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Risk, Vulnerability, and Intimacy: A World-Changing Holy Week

Take, eat, this is my body.” Have you ever said that to someone? If you have, you probably did so privately, away from public view, and in a moment of romantic tenderness. It may have felt a bit risky and you made yourself quite vulnerable in saying it. That profound invitation is highly charged with intimacy – both in its offering and its potential rejection.intimacy_th4ree

Many Christian ministers actually issue that invitation weekly, sometimes daily, and rather publicly. Does that ritualized invitation sound risky? Does the rite vibrate with an intimate vulnerability? Do you or does anyone else gathered at the Eucharistic table blush when hearing those words? Take, eat, this is my body…

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Christianity’s annual pilgrimage through Holy Week. The events commemorated during this holiest of Christian weeks unfolded in a land occupied by an imperial army, exhibited all the narrative arcs of a classical tragedy, and culminated with a promise that still makes even the most devout among us at least a tad incredulous: love is stronger than death.

One of the focal points in this week spotlights a shared meal among close friends. This moment, I have come to believe, sheds indispensable light on the whole week and, therefore, on the very character of God revealed in Jesus – and in all those who seek to follow the same path into the mystery of God’s own life.

intimacy_handsMake no mistake: The path charted by this holy week beckons with a truly peculiar energy, more peculiar than its familiar liturgical cadences usually evoke. Peculiar not least for the kind of God this week proclaims: the God who risks vulnerability for the sake of intimacy.

Institutional Christianity has too often urged doing the right thing and living the right way so that we might persuade God to let us into Heaven. That urge reverses entirely the essence of the Gospel. The Eucharistic Table performs instead a remarkable claim: God makes God’s own self vulnerable to the ecstasies and foibles of bodily human intimacy.

“Take, eat,” Jesus says; “this is my body given for you” (Matthew 26:26). He says this with no guarantee whatsoever that this offering will be received well if at all. Notably, God initiates this moment of self-giving born from God’s own desire for intimacy.

Sexually intimate couples know, or at least intuit, what this holy week means. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it well when he noted that desire always carries risk because desire makes us vulnerable. Sex is an offering of the self, even in casual encounters, and very little can protect us from the potential of looking silly or feeling unwanted. “Nothing will stop sex from being tragic and comic,” Williams writes. “It is above all the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our bodily entirety, where we can venture into ‘exposed spontaneity’ . . . and find ourselves looking foolish or repellent.”

And that is divine risk, the very risk God takes with us and whole of God’s creation.

The gospel according to John foregrounds that astonishing risk by recounting hardly anything at all about a final meal but instead by describing the provocative moment when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:3–11). That bodily moment of intimate tenderness is followed by another. The disciple “whom Jesus loved” reclined on Jesus’ breast during the meal, presumably sharing the kind of whispered small-talk that intimates often do.intimacy_baby_foot

These two gospel moments portray what many couples, households, and friends experience in cherished moments of communal intimacy around a shared table. Yet a third moment in this story disrupts these expressions of intimacy with a yearning for redemption. In the wake of tender foot washing and in the midst of intimate bodily contact, John inserts a moment of disrupted affection. Jesus declares just then that one of his companions will betray him.

Tenderness disrupted by betrayal – this distills in microcosm the human predicament. The fullness of that for which we yearn seems so impossibly and constantly out of reach. Intimacy is thwarted at nearly every turn, whether because of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or class, or neighborhood, or national borders. Surely somewhere, somehow we will find the intimacy of communion all of us seek beyond the imperial mechanisms of violence that seem always to disrupt the glorious intimacies of bodily life.

Whether in a shared meal or in tender foot washing, Eucharist displays an unimaginable hope in the most loving act imaginable—an unprotected offering of the self, both body and blood. The vulnerability of this offering bathes the Eucharistic Table with tender intimacy. It does something else as well: it indicts institutional Christianity for its own history of religious violence. From crusades and inquisitions to paternalistic and misogynistic repressions, the Church has betrayed the Table that ought to inspire an audacious hope.

eucharist_hands_bread_wineSexually intimate couples can remind all of us about where the holiness of this week’s hope resides: in the intimate offering of the self to another for the sake of life.

