One of my favorite stories in the gospels is one in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples give him all the gossip, what other people are saying about him. Then Jesus asks the more important question: “But who do YOU say that I am?” Peter, always seeking to be the “A” student, blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” Jesus affirms that Peter is right. But Peter has no idea what this means — and, in many ways, the Christian journey for each of us is to wrestle with this question, “Who do I say Jesus is? What does ‘messiah’ even mean?”
As we enter the Great Triduum — the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter — this question raises itself again for me. And, this year, I am struck by a particular answer: Jesus is the One who comes to subvert the status quo, to tell us that what we take to be “normal” is actually a twisting and distortion of God’s dream for humanity.
Jesus does this in a couple of ways.
First, he indicts the culture of his time and the ways in which it victimized and marginalized people whom it defined as “the Other”. Jesus declares the accepted ways of treating the poor, the diseased, women, and foreigners null and void. He says that the religious and cultural traditions that say these accepted ways are okay are human traditions, developed to accommodate the discomfort of the privileged and the powerful. They are not, he says, of God.
Second, he subverts the expectations of people like Peter who are ready to call him Messiah. Those expectations revolved around a kind of religious and cultural nationalism that focused on the desire to end Roman oppression of the Jewish people. The messiah was supposed to be a general, a king, someone who would reassert and reestablish the Davidic kingdom. But this was not what Jesus was about. He was not interested in a political revolution that would reestablish a national identity, but rather in a revolution of the human heart and spirit that would root people firmly in God’s vision for humanity, one in which there is no room for nationalistic and tribal concerns.
Jesus’ double-subversion of the status quo and traditional expectations is what led him to the cross. The privileged and powerful voices of empire and tradition could not embrace the vision of which Jesus was the bearer and sign. They lacked both divine imagination and courage. And so they resorted to the remedy that the powerful and the privileged always resort to when nothing else is working: they set out to violently suppress what Jesus represented by killing him. And, in the process, they convinced the people who were at the center of Jesus’ vision to cooperate in his destruction. The crowds that cheered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem would call for his crucifixion just days later. Authority convinced them to act against their own best interest, and to participate in trying to kill the dream of God.
But God in Christ continued to subvert the status quo, and the expectations of tradition. In the Resurrection, God declares that the divine dream for humanity cannot be killed off or suppressed. It will always find a way to confront the privileged and powerful, and to continue to call the human heart and soul into the transformed life of the kingdom of God. The revolution of the human spirit goes on, even in those moments when it seems least possible — especially in those moments.
As we enter these Great Three Days, let us consider what is our participation in the status quo. How is God confronting us? How is God seeking to call us lovingly into a new life? Will we find the imagination and courage to say “Yes”?