Holy Week reflections by Chris Lubbers
Have you ever repeatedly uttered a word until it just became a meaningless sound? Try it for one minute. Love, love, love, love, love, love, … At most, you’re left with a familiar, comforting noise. We often fail to notice what is familiar. The fish don’t see the water or understand its significance–if that expression isn’t itself too familiar to make the point.
I think we also experience meaninglessness arising from repetition when we hear the same text over and over. It becomes a familiar, comforting noise. Its meaning is lost, and we may cease to look for it. When’s the last time you put any thought into the Pledge of Allegiance while reciting it? Or the Lord’s Prayer? For many, the celebration of Holy Week is a similarly familiar, comforting, and empty ritual. Perhaps a little unease can revitalize it and give it new meaning.
A trip through Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem provides many afflictions for the comfortable and pushes readers to look again for meaning. Early in The Last Week, the authors revitalize, in a memorable way, terminology so familiar it has become meaningless:
According to [Roman Imperial] theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. … His father was the god Apollo, who conceived him in his mother, Atia. Inscriptions refer to him as “son of God,” “lord” and “savior,” one who had brought “peace on earth.” After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods.
Whoa! Who does he think he is?! How dare he adopt Jesus’ divinity–and life story?!
Or … was it, actually, the other way around? If so, why would Jesus, or the biblical authors on his behalf, adopt these titles and this narrative?
One answer emerges if we are able to rethink some too-familiar language. When we habitually “spiritualize” the Jesus narrative, we risk missing this crucial point: Jesus and the Roman Empire are competing for the people’s total allegiance!
Is the Emperor the Son of God, or am I?
Is the leader of the Roman armies bringing peace on earth, or am I?
Is the most wealthy and powerful man alive your Lord and Savior, or am I?
But perhaps even that is too familiar. Fast-forward two thousand years and imagine hearing this from Jesus:
Is the US President the ruler of the free world, or am I?
Is the leader of the US military your Commander-in-Chief, or am I?
Will you keep pledging allegiance to the flag and to the capitalist republic for which it stands, or will you pledge allegiance to me?
Let that sink in.
In the Gospel according to Mark, one Roman centurion, a servant of the Imperial Son of God, witnessed Jesus refusing to fight, forgiving his enemies and dying. His response? “Surely, this man was the Son of God!” Most Roman centurions, after observing the two potential “sons of God,” “lords” and “saviors” vying for their allegiance, continued to support the Empire.
Today, in a nation whose all-too-familiar wars and rumors of war never cease, we face a stark dilemma, much like the one Jesus posed two millennia ago. “No one can serve two masters,” he said. Of course, we’ve all made our choice, and it’s perfectly obvious which camp most of us are comfortably settled in.
Only one question remains:
What will it take for us to finally switch our allegiance from the Empire to the one who was crucified for opposing it?
Chris Lubbers is a graduate of Calvin College (BA, Philosophy and Math), has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Florida, has done doctoral research at UF in philosophy of language and metaphysics, and is currently ABD. He teaches philosophy at Muskegon Community College. You can find Chris advocating for justice and compassion in Holland, MI, or philosophizing over a pint at Pub Theology.