I’ve been quoting here from my two recent books, Divine Communion and Peculiar Faith. Those books emerged in large measure from the deep impact that more than thirty years of holy weeks has had on my spiritual/bodily self in the world. After all these years, I think I might finally be starting to grasp the deceptively simple and absurdly profound message of Christian faith: God yearns to be in intimate communion with God’s own creation. I am convinced that this insight can change the world.

The biblical writer known as Luke thought so too. In his account of the earliest Christian communities, he described the effects of these hopeful insights by quoting the violent detractors of their mission: “These people…have been turning the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6).

May this Holy Week overturn your own world, and with it, the many other worlds we all inhabit. And may it do so as it has always done, with divine moments of risk and vulnerability for the sake of heart-rending intimacy.

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Holy Fools for a Holy Week

Carrying his cross on the way to his death, Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). Indeed.

I’m sure Trayvon Martin’s mother has been weeping of late (read more). So has the mother of Dalton Lee Walker, a twelve-year old boy who took his own life a few days ago because of bullying, and on the very same day the documentary film Bullying opened nationwide (read more about that here). If she could, Shaima al Awadi would be weeping, not only for herself but for her four children. But she can’t. She was beaten to death in her San Diego home with something like a tire iron this past week. Why? She’s Iraqi and Muslim (read more here).

I’ve been reflecting this Lent on the powerful and poisonous confluence of male privilege and white supremacy – what it looks like, its effects, and what it will take to dismantle it for the full thriving of women and therefore also of the planet.

Now that we have arrived to Holy Week, I believe those reflections have been rather foolish. Isn’t it just a fool’s errand to dismantle centuries of white male privilege? Yes, it is. And I am happily a fool to try.

Palm Sunday this year, the beginning of Holy Week, is also April Fools’ Day. What a great coincidence for reflecting on the absurdity of marking with elaborate rituals these ancient, first-century stories – as if they mattered, is if they still speak today, as if they might actually change the world.

I think the best way to journey through this holy week is to don a jester’s cap and embrace the foolishness of the whole thing. Here let me offer two reasons why.

1. Religion is always vulnerable to being co-opted by empire.

In some ways, this is obvious, but far too often, not obvious enough. First century Palestine was an occupied province of the Roman Empire. Those political dynamics are reverberating throughout the gospel texts in ways most readers usually don’t notice.

I worry, for example, that talking about the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem (as most Christians do on Palm Sunday) is terribly misleading. I was reminded recently that on the Jewish feast of Passover, the Romans typically staged a military parade in Jerusalem to underscore their control and power. A leading military figure would ride at the head of the parade on a horse followed by the armored might of centurions and soldiers. (Read this provocative and insightful post about all this here.)

Put the story of Jesus into that context: He climbs on to a donkey, not a horse, and basically waddles into the city, not followed by soldiers but by the people. This is a moment of deep political mockery worthy of a 1990s-style ACT UP protest. The donkey didn’t even belong to Jesus – he had to borrow it. And the only armor his followers had were the branches of palm trees.

If ever there was a biblical precedent for April Fools’ Day, this is it. Jesus was making a profound joke, but with a point: Don’t take Rome so damned seriously.

Of course, and to put it mildly, one mocks imperial power at one’s own peril, especially when the very next thing you do is wreak havoc in the local IRS office, which is exactly what Jesus did with those money-changers’ tables in the temple – the prime location for religion’s co-optation by empire.

Now here’s something interesting: early Christians took this resistance to empire as an essential part of their faith. Just one example comes from a remarkable critique of the Roman household. Some early Christian writers critiqued the hierarchical ordering of the Roman household, which should be a microcosm of the Church, as the body of Christ, not the empire. (I blogged about this recently; read more here.)

