This coming Sunday begins, of course, that Holy Week that leads us to Easter and the center of the Christian faith. In a sermon, the theologian James Alison once said of this week, “If Lent is like a long drawn out visit to the dentist, Holy Week is open heart surgery” (given on April 10, 2006, at All Saints Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA). That is, Holy Week is filled with intensity – and it should be, for it swirls around toward a momentous event: the murder of Jesus.
We don’t tend to use this language. We talk about passion, crucifixion, sacrifice – words that have become a part of our sacred vocabulary over the many centuries separating us from the events that Holy Week remembers. Sacred language is important, and it can bring us into relationship with God, with ourselves, with one another in important ways. But sacred language can also insulate us, put some distance between us and that which the sacred language seeks to describe. To speak of the death of Jesus in terms of passion, crucifixion, and sacrifice is certainly powerful. But in some important ways, it somewhat disguises what is really going on: a murder has been organized, arranged, and carried out. A man who did nothing to deserve death is made to die because the people around him are terrified and angry. When we look at this murder in the rearview mirror, we see it as holy and sacrificial. When we look at it head on, we see it as the murder that it was.
To speak of the murder of Jesus using the sacred vocabulary to which we have become accustomed, we often drift into strange theological territory. The sacrifice of Jesus becomes a singular event, unique and unrepeatable, somehow required by God in order to reconcile humanity with our creator. This, in turn, leads us to strange notions about God and about the relationship between God and human beings.
But to speak of the murder of Jesus as exactly that, a murder, forces us to ask questions not about the nature of God but about the nature of our own humanity. To see the murder of Jesus as what it was places responsibility for the crime squarely on the shoulders of those who carried it out.* And it also helps us to see that the murder of an innocent man at the hands of frenzied crowds and terrified authority figures is not, sadly, a singular event, but one which has been repeated in human history over and over again – and is repeated in our own day, at the hands of people living today. And while most of us are not murderers, contemplating the murder of Jesus and the behavior of the crowds should lead us to ask ourselves how much we are like those crowds, and the degree to which we become complicit, by action or inaction, by speaking or by our silence, in the violence of our own time.
There is a reason why Good Friday is not the central, most important day in the Christian tradition: it is because the murder of Jesus is an example of the many times human beings have put innocent people to death in the belief that they are serving some higher purpose. It is a powerful icon of the injustices that have claimed the lives of countless victims over human history and continue to do so today. It is not, in that sense, unique. The uniqueness of Good Friday lies not in the murder of Jesus, but in the truth that we proclaim about who Jesus was: Emmanuel, “God with us.” In Jesus, we believe that God entered into this messy human process of victimization, becoming a victim of injustice in Christ. And that leads us to the singular event that truly does lie at the center of our tradition: the first day after Holy Week: Easter, the Resurrection of Christ.
In the Resurrection, the victim Jesus returns not breathing vengeance and malice, but breathing forgiveness and life. In doing so, God declares in the Risen Christ that the divine power of love is able to transcend the machinations of human injustice. The victim becomes the victor, not in a militaristic sense, but because as victor, he is able to invite us into a new dynamic of human existence, a new life that transcends the dysfunctional human dynamic that led to the murder of Jesus and leads to every murder.
James Alison is quite right: Holy Week is like open heart surgery. When we see it for what it is, our hearts are opened in a new way, capable of welcoming the new life that Easter celebrates, enabling us to live in a profoundly new dynamic centered in forgiveness, compassion, and justice.
*I want to be clear that when I speak of the responsibility of the murder of Jesus being squarely placed on the shoulders of those who carried it out, I am NOT speaking of the Jewish people. There is a long and terrible history in Christianity of casting the Jewish people as the murderers of Jesus, and this should not and cannot be perpetuated. The truth is that the Romans carried out the murder of Jesus, and they did so as the climax to a complicated series of events in which many different kinds of people were involved.