Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Good Friday Years A,B,C

Good Friday A,B,C

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; or Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
(Revised Common Lectionary)

This excerpt from Isaiah parallels Psalm 22 to confront recurring questions: why suffering, especially the innocent? does it have some larger purpose for the community? what is God's role?  Walter Brueggemann sees this passage as one of only three in the Hebrew scriptures that seem to expect God's rescue even after death.

In its original use, this psalm was a familiar form to express personal lament to God for unfair (in the petitioner's view) suffering. It may have even had a specific liturgical function for an individual to come to the Temple and seek some explanation and justice for unfair treatment when the courts had failed or could not address the problem. Robert Alter sees in this psalm a very rare summons to praise even after death. (See George Herbert's poem "The Sacrifice" for a re-telling of this psalm.))

The Letter to the Hebrews is studded with excerpts from the Septuagint. The preacher uses them specifically to show how all that has been reported about the life and death of Jesus is a fulfillment of Hebrew scriptures in every detail. However, Jesus functions as High Priest on a universal, one-final-time capacity. And he acts both as our defense counsel and judge.

John tells the story of the suffering and death of Jesus as if he were fully in charge of everything that happens to him yet cooperative to achieve a larger purpose. He balances two directly contradictory roles for Jesus as willing victim of human folly and as royalty, even on the cross. The trope of Jesus as "king" serves several functions in John's narrative. In Gethsemane, when the  religious and political agents come to arrest Jesus, they fall down in awe when he says the  Name of the Holy One: "I AM."  Peter resorts to violence, cutting off the ear of a servant, whom Jesus restores.  In the government trial, the one who presumably had the upper hand and the authority over life and death, Pilate, completely dissembles, while Jesus tells him "you have no real power over me."  By rejecting Jesus, "the Jews" betray their own messianic loyalty when they pledge their allegiance to Caesar, John wants to emphasize.  The sign, "King of the Jews" placed over the head of Jesus is translated into the three major languages of the day, Hebrew, Latin and Greek.  At his burial, Jesus is accorded the burial of a king, with copious amounts of myrrh and bands of cloth.  John also uses the trope of Jesus as the Passover Lamb.  The allusions to psalm 22, which are oblique in the synoptics, are explicit in John. When wine is offered to Jesus on the cross in the synoptics, it is placed on a reed, but in John it is on hyssop, which was used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed lamb on the night of passover in Egypt.  In John's chronology, Jesus is sentenced to death at precisely the same hour as the priests begin slaughtering the lambs on the eve of the Feast of Passover. This narrative states that not a bone of Jesus was broken, fulfilling the requirements for the Passover Lamb (Genesis 12:10).  

John's narrative, if anything, highlights the tragic failures of everyone around Jesus even more than the synoptics, (with the notable exception of his mother Mary and "the beloved disciple").  However, by depicting Jesus as "king" and "paschal lamb," John's narrative emphasizes Jesus as the one supremely able and willing to declare and fulfill the central theme of John's entire narrative: God is love.    
"...The written word is far more powerful than simply a reminder: it re-creates the past in the present, and gives us, not the familiar, remembered thing, but the glittering intensity of the summoned-up hallucination." (Northrup Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, p.227)   

Donna Haraway considers the significance of the "suffering servant" passages from Isaiah and John's staging of the trial of Jesus.  She sees in the carefully crafted juxtapositions and tangled meanings of such keys words as "king"  that at play just beneath the surface of 'normality' everything is reversed.  The one who presumably has the authority, Plate, has none really.  The one on trial is the one whose questioning calls into judgment the whole religious and political establishment.  The one who is mocked as a "King" is, by his executioners, in fact, given a placard making that very declaration in the three most important languages of the day and place.  She writes: "This figure of the Incarnation can never be other than a trickster, a check on the arrogances of a reason that would uncover all disguises and force correct vision of a recalcitrant nature in her most secret places."  She continues: "The suffering servant is a check on man...."  (The Postmodern Bible Reader, p. 209)  The presence, words, demeanor, actions and, as importantly, inaction, of Jesus before Pilate at least call into question and even go so far as to expose human assumptions about such things as power, hierarchy, authority, and justice.

For Jean-Luc Marion, this expose of human pretensions continues in what happens on the cross.  Marion writes:  God "exposes himself before us in such innocence and such abandon that each one of us must decide our own relationship to him-- we each must decide ourselves. Standing before Christ on the Cross, I cannot pass without taking notice, because even passing without taking notice constitutes a decision; I must therefore decide for myself because I am confronted with with the fact of Christ on the Cross. I decide for myself absolutely, though I emit no absolute judgment (I am lacking the criterion, the power and the right) about myself, because I enter, standing before Christ, into a free crisis, under the breath of the Spirit...." "...each announcement of the crucifixion of Christ therefore provokes, in each moment of space and place of time, the opportunity for each person to decide for himself: to reach, to know, and to settle his crisis." "The long and arduous combat that we conduct with and among ourselves will have an end: we decide and will decide among ourselves on the occasion and as a result of Christ on the Cross." (Prolegomena to Charity, p.120-121)

Medieval scholar, writer of detective stories, translator of Dante, among the first women to graduate from Oxford and theologian, Dorothy Sayers insisted in her still bracing essay Creed or Chaos? (Manchester NH: Sophia Press, 1949):  "Let us, in Heaven's name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction."  The church makes a "terrifying assertion:"  "that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death."  (pp 24-25)