The disruptive dramas of Holy Week

Generative AI summary:

The question of how Good Friday should be observed, whether with mournful solemnity or subdued celebration, arises amidst a joint church walk of witness. Such public displays evoke the drama of Jesus’ last week, filled with prophetic symbolism. From his triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the provocative acts in the temple, culminating in the Passover meal and the crucifixion spectacle, each event carries deep meaning. Jesus’ identification with the marginalized and his eventual crucifixion as a subversive act prefiguring the siege of Jerusalem challenge traditional interpretations. Therefore, parading with a cross demands a mood of sharp subversion, disruption, and disorder rather than mere solemnity or celebration.

Read time: 7 minutes

How should Good Friday be observed? With mournful solemnity because this is the death of Jesus? Or with subdued but joyful celebration because this is the death of Jesus for our sins?

The question came up in church yesterday in connection with a joint churches walk of witness around the neighbourhood on Good Friday. Such an event is a rare piece of public religious theatre, of pious pageantry, with a cross being hauled along to remind people on the streets that we used to be a Christian country. It puts the “mystery” back into mystery plays. What are these people doing?

But there is, indeed, a lot of drama in Jesus’ last week, and I mean the word rather literally. Drama drenched in public meaning. But what emotions, what thoughts, what visions does it all evoke? Something other than either grief or joy on account of the personal benefits, I think. This is a quick run through the scenes. Follow the links for more detailed analysis.

The entry into Jerusalem

The entry into Jerusalem is a carefully staged dramatisation of Zechariah’s prophecy about the triumph of YHWH over Israel’s enemies:

Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble (ʿani) and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9:8-10)

Jesus is making a startling prophetic claim. Israel’s king will enter the city as one of the ʿaniyim—not merely “humble” but as one of the disenfranchised “people of the land,” poor, needy, wretched, and powerless.

Zephaniah speaks of a day when YHWH will remove the “proudly exultant ones” from the midst of his rebellious people but will leave “a people needy (ʿani) and poor,” who will “take refuge in the name of the LORD, a remnant of Israel” (Zeph. 3:11-13*).

So this is how the kingdom of God will come about. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mk. 11:9-10).

YHWH will defeat his enemies, both inside and outside Israel, both the proudly exultant among the Jews and the hostile nations, leaving a nobody, a pariah, a most improbable messiah to be acclaimed as king.

The provocation in the temple

The next day, Jesus re-enacts, with measured, theatrical violence, Jeremiah’s fierce denunciation of the temple system (Mk. 11:15-18). Jeremiah was told to stand in the entrance to the temple and to demand, among other things, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer. 7:11). The temple will suffer the same fate as the sanctuary at Shiloh (Jer. 7:12-14). The days are coming when the bodies of the dead will be thrown into the valley of the son of Hinnom because there will be no space to bury them in the city (Jer. 7:32). This is what Gehenna—we sometimes call it “hell”—was all about.

The cursing of the fig tree

The cursing of the hapless fig tree is a quiet sign of the judgment that is to come on a people that has not produced the fruit of righteousness (Mk. 11:12-14, 20-23). Peter expresses surprise, but Jesus says to him, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him” (Mk. 11:23). He expects his followers to make similar dramatic pronouncements about the violent fate of “this mountain,” which is Zion, the place of YHWH’s dwelling in the midst of his people.

The ensuing parable of the mismanaged vineyard makes much the same point (Mk. 12:1-11). What will the owner of the vineyard do? “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Mk. 12:9)—to the ʿaniyim, to the poor and downtrodden, to the meek who were to inherit the land, to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness, ” and so on (Matt. 5:1-6; Lk. 6:20).

The Passover meal

The meal that Jesus shares with his disciples has also been meticulously stage-managed:

And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” (Mk. 14:13-15)

As they eat, Jesus revises its symbolic significance in three ways. He makes it a meal of betrayal by calling out Judas (Matt. 26:21-25). He makes it a commemoration of his death, which will be for the forgiveness of many in Israel (Matt. 26:26-28). And he makes it a foretaste of the celebration that will take place when he is reunited with his disciples, when the prophecies of judgment and rule are fulfilled (Matt. 26:29).

Churches continue to act out this drama, but in private, and probably with little sense of the dangerous connotations that it originally had for the disciples.

Take a sword with you

According to Luke, after the meal, Jesus tells his disciples to bring swords with them, even if it means selling a cloak to buy one. Very odd. The reason he gives is that the scripture must be fulfilled in me: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” The scripture in question is Isaiah 53:12:

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Is. 53:12)

We immediately see the point of the self-identification with a servant of YHWH who bears the sin of many in Israel, but why the swords? I think this may be another piece of hazardous play-acting. It gives Jesus and his disciples the appearance of being no better than the two “criminals” or lēistas—at least proto-insurrectionists—alongside whom him would be crucified.

It is no accident that Jesus was executed in the place of a man who had been condemned for insurrection and murder. As Paul would put it, the Son had been sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3).

The crucifixion spectacle

Finally, and gruesomely, crucifixion was a form of spectacle. Josephus tells us of a certain Jew who, during the war, was captured and, at the order of Titus, “crucified before the wall, to see whether the rest of them would be affrighted, and abate of their obstinacy” (Josephus, War 5:289). Thousands of Jews lost their lives by the “miserable procedure” of whipping, torture, and crucifixion. Titus pitied those who suffered in this way, but “he hoped the Jews might perhaps yield at that sight, out of fear lest they might themselves afterwards be liable to the same cruel treatment” (5:450).

Jesus did not stage-manage his death, of course, in the same way as he did the entry into the city or the Passover meal, but the symbolic import of the drama should not be missed. His death on a Roman cross pre-empts the savage destruction of life that would attend the siege of Jerusalem. I see no problem in calling this “penal substitutionary atonement.”

A subversive Holy Week

So if we are going to parade through the streets of Notting Hill with a cross, it seems to me that the proper mood should be one of sharp subversion and disruption, of disorder and the reversal of fortunes, of lawlessness, of misunderstanding, of fear, of vulnerability. Begone morbid introspection! Begone, for a while at least, glib evangelical celebration! There is something very troubling unfolding here.

Samuel Conner | Fri, 04/05/2024 - 20:19 | Permalink

Thank you, Andrew.

re: your penultimate paragraph,

‘Jesus did not stage-manage his death, of course, in the same way as he did the entry into the city or the Passover meal, but the symbolic import of the drama should not be missed. His death on a Roman cross pre-empts the savage destruction of life that would attend the siege of Jerusalem. I see no problem in calling this “penal substitutionary atonement.” ‘

I remain deeply intrigued by the detail in the Gospels that Jesus avoided/evaded capture and punishment on multiple occasions until that final Passover, when he surrendered without a fight and offered little or no defense at trial. NT Wright, in his Jesus and the Victory of God, comes close to suggesting that Jesus intended “the symbolic import of the drama.” IIRC, NTW likens it to the strange things that Ezekiel did to portray the trouble coming on Jerusalem. It was a final act of prophecy, lived rather than spoken, that would be remembered for a long time by the entire nation.

I am tempted to suspect that, at least with respect to “in the land” Jewish participants, this may have been one of the functions of eucharistic observances prior to the end of the war with Rome. Paul speaks of eucharistic observance as a proclamation of Jesus’ death. For Jewish believers living under Roman occupation, that proclamation would also serve as a reminder of what the Romans do to rebels, and a warning against participating in any future rebellion. 

Perhaps, for the sake of this warning, it really was, as Jesus is reported in Lk 24:26 to have affirmed, “necessary for the Messiah to suffer.”