Among Christians who practice Lent, the Holy Week timeline is a time for reflection on the practices of Jesus in his last days prior to his death. Reflecting on Holy Week can be a spiritual practice to consider the place of those practices in our own lives. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus followed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday by taking time on Monday during that week to publically drive out and speak against temple-based financial exploitation.
The cleansing of the Temple is documented in all four gospels. Three place it during Holy Week. Scholars have written that this event occurred in the area of the Temple known as “Solomon’s Porch,” which was open to Jewish and Gentile worshippers alike. It was a marketplace for the purchase of items needed for worship — pilgrims attending Passover celebration, unfamiliar with Jerusalem, may have purchased sacrificial animals at a higher price than elsewhere in the city. Poorer individuals, unable to afford a lamb, may have purchased overpriced sacrificial doves. Foreign currency, forbidden inside the Temple, could be exchanged, for a fee, for local currency to pay the annual Temple tax.
It has been argued that the High Priest may have received a percentage of the profit from the money changers and merchants, so their removal from the Temple would have caused a financial loss to those in power. It has been argued that the noisy marketplace atmosphere may have been disruptive to the atmosphere of worship. The text is unclear about the exact nature of the sin. However, it is clear that when Jesus saw the market, he became angry and turned over tables, driving out those exploiting the people and publicly calling them “robbers.”
Whatever the exact nature of the financial sin was that was occurring in the Temple at the time, the text in Mark suggests that after this act of clearing the Temple, those in power began to earnestly plot Jesus’ arrest and death. Jesus’ opposition to the money changers was directly related to his arrest and crucifixion later in the same week.
While I would like to identify with Jesus in this story, I realize I am more often in the position of the watching crowd. Or am I the merchant, lining my own pockets with the misfortune of others and making profits or receiving benefits from practices that exploit?
It is Holy Week. And I must admit I’m challenged by it. I’m the kind of person who is much more comfortable in my mind, in words on pages, and in thoughts strung together. I am much more comfortable there than in my body, in my own feet stepping down the street, in my own hips, thighs, calves, swaying arms cutting air, swinging, bobbing, Reebok-ing anywhere.
This wasn’t always the case.
There was a stint in high school, and again in college, and again in grad school, and again in the other grad school when I believed in my body’s capacity to excel — and so it did. I sailed around that high school track multiple times without stopping! I dove for the ball in the students v. teachers volley ball tournament, and I danced: jazz, tap, ballet! In college I rode my bike everywhere. In grad school I did interval training and in the other grad school I did power-walking — and Jenny Craig.
Mind you, all of these periods came in short bursts that propelled me forward for a time and then I would slow down, go into myself, and come out again with another burst in a year or two.
But my last big burst was about eight years ago. I haven’t swayed anything or bobbed anywhere for any significant amount of time since.
I felt it coming on. I knew it was happening when it was happening, but I had no idea I would become consumed by it.
“I just don’t feel like getting up to go walking,” I’d tell myself at my normal walking time.
“What if today is the day I get jumped and raped in the park?”
So I stayed home, convinced I was safer in my bed. Then I moved to a city I didn’t know and the rationalizations took deeper root.
And so, for eight years I have lived like a dualistic gnostic — pushing myself toward spiritual renewal while allowing my body to grow stagnant, stiff, and bloated.
What triggered it? I’ve asked myself that question many times over the years.
A recent event in my life crystalized it for me: Loss had stifled me. A loss locked my feet and knees and would not let me move forward. This loss was loss of hope.
Most of us have that area of our lives where we struggle to hope. For me it is that space down deep where I hide the dream of a family: a loving husband and laughing children and a rockin’ writing and speaking schedule — yeah! It’s my dream.
In a world surging with anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the persecution of Christians, a Muslim is soon to portray Jesus in a film called Killing Jesus. Based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book of the same name, the film seeks to capture the human dynamics and political milieu around the controversial death of Jesus of Nazareth.
Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese-born American Muslim, was chosen to play the lead as the Jesus character. His selection makes him virtually the first actor of Middle Eastern descent to ever play the role in any mainstream film.
While National Geographic’s attempt at authenticity should be celebrated, the casting of Sleiman has, instead, stirred quite the controversy.
Imagine — in a context where religious tribalism is growing fiercer, a Muslim is embodying the role of a Palestinian Jew and central figure to Christianity. Is this a heretical impossibility or is this a picture of something beautiful?
On Tuesday, I sat down with Haaz to explore the uniqueness of this moment in his career and how the experience of embodying the life and teachings of Jesus has left him forever changed.
What immediately stood out is the grace with which he is handling the criticism from Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Rather than worrying about the controversy, Sleiman feels lucky to have had the opportunity. For him, it was the “ultimate experience as an actor” as he had been “heavily shaped” by Jesus during his childhood. Growing up in a Muslim home, he was taught to revere Jesus as the prophet equal to Mohammed who had come to reveal the beauty and potential of humanity. To play this role gave him a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “become the character that he truly believes in.”
My friend sent this link to me the other day, as it’s something we’re considering doing ourselves. The idea is simple, though would take some effort and a little courage to do well.
You get artists, singers, musicians willing to go out into the streets and share their music with anyone they meet, in a spirit of engagement, community, and purveyors of joyfully selfless and unexpected moments.
You go where the people are (sound familiar?).
You have a purpose (not to recruit people into your church; that’s selfish and not something I remember Jesus focusing on as much as being a healer and servant).
You give everyone you encounter an opportunity both to participate and to engage the cause.
This (below) is a pop-up church in a train station in the U.K. Personally I could have done without the giant crosses in the middle — but if nothing else, it helped share attention with the people involved, which should be part of the point. They’re inviting people into a sort of flash-mob singalong of “Lean on Me,” a spot-on choice for Good Friday in my universe. Then people are given a chance to drop a few coins, some food, or whatever they have to give into a donation space for a local book bank.
In this Lent reflection, Grant