Lectionary reflection: Passion Sunday through Girardian Eyes

I’m in the middle of a rapid read through Gil Bailie’s book “Violence Unveiled”, which is a very clear explication of Girard’s central ideas about anthropology (ie, human nature), the Bible, and particularly the story of the Passion. This strongly influenced my experience of the liturgy tonight.

(If you are entirely unfamiliar with Girardian, or mimetic, anthropology and the interpretive framework it provides, you might want to read this introduction by James Alison, through whom I first encountered these ideas, before proceeding.)

It’s my first time through Lent and Easter with this parish, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the bulletin said we would start early, outside the church, for the blessing of palms. As I arrived, full of anticipation for this very meaningful liturgy, I happened to see and overhear scraps of a couple of conversations that seemed tense, conflictual, or resentful. At first I was feeling upset that my experience of this liturgy that is the entrance into Holy Week was being contaminated by these unpleasant unprayerful things I was being exposed to just before Mass. But then, I decided to embrace those feelings as part of that liturgical recreation: after all, as Girard and Bailie point out that the gospels reveal, Jerusalem was in a ferment of mimetic turmoil at the time of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the subsequent events. I was feeling tense, angry, or resentful because those feelings were stirred up in me by exposure to other people who felt that way: that’s a similar kind of mimetic turmoil.

Eventually we were given direction to gather in the lobby with our palm branches for the gospel reading and blessing of the branches, after which we would process together into the sanctuary. What I noticed in that reading (Mk 11:1-10) was the celebrity-fascination that Jesus seems to almost deliberately have the disciples stir up, by boldly taking a colt in a way that would cause some talk. And then, the description of the triumphal entry really does remind me of celebrity red-carpet treatment, with adulating crowds surrounding the star of the moment.

“Of the moment” being the point, of course.

In the reading from Isaiah (Is 50:4-7), I particularly noticed the first two lines:

The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.

Again this makes me think of deliberately rousing mimetic passions.

Psalm 22 (8-9, 17-18, 19-20) describes the transformation from a crowd of inflamed rivalries into a murderous mob that consumes its victim.

Phil 2:6-11 gives us a respite from the violence, as if to give us the courage to go through the full reading of the Passion: while it mentions Jesus’ death, “even death on a cross,” it surrounds this death with glory. Christ begins with the form of God, of which he emptied himself to die, and was then exalted in glory. I think this reading functions for us in the liturgy as the experience of the Transfiguration did for the apostles: as a promise and reassurance of glory to sustain us through what was about to happen.

And then, the reading of the Passion (Mk 14:1-15:47).

My church is set up in a choir arrangement, with the altar and ambo (pulpit) opposite each other, at each end of the rectangular sanctuary, with the rows of chairs set up between them, parallel to the sides. So as the liturgical action moves from the ambo to the altar, you turn your head (and/or the angle at which you’re standing) in order to shift your attention, which I like very much.

For the Passion reading today, though, there were three readers in addition to the presiding priest. One was at the ambo; two were off to one side of the altar, using the musicians’ mikes; and the priest was at the altar. This meant that as the narration moved from one voice to the other, I was often turning my head to look at this end, then that end, then this end. This heightened my feeling of being caught up in a crowd of spectators at a spectacle.

I kept my palm branch clutched in my hand the entire liturgy, as a reminder that it was the very same crowd that first adulated Jesus, that turned on him.

The gospel reading brought this out right away: Not during the festival, for fear there may be a riot. The religious leaders were aware that the city was in mimetic turmoil and could easily flash into uncontrolled violence. The story is permeated with their attempts to keep the violence controlled by judicial ritual.

Even Jesus’ followers are susceptible to this, as they are “infuriated” by the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive perfumed oil. And somehow I never before noticed the line in Jesus’ rebuke, “The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them.” This makes it clear that the concern for the poor was, at least in part, a pretext, or rather, a rationalization: the conflict was really about desire, attention, and envy.

I was struck by the clandestine, almost cloak-and-dagger nature of the preparations for the Passover: follow the man carrying a jar of water, give the password to the master of the house, he’ll show you to an upper room (presumably a somewhat hidden room, since this is the same upper room, let us not forget, where the disciples will hide after the Crucifixion, for fear of the crowds), and I’ll meet you there after dark. This looks to me like Jesus lying low, so as not to provoke the storm prematurely.

“Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” always touches me.

“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” makes me wonder about the giving of the Spirit that will come later.

I was struck by the stage-managing of the arrest scene. This is not a spontaneous lynch mob; it is in fact not any kind of mob at all. It is duly authorized by the religious authorities, who are still working to keep uncontrolled violence from breaking out: they have come after dark, and the gesture of betrayal is not the potent accusative gesture that can flash a mob into violence, but the less potent acquisitive gesture of a kiss, followed immediately by the authorized forces of sacral violence surrounding Jesus and laying hands on him.

(Even so, one of the bystanders (bystanders?! ) is not deterred, and gets caught up in attacking… not Jesus, but a member of the duly authorized forces.)

“And they all left him and fled.”

Here begins the abandonment. Milbank points out that Jesus is, one might say, “abandoned to death.” No one will own him.

One young man followed for a while, but when they grabbed him, he slithered out of his clothes and ran away naked. Don’t you wonder who he was?

Peter followed at a distance, then mingled for a while among the guards. When he was challenged the first time, he denied it and backed off to the outer courtyard; then when challenged again, denies Jesus twice more, each time with more vehemence, insisting that he is not “one of them” but rather “one of you,” arraying himself with the crowd for fear that they will otherwise turn on him as well. This story is interwoven with the description of the trial, in which all kinds of people are willing to say they heard Jesus say or do all kinds of things. This is the judicial regulation of one accusative gesture after another.