This was an amazing leap forward for the liberation of women in the midst of a deeply patriarchal society – and not surprisingly, Rome did not look kindly on disrupting the configuration of the imperial household. Empires never look kindly on such things – not then, and not today.

Sadly, that kind of religious critique nearly disappeared in the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the empire.

So as we walk through Holy Week, we would do well to note that the State will always rely on religion to support its imperial power. At the very least, to follow Jesus into Jerusalem means that we must not remain silent about what happened to Trayvon Martin, Shaima al Awadi, and Dalton Lee Walker.

2. The Cross is Foolish

Let me count the ways. St. Paul, no less, wrote that the cross of Christ is just foolish, a stumbling block, silly – and therefore the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). I won’t pretend to know what Paul really meant by that or to understand it. But there’s a huge elephant sitting in most “liberal” or “progressive” Christian living rooms – the doctrine of atonement. And that doctrine is lurking around every corner of the rites and stories of Holy Week.

I read recently that one of the key reasons why younger generations stay away from Christian churches is the trouble they have with that doctrine. I have trouble with it, too! But I’m troubled mostly by how just one view of it has dominated American culture. Especially during this week, I think it’s important to remember that there is not just one such doctrine of atonement in Christian history or even in the Bible; there are many. And there are also many other ways to reflect on the significance of the Cross quite apart from notions of atonement.

That said, I believe reflecting on judgment, atonement, and forgiveness is essential for our 21st century life, but those topics have been so twisted and distorted as to make that task nearly impossible. Let’s set that aside for a moment and consider something equally foolish.

I find it helpful to think about Jesus in this holy week as the radical companion. In that way I believe Jesus reveals something truly astonishing about God – the God of solidarity.

If you want to find God you could, of course, look anywhere, but you might want especially to look among the poor, the misplaced, the homeless, the suffering, and the grieving. You might especially look among all the victims of imperial power. That’s how I read the Bible.

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, in the Transfiguration story, the disciples of Jesus are discussing the “departure” that Jesus must undergo in Jerusalem. That word translated from the Greek as “departure” is εξοδον. That’s the very same word that Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible used to refer to the exodus of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt – yet another empire. I cannot believe this is just a linguistic coincidence.

Remember, Moses fled Egypt only to return in a decision to engage in radical solidarity with his people, to set them free. Here I believe Luke is inviting us to see in Moses and now also in Jesus that the same passion for solidarity belongs first and foremost to God.

Jesus models this with the choice he made about his own life. He could have, for example, chosen the path of a Levitical warrior to liberate his people by force from Roman occupation. I say “Levitical” warrior because the culture of tribal warfare from which that biblical book arose was constructed on an economics of patriarchal masculinity in which topping one’s enemies – with violence, if necessary – demonstrated covenantal faithfulness.

But Jesus chose instead to follow the path articulated by the prophet Isaiah. In that book, the Levitical warrior becomes the “suffering servant,” and rather than topping one’s enemies, that servant leads all the nations instead to God’s holy mountain where they learn war no more and beat their swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

Indeed, Luke has Jesus quote not from Leviticus but from Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry: “God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom for the oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19).

Both Moses and Jesus chose the path of radical solidarity, not for the sake of suffering but for the sake of freedom. The God who enters our struggle with us does so to lead us out – from death to life.

I believe that’s exactly what Luke’s Jesus meant when he said this incredibly foolish thing: “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” If we live for ourselves alone, we will die; if we live in solidarity with others, especially the vulnerable, the poor, the fearful, the oppressed, and the suffering, we will live – both in this life and the life to come.

That’s the remarkable path Jesus blazed for us to follow – surely for the sake of Trayvon, Shaima, and Dalton Lee, among so many others.

But do note: That path is costly. It comes with great risk. It is thoroughly foolish, not least because we will have to give up much to do it. But if we do, that path leads to unimaginable life.

May this week change all us so that we can, with God’s amazing grace, change the world. I know. That’s just foolishness…..and thank God for it.