Holy Week 2019


One of the reasons that so many people do not like Shakespeare is that they studied the Bard for examinations in their mid-teens, so that amazingly lively drama was turned into turgid and rather difficult text on the page. I feel much the same about the narrative and declamatory books of the Bible where the felt need for reverence and solemnity undercuts the text: I was once severely reprimanded by one of the my teachers for "doing the Bible discredit" when I commented that there were some very clumsy jokes in the Gospel of John; but, worse than losing the humour, we too frequently lose the drama and we tie ourselves in knots because the rhetoric of the forum seems crude, and even cruel, in the seminar room.

Nowhere is this more so than in Holy Week where the pressure of the streets tells sorely on the establishment, where emotions shift rapidly and where terrible pain is inflicted; here we have the familiar problem of the potential outbreak of revolt against oppression. Naturally, as the Bible is our Word of God, we are bound to want to know as precisely as we can what it means but, as with performing Shakespeare, there are times when the dramatic effect is far more important than a precise understanding of every word. Yesterday we went some way to dealing with the deficit by staging our annual dramatic reading of a Synoptic Passion but it was still far too decorous to capture what was really going on. In essence, the underlying dynamic of Holy Week is fear: the Temple Authorities were trapped between the turbulent people and the arrogant Romans; the people were torn between desperate hope and fear; the Roman authorities were trapped between the incomprehensible Jews and their impetuous bosses in Rome; and Jesus was caught between his Messianic self-fulfilment and human fear of pain. And, as we know, people acting under fear are generally loud and irrational: the Temple Authorities shouted; the people shouted; Pilate wavered; and only Jesus stayed calm and almost silent in the hysteria.

And, we have to recognise that below the topical rhetoric and threat and betrayal, there was a constant under-current of desperation. It is difficult to make the connection in Western Europe between the moderation of public violence and public language on the one hand and the increase of overall prosperity and life expectancy on the other; and so, even in our own troubled times, when moral error is attached to disagreement, and where the language of treachery and conspiracy has re-emerged, it is still difficult for us to imagine the stress levels endured by rulers and the ruled in First Century Jerusalem. Within forty years, Rome's terrible Imperial civil wars would be swiftly followed by the annihilation of Jerusalem. In such circumstances, it is much better to come to grips with the drama than to reduce it to our own suburban language and custom: in Holy Week, amid hysteria and sordid political calculation, Jesus the Messiah brought about the climactic salvation of God's Chosen People, overthrowing the old order and instituting a new order of which we are collateral beneficiaries.