In the Christian calendar, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter hold a sacred story, the journey of Jesus into the city that kills the prophets, a city that eventually kills him. The entrance on Palm Sunday was much less the portrayal we have customarily received through cinema or Sunday school art, namely, a rock concert entrance with Jesus on stage, fawned over by the swooning crowds, and more like street theater in which he and his beleaguered community acted out a story of entrance of a new sort of reign of God, led, by all things, by a man riding a donkey. Coinciding with the Jesus people demonstration coming in from the east, was a Roman military parade approaching from the west. The contrast couldn’t be more dramatic or illuminating.
The arc of the story includes crossing a threshold into the crucible of inevitable persecution by authorities in temple and government. The temple could not suffer religious rivals. The Romans would quell any hint of insurrection, living as they did on top of a powder keg of social unrest and backstreet insurrectionists. When Jesus turned over tables on the temple mount, acting out a biblical tradition of cleansing, his fate was essentially sealed; from then on he would be a marked man, regardless of what teaching or truth-telling came out of his mouth. After a farewell covenant-making meal with disciples, an anguishing wait in a nearby garden to be arrested, he was taken, tried, and passed between religious and civil authorities until Roman verdict was passed. He was tortured and then crucified, the common practice of the Romans to enforce their power. It was a technique of terror. And when the Gospels say that Jesus was crucified by Golgotha – a strip pit turned town dump – it was outside the walls, in the margins where other outcasts and trouble makers were dispatched. He was not, as is portrayed on Hallmark cards and popular movies, crucified with two others alone on top of the dump. Rather, he was most certainly in a long line of crosses outside the gates, on the road leading in and out of the city, one of many, a man on his left and man on his right. They were crucified low to the ground, for maximum effect, and vulnerable to dogs.
He received a burial in a borrowed tomb. In the Christian story the tomb served as a sort of portal, a transitional space for three days, out of which the spirit which can never be killed endured, arose, transformed. The passage through liminal space was not nothing; it was something, and that something had to do with the cost of faithfulness and love, the self-sacrifice undertaken by the best within us, and what lasts on the other side of the empty space of loss. Much must die on the way to rebirth. And the world is made new in much the same way.
Like many others, I have been to Jerusalem and visited all the traditional sites such as the Via Dolorosa and the garden tomb. When I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the shrine where Jesus was supposedly crucified, presided over by several different religious orders, I came away with a very particular sense of what it was and why it was there, a sense that clarified, in a negative shadow, why I don’t view or understand the death of Jesus in that way. What it has evolved into is a cult of the dead that is understood to have sacral power by virtue of the spilling of blood, and by extension, sacrifice of a savior that appeased a deity that the death somehow sated. Short of that, one could say that the human fascination with death is a shroud that covers the entire story.
Certainly, death is a particular and shattering aspect of the entire story. But it is not the death that is the final meaning. Death is the end of passage in order that something else is born. It is the passage, the transition, the movement through the valley of the shadow of death, that brings transformational power. To linger forever at the shrine of death is to minimize the impact and power of the great journey and the sacrifices necessary to do so.
It is as though we spent all of our time building altars at Ford’s Theatre to remember the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but never read the Gettysburg Address, or told the story of what was required to overturn slavery, or explained the impact of the 13th Amendment. It is as though we never moved beyond the balcony of the Lorraine Motel to reflect on the meaning of Martin Luther King’s legacy, never recited stories of the Pettis bridge, his opposition to systemic racism, and the hard-won legislation that overturned the segregation that kept America in chains.
In the same way that Jesus sojourned in the wilderness before his public ministry, contending with his demons, overcoming temptations to power and enshrining the self, so he sojourned at the end of his seemingly short, meteoric life, in the place where he felt compelled to go, a place where he had no choice but to slay dragons with his words, expose the hypocrisy of empty religious practice and the powers of this world that would eventually fall like rows of corn in harvest. He sojourned in a place and time that required risk, courage, and his life. Like others in history who gave their all in a martyr’s death, he submitted. He also demonstrated in his own flesh the transcendent vision he carried in life, becoming, for a time, the intensity of the reign of God within, until others saw it, too.
The power is in the passage and what comes of that passage. And so we do not linger long in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We pass through, exit, and go out into the world where truths worth dying for take root and give birth to new realities, a new humanity, a transcendent view, a view that takes one’s breath away.