Easter. Not my holiday.
In an earlier post I’ve written about how, as a Unitarian Universalist of Jewish heritage, I’ve taken to celebrating Christmas. Not Easter, though. Too much historical baggage there for me.
The Christmas story is warm, inclusive, expansive. The poor Jewish shepherds of Luke’s Gospel join the rich Gentile intellectuals of Matthew’s–plus, in popular renditions, the stable animals–in kneeling before Hope newborn. By contrast Easter’s story is harsh, dramatic, apocalyptic. By all odds it’s the most powerful story ever told. There are definitely Bad Guys in it. And me–I’m one of the Bad Guys.
“Therefore when they [the Jewish crowd] were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ? … They said, Barabbas. Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified. And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified” (Matthew 27:17-23).
No wonder Easter was a time of dread for my ancestors in Eastern Europe. It can’t have been easy to sit still, after hearing a story like this read in church, about the torment and killing of the purest and best human being the world had ever known. You’d feel the need to go out, do something about it. And beating up on the local Jewish population was a natural choice for “something” to do.
Well-meaning, ecumenically minded modern people often deal with this side of the Passion stories by saying, Well, it didn’t really happen. Not quite the way the Gospel writers say it did. And it’s true: those stories, compelling as they are, have a lot of loose ends. It’s impossible to get a clear picture, for example, of just what information Judas betrayed about Jesus that was worth 30 pieces of silver. (Jesus was a public figure; lots of people surely could have identified him.) The alleged practice of releasing a condemned prisoner at Passover has left no trace in either Jewish or Roman records. And the Roman governor Pontius Pilate doesn’t come across in other sources as any tender-hearted humanitarian. Surely the Gospel writers have drawn him after the model of what they hoped the Roman officials interrogating them would be like: patient, fair-minded, sympathetic. Which means that Somebody Else must have demanded the crucifixion. Voila: blame the Jews.
Yet reading the Gospel accounts of how the Jewish crowd allegedly behaved, I can’t escape the sense that they ring true. This is how human beings will act, have always acted, when they gather in masses of the hopeful and desperate.
It seems to me to confirm this, not contradict it, that those Jewish crowds had such different feelings toward Jesus not long before. “And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strewed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:8-9).
All’s sunshine and affection and enthusiasm. But beware. Very powerful emotions, especially if rooted in deep yearning, have a tendency to morph into their opposites. (“Then Amnon hated her with exceeding great hatred; for the hatred wherewith he hated her was greater than the love wherewith he had loved her”–2 Samuel 13:15.) “Odi et amo,” says the Roman poet, I hate and I love. Which side of the emotion winds up dictating behavior, depends on the flip of the coin.
That coin was tossed, I think, during the incident that’s come to be known as “the Cleansing of the Temple.”
“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it into a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12-13).
Cleansing the Temple … hmmm, where have we heard that before?
Yes, that’s right–in the story behind the Hanukkah festival. 200 years before Jesus, more or less, Judah the Maccabee and his guerrilla fighters had cleansed the Jerusalem Temple of the “pollutions” (never clearly defined) introduced by the land’s Greek rulers. It was the first act in the liberation of Jewish Palestine from its alien occupiers. If I were a Jew in Roman-ruled Jerusalem, that Passover season when Jesus and his band came to town, my heart would have leaped in thrilled anticipation. This has to be the Maccabee, come back to life! Can the longed-for redemption, of my land and people and faith, be far behind?
And then the letdown comes. It’s not going to happen.
My latter-day Maccabee is in the hands of the Romans. The redemption that I was sure was going to come–that I’ve convinced myself he promised me was going to come–is one more exploded dream. Bad enough that this guy can’t fight off their soldiers, which is pathetic. The truth is even worse. He can but he won’t.
“Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” (Matthew 26:53-54).
Perverse. Evil. The worst betrayal of all.
As that awful Passover night wears on, my initial disbelief turns to despair. My despair, to blaming. Blaming, to murderous rage.
When I gather the next day, with hundreds or more likely thousands of people whose dearest hopes have been trashed in exactly the same way mine were, I’m not going to be in a generous mood.
Have you ever been part of a lynch mob–like, on the playground? I don’t think I have. But I think I can imagine the feeling. I have before me the embodiment of all that pollutes and degrades my world–all that’s false, disgusting, treacherous. This earth, life itself, can never be clean or safe or decent until he (or she, or they) is hustled out of it. Swiftly. Brutally.
“And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man … Crucify him, crucify him” (Luke 23:18, 21).
(But I don’t believe what Matthew 27:25 tells me, that they said, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” To say that, they’d need to have taken moral responsibility for what they were doing. Which a lynch mob, by its nature, can’t do. No–they’re good and pure and true. It’s the victim who crystallizes all evil, within his loathsome frame.)
I imagine the mood passed. I imagine the next morning, many of those who’d screamed the awful words had second thoughts. Regrets. Wished, maybe, that things had turned out differently. Maybe, even, that they’d done differently. But next morning was too late.
Too late–for a charismatic preacher from the Galilee, whose dazzlingly off-center take on his inherited tradition promised a stunning new understanding of what it meant to be Jewish, what it meant to be human.
Too late–for two faiths that might have remained one, or at least might have walked through the centuries hand in hand, not one’s hand at the other’s throat.
Too late–for the thousands or ten thousands or millions of innocents who perished in Easter-triggered violence, when new lynch mobs went out to purge the latest human pollutants from the fair face of their existence. And often succeeded.
Too late ever to bind up this wound? I don’t think so. In the last half-century Jews and Christians have come a very long way. Nowadays the ancient pain has become more like a dull, throbbing ache, which most of the time we don’t even feel.
When Easter comes around, I feel it.
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by David Halperin
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