Sunday, April 1, 2007

PALM SUNDAY AND HOLY WEEK: THE FOOLISH TRANSFORMATION

Next Year in Jerusalem

"And so Galahad decided that it would be a disgrace to set off on a quest with the other knights. Alone he would enter the dark forest where there was no path. This is the myth of the Hero’s Journey." —Joseph Campbell

Every year, I stand at the brink of Holy Week, knowing what is going to happen and wishing it wasn’t going to: the wild acclamation on Palm Sunday that teases me with hope as Jesus enters the dark forest of Jerusalem, both alone and surrounded by a crowd, and how, as the week progresses, he becomes more and more alone, until all is lost and everything I love the most stands betrayed by a relentless, mocking power. Yes, Easter sits out there on the horizon beyond all this, but as a friend who is relatively new to the faith asked, “How can you celebrate Easter after all that? I would be just too exhausted.”

At the end of a Passover Seder, it is traditional to say, “L’shana ha’ba-ah b’Yerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem,” recalling the old Jewish tradition that each person, at least once in their life, should celebrate the holy feast in the holy city. During the thousands of years of diaspora, the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” expressed a hope that would take many lifetimes to fulfill, for the earthly Jerusalem remained closed to the Jews who loved her for centuries. Today, when her gates are once again opened wide, the hope remains, but it is tinged with grief, not of exile, but for the human condition itself.

“Next Year in Jerusalem.” I wonder how many times Jesus said that during the years of his life, his growth, his ministry. I wonder how he found the courage to stake everything he was to be in the city that God called holy. I wonder if Jesus considered going there before he actually did, but then changed his mind. “Not this year, God. Next year in Jerusalem.” This we will never know. We only join Jesus when he is at last ready to go and celebrate the Passover and meet his accusers.

Holy Week is when everything rushes together: history, myth, prayer, practice, sacred, profane, waking life and dream, a terrible crime and an impossible forgiveness, the sense that although God had worked up the courage to stand vulnerable before the people, we had not yet worked up the courage to receive him. And so we must relive this story every year, rather as in the comic movie, Bill Murray was forced to relive Ground Hog Day, until he finally understood that life was not about loving himself.

If Americans have reduced the Eternal Return to a cute movie with a message and localized it not in Jerusalem, but Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, others have taken it far more seriously. According to religious historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade, human beings onced lived in a world that was entirely sacred, whose time was cyclical, where nothing was ever lost, and then the Israelites discovered that time was a line, an historical sequence, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The Greeks and Romans also embraced historical time and it came to replace myth as the ordering principle of Western culture. Philosophers such as Max Weber and Lewis Mumford suggest that our modern life was more deeply shaped by clocks than technology; time is what controls us, and the time that controls us where I live is relentlessly linear, the seconds of our lives ticking away as we race against the treadmill of busy-ness until old age at last forces us to slow down and we disintegrate and die. Clock time is purely secular and economic. Secular time is a transaction, a notation in my appointment book. Sacred time, on the other hand, as it circles and returns, tells me that whatever it is, for good or ill, whatever it is, will never die, but will rise again as inevitably as the spring. Time is not the watchspring winding down the universe, but cycles of ebb and flow, growth, maturity, decay, dormancy. Transformation, not death, is the key.

Holy Week is where these two ideas of time meet. The events we observe this week physically happened only once. But every year I face them over and over again.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” say my Jewish friends at the end of the Seder, echoing their own sacred time. No matter what Eliade might have said about them and the invention of history, the Jews treat time as more sacred than anyone I know. With the work week and Shabbat, Judaism practices the cycles of work and rest. Jewish life is measured not in terms of eras, but in terms of single years, for God only writes our story one year at a time.

2000 years ago, God thought we were ready to embrace the truth and be set free. I wonder how far we have come. I wonder. I am back in Jerusalem for another year.

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