Jesus refrains from engaging in what’s going on. He is not drawn into the heightened passions of the crowd. He does not defend himself against the accusations, because the content of the accusations is irrelevant.

Only when the chief priest asks him, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?” does Jesus respond, “I AM.” (That should make you quiver in recognition of the Name that was given to Moses from the burning bush.)

“At that the high priest tore his garments and said, What further need have we of witnesses?” They all condemn him, and a judicially regulated, carefully controlled, enactment of a lynching ensues, as he is spat upon and beaten. The participation of the guards — duly authorized forces of sacral violence — keeps this from erupting into an actual lynching.

In the morning, the whole crowd marches him over to Pilate, so that the Roman authorities can judicially execute him. Again Jesus refuses to engage with the accusations, and responds only to a question about his identity.

As the story is told, Pilate recognizes the dynamics among this crowd, recognizes that Jesus is innocent, and tries to redirect the crowd’s desires by praising Jesus as their king and offering to release him. The crowd, however, would have none of it, and Pilate finally acquiesces: it’s his job to keep order, he doesn’t want a riot either, so he arrays the duly-authorized forces of Roman sacral violence against Jesus as well. There is again a judicially-authorized, carefully-controlled enactment of a lynching (including the following gestures of religious reverence!) as Jesus is scourged; and then he is led out to Golgotha.

There, he is crucified, and his clothing (highly mimetically charged, by this time, I should think) is shared out among the guards. I always figured this was more or less a perk to supplement their wages, but now I think it’s more like the way that the belongings of celebrities (including “celebrity” killers) are highly prized in our culture, and command high prices when auctioned.

Finally, the lynching is fully actualized, but again in a carefully controlled fashion. There is no need to actually stone him to death: he’s been crucified, and everybody in the Roman Empire had a visceral understanding of how thoroughly and painfully dying that meant he was. And there was no ability to actually lynch him, either: he’s up there on a cross, over their heads, where they can’t reach him — nobody can throw stones that high and he wouldn’t be crushed under a pile of them, anyway, even if they did. So the crowd, the whole crowd, including the two revolutionaries that are crucified next to him, spends the whole day united in their mockery and verbal abuse of him, enthralled by the fascination of a lynching but without the collective danger that an actual spontaneous lynching entails.

Bailie points out that what makes Jesus “perfectly innocent” is that he is perfectly alone: the sole victim of an all-against-one outbreak of unifying violence.

At three o’clock, he gave a loud cry (either of despair and abandonment, or of lamentation and trust, depending how you read the allusion to the psalm), and breathed his last.

The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.

The centurion on duty facing him granted him the recognition of divinity: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

There was a crowd of of his women disciples who witnessed his death, from a distance. Two of the women — Mary Magdalen, and Mary his mother — witnessed his burial by Joseph of Arimathea, who asked Pilate for the body, wrapped it in a linen cloth, placed it in a tomb, and sealed the tomb.

This is such a powerful place to end the story.

At the end of his sermon, the priest led us in singing “Were you there.”

The transition to the eucharistic prayer was difficult, for me: difficult to “lift up my heart” as the prefatory dialogue exhorts. Singing the Sanctus helped. The sung mystery of faith, with its explicit naming of the resurrection, helped the most. (We had, possibly inadvertently?, omitted the creed and general intercessions.)

Singing the Lamb of God, with its final petition “Grant us peace,” almost made me shudder, because the story left us in the midst of the peace of the aftermath of a lynching. Lamb of God. Grant us peace.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.

Peace be with you. Have a blessed, prayerful, holy week, as we walk together with the Lord.

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3 Responses to Lectionary reflection: Passion Sunday through Girardian Eyes

  1. Julie says:

    Wow, very interesting. Our service was also a reading of the passion, I had a narrator, three voices and myself – and we’re proscenium style, so everyone is looking forward. But I had the three voices stay in their seats, with only the narrator coming forward.

    We don’t have communion on Palm Sunday, usually (they do at 11:00 at Little River, but I’m not there any more.) So we ended with a pastoral prayer, which followed again some of the events of the passion. It was a you came and walked with us, through the reading of the passion we walked with you to the best of our ability, so therefore let us walk together, and tied each major event to life experience. It was powerful for some of the folks in the church (Others wanted me to preach for 20 minutes – can’t make everybody happy.)

    Interestingly we also sang “Were you There” although we broke up our reading with pieces of hymns.

    By the way, one reading of the Mark Passion story that I like is Marcus Borg’s and John Domenic Crossan’s _The_Last_Week_ which postulates Jesus in a prophetic role, and the triumphal entry as well as the temple cleansing as a prophetic act.

    Also was able to get the kids to process (All Glory, Laud and Honor) at the beginning of the service. It was a good Sunday.

    • Thanks for sharing about your service! Interesting choice to have most of the voices speaking from within the assembly.

      I love processions, and I wish we did them more and better. The priest did a nice brief bit of catechesis about ours, explaining that we were starting outside the worship space so that we could enter into it as a way of walking along with Jesus as he entered into Jerusalem. That was a fuller description than I think I’ve previously been given – when we processed at all, it was presented as re-enacting the palm-waving. That’s not really the same as walking with Jesus.

  2. Pingback: Mark’s Persecution Texts from a Girardian Perspective | Euangelion Kata Markon

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