Palm Sunday April 5, 2009

John 12:12-16  (Palm gospel)                                                                   

Mark 14:1-15:47  (Passion gospel)                                                              


[At this service, the Holy Cross Youth Group acted out the gospel in dramatic form.]


The Catholic Archbishop of Chicago issued a decree. (That’s the sort of thing Catholic Archbishops can do. In the Episcopal Church, bishops have to resort to whining.) The decree said that Palm Sunday Passion dramas could not be done in historic costumes. The reason, Cardinal Bernardin said, is that these things didn’t just happen back then. They’re happening now. Though this year we’ve done the Passion drama with some suggestions of costume—if you have kids doing the drama, you have to have a sword!—what we’ve just witnessed (and participated in) is indeed a drama about our life, not just things back then in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.


What is this drama? A French historian and philosopher named René Girard has some very helpful insights. The crucifixion of Jesus, he says, is the supreme instance of scapegoating. And scapegoating is an ongoing drama—even the ongoing drama of human life.


Here’s how it works. Human life is characterized by anxiety and insecurity. Are we okay? Are things going to turn out alright? What about the mistakes I’ve made in my life? The wrongs I’ve done? The wrongs others have done to me? As life goes along, our worries and insecurities snowball, not just for individuals, but for whole societies. (We’re in one of those snowball stages right now, I think, with the global economic crisis.) When things reach a crisis, there is a very real danger that the bonds of community will break and that the society or group will fall apart.


And what societies usually do to relieve the pressure at these points of crisis is identify a scapegoat. Who or what is causing all these problems? Who is responsible for our anxiety and insecurity? Ah, ha! Those Wall Street bankers. Islamofascism.  Illegal immigrants. Communists. The gays. The Jews. The blacks. You go back through history and you can assemble a huge list of scapegoats, of which these are just the beginning.


Scapegoating goes on at a family level too, and in churches, schools, businesses, communities—wherever two or three are gathered together, one of them can be made the scapegoat for the others’ problems. Wives blame husbands, husbands blame wives. Children blame parents, parents children. The firm in which I practiced law had a particularly paranoid senior partner. It was said that every year he had to sacrifice a virgin to feel secure—in other words, he would identify someone whom he could blame for whatever wasn’t right in the firm and that person would end up being fired or demoted or punished in some way.


The word scapegoat comes from an ancient ritual practiced on the Jewish Day of Atonement. The high priest would lay his hands on the head of a goat and confess over it all the sins of the people for the past year. Then the goat would be driven into the wilderness, leaving the people feeling purged and secure again, the society cohesive. Scapegoating, according to René Girard, is why we fight wars; wars bring society back together again.


Looked at through the lens of scapegoating, the Passion drama gains new life. Here was a society in crisis, filled with tensions: religious tensions involving the high priests trying to keep control; political tensions involving the Roman imperial power; personal tensions among the disciples. The crowd, too, the role played by all of us in the congregation, want to identify a scapegoat so that by blaming him all our anxieties and insecurities can be resolved. So all this scapegoating energy gathers together in a perfect storm, and we crucify Jesus. “Were you there when they crucified the Lord?” Yes, we were—and we are.


But one character in this drama does not participate in the scapegoating. He’s the one dressed in white, of course: Jesus. He is the only one not guilty of something. The only one in this drama who’s not feeling anxious or insecure—because he’s so intimately connected with his Father. (Yes, Jesus has his moments of sweat and tears, especially in Mark’s gospel. But he never acts on them; he resolves them in prayer with his Father. That is the difference.)


What Jesus does in the Crucifixion, according to René Girard, is to take all the sins of the other players in the drama onto himself—like the scapegoat in the Jewish ritual. Instead of reacting back, he absorbs the evil into himself, gathering it into his outstretched arms of love. I want us to think about the power of this act for a moment. It is the ultimate act of nonviolence. It breaks the chain of recrimination. It is as though everything evil in the world were sucked into a black hole and then, in the ultimate cosmic reversal, exploded back into the world as light, as love, as peace. This is the Resurrection. A release of boundless energy, of freedom, a new creation. And that dynamic of death and resurrection is the Paschal Mystery, what we celebrate this week.


To bring this home: It applies to our world, to what we need to happen in our world in its crisis today—not scapegoating, blaming, more wars; but forgiveness, nonviolence, love. It is what needs to happen in our families, in our communities, businesses, churches. It is the working out of resurrection. For just as we crucify Jesus again and again, God forgives us again and again—and will go on doing so until at last we get it right and what began on Easter morning is completed in the coming of the kingdom of God at the Parousia.





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