Palm Sunday & Good Friday – Restoring paradise

The Transfiguration, Sixth century apse mosaic of St. Apollinaire in Classe, Ravenna, Italy. From illustrations in Saving Paradise, upon which this post is based.

Passion Narratives: Palm Sunday B – Mark 15:1-47, Good Friday – John 18:1 – 19:42

Early Christianity was not about personal salvation or the promise of life after death.  It was about the struggle to restore paradise in this world – a more complex place than Genesis’ two-personed garden with animals —  by living justly, ethically, generously and joyously.

It was the call of the prophets to restore paradise by doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.  It was Jesus’ mission to restore paradise. It was paradise he referred to when he spoke of “the realm of God” and “the realm of heaven.”  His miracles, healings and teachings are all about restoring paradise by resisting the injustice and abusive power of his age – the Roman Empire. 

Even the Passion narratives are about restoring paradise.  They are read twice during Holy Week. Contemporary Christianity speaks so much about Jesus’ death that we might assume that the Passion narratives are about that too – his death. But they are not.

The Passion narratives are about Jesus’ life and the choices he made when he was personally threatened by the power of Rome.  As Rome did its best to terrorize him into silence and betrayal, Jesus chose to speak truthfully and courageously.  The Passion narratives are about how Jesus lived until he died.

The gospels do not gruesomely dwell on his death.  In fact, according to the gospels, Jesus had no broken bones. His body was removed from the cross intact, soon after his death, and he was given a proper religious burial. None of that was typically done for what was left of the bodies of crucified persons.

The purpose of the Passion narratives was not to celebrate Jesus’ death or valorize his suffering. It was to remind the early Christians listening to the narratives that Pilate would not have the last word. That soon there would be a great sign of paradise restored. And that in the meantime, they needed to get on with Jesus’ mission by healing the sick, loving neighbors, liberating captives, resisting evil, practicing nonviolence, blessing enemies and giving thanks for all that is good.

NB: If you are looking for Easter season reading, consider Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.

Lent 5B – It’s not about satisfaction

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-120, John 12:20-33

On Christmas Eve our first year in Florida, we decided to go to an Episcopal Church we had not yet visited. It had its own parking lot, looked accessible and wasn’t too far from home. We arrived early enough to get good seats and congratulated ourselves for not having to contend with winter cold and snow.

The service started. We sang some Christmas hymns and heard the usual lessons and prayers. The Christmas Eve gospel (Luke 2:1-20) was read. It is about Bethlehem, mother and child in a manger, singing angels and shepherds.  Lovely. We settled in for the sermon. The priest mentioned the baby in the manger but moved quickly to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. She never went back to Bethlehem.  For her, what mattered about the baby Jesus was that he would grow up to die for our sins. 

We didn’t go back to that church. If she could preach that sermon on Christmas Eve, she would surely want to preach it most Sundays too, and that is not what I think of as “the gospel.”

Even during the last weeks of Lent, Jesus’ death is not what I think of as “the gospel.”

It is for some. It is for those who embrace one or another version of “satisfaction atonement,” which is the notion that Jesus death “was a payment made to God’s honor in order to restore justice and harmony in the universe.”[1] It makes Jesus’ death either a ‘propitiation’ (a sacrifice offered as compensation) or ‘expiation’ (Jesus pays the penalty which sinners deserve.)

If it sounds medieval, that’s because it is. “Satisfaction atonement” is generally attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, a Benedictine monk, theologian and Archbishop who lived from 1033-1109.  He used imagery based on the social relations of medieval feudalism.

From the beginning, it had its critics.[2] Contemporary critics point out that taken literally, satisfaction atonement reduces the life of Jesus “to an elaborate scheme whose purpose was to produce his death.”[3]  Moreover, since Jesus dies either to restore God’s honor or satisfy God’s requirement that someone be punished, it paints an alarming picture of God. Finally, it seems to make both Jesus and those who killed him the doers of God’s will.

Even so, satisfaction atonement is ubiquitous.  It is depicted in church art and reiterated in our prayers and hymns.[4] In at least one Episcopal church in Florida, it was the sermon on Christmas Eve.

It was not always so.

In Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker argue that Jesus’ crucifixion has not always been central to Christianity. “Images of [Jesus’] corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century.”[5]  Similarly, the earliest Eucharistic prayer we have found[6]  “does not mention the death of Jesus or his body and blood…”[7]  The dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries was paradise. Not in the sense of “heaven” or the afterlife.  “Paradise” meaning “this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God.”[8]

Early Christians did not ignore Jesus’ death. But there was much less certainty or agreement as to what his death meant.  Many tried to make sense of it. This week’s gospel reading is one such reflection. (John 12:24 – If a grain of wheat dies, it bears much fruit.)  The second reading from Hebrews is another. There were more.

In other words, if “Jesus died for your sins” doesn’t work for you as a Christmas Eve meditation, or even as a Lent and Holy Week meditation, you are not alone. In fact, you are in very Christian company.

Next week: Palm Sunday – Saving Paradise Part II

[1] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI. 2d ed. 2011) digital location 275.

[2] Notably, a contemporary: Peter Abelard (c.1079 – 1142.)

[3] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, digital location 1167.

[4] For example, in The Hymnal 1982, (The Church Hymnal Corporation, New York, 1985), #168, O Sacred Head vs. 3: “In thy most bitter passion my heart to share doth cry, with thee for my salvation upon the cross to die.” or #158, Ah, Holy Jesus vs. 3: “Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered; for our atonement…”  or #693,  Just as I Am  vs. 1: “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me…”

[5] Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: Howe Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, Boston) 2008 at 27.

[6] The Didache – a church order document believed to be of the first century C.E.

[7] Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical and Theological Perspective. (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.) 2016 at 37. Saving Paradise, digital location 2882-2938.

[8] Brock & Parker, Saving Paradise at xix.

Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay