactly] repeat itself but it [certainly] rhymes.

Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on his journey to the cross. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion – surface in identification with Jesus’. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal.

As liturgical Christians we journey with Jesus as a community – each liturgical step along the way. Each snapshot is a prism refracting our own individual suffering and our identification with the overwhelming suffering of the wider world .

Liturgy is the transport – conveying us together through sacred time. In sacred time – where there is no past and no future only the eternal now – we move beyond memory, becoming in present time – participants in the events that engulf Jesus and echo across time into our current experience. We are well acquainted with of the world of sacred violence currently unleashed in Ukraine and countless other places.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

Choosing the right story to explain the world to ourselves is crucial. Choosing the wrong story leads to disillusionment and an impoverishment of hope.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior until that is, – he or she no longer is.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior until that is, – he or she no longer is.

We long to do the courageous thing – until that is, the moment when we don’t.

In sacred time we become participants with Jesus – as if we too are part of his band of disciples during this eventful last week.

With the disciples, we will share in the breaking of Jesus’ Passover bread and drink from his Passover cup.

With the disciples, we will accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where we too, will fight sleep to keep watch with him through the night and early hours of Friday’s morning.

With the disciples we will follow Jesus on the way of his suffering, for like them – we will long do the courageous thing – until the moment when we we won’t.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

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