The Politics of Passion Week—Afterthoughts

April 8, 2010

In the post for Friday, the day of the arrest, I asked the question: what was Jesus really praying for in the garden of Gethsemane? On the surface, it looks like he was just praying to be delivered from the terrible fate he saw coming, a reasonable—and quite human—hope.  But suppose God had answered his prayer with a ‘yes’? What would have happened then? What alternative outcome was Jesus praying for?

It was the week of Passover, the festival dedicated to remembering when God delivered his people from slavery under an imperial oppressor with the right arm of his military power. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of pilgrims were in Jerusalem for the festival. Riots, and even the occasional popular uprising, occurred so often during the Passover festival, that every year Rome moved its Syrian legion into bivouac outside the city to help the legion that was permanently posted in the city itself in order to help with crowd control.

Jesus started the week declaring God’s kingship over his people and he’s focused on the radical inbreaking of divine sovereignty through the ensuing days. He’s prophesied the destruction of the temple. And if we accept the structure of the gospels as representing more or less the real chronology of events, Jesus has delivered a long sermon prophesying the last days.

It looks like Jesus was expecting the fulfillment of the kingdom he has been preaching in some kind of visitation from the Father and a cataclysmic overthrow of the existing order. Perhaps he looked forward to the fulfillment of the prophecy from Zechariah that he had enacted at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:

See, our king comes riding to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. . . I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword. Then the Lord will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning . . . The Lord their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people. (Zech 9:9-17)

Perhaps he was also expecting the fulfillment of other prophecies, as well. That he was praying on the slopes of the Mount of Olives tends to reinforce this idea. We’ll talk more about Jesus’ land-based spirituality in a series timed for Earth Day later this month. In that series on the prospects for a religious culture of place, we will look at what I call ‘spiritual ecology’; we’ll ask the questions: where did Jesus go, to do what, and why? The Mount of Olives figures prominently in this series because it figures so prominently in Jesus’ own land-based spirituality.  But we need to preview some of this now.

The Mount of Olives had been named by the prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel as a place associated with the Father’s triumphant return to Jerusalem to save his people.

The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. (Ezekiel 11:23; part of the famous vision of the ‘wheel within a wheel’, in which the presence of God leaves the temple in Jerusalem and comes to dwell with the exiles in Babylon, stopping at the Mount of Olives on the way.)

Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east. . . And the Lord shall become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one. . . And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord on that day. (Zechariah 14:3-9, 21)

Jesus may have been praying on the Mount of Olives because that’s the last place God visited in Israel before leaving the temple, and because Mount Olivet was the place to which he had promised to return. Perhaps Jesus also believed, as the Essenes did, that God had never actually returned to the temple since the Exile, because the temple had never been properly cleansed.

Only . .  the Father didn’t return that night. Jesus was left bereft. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he would cry from the cross.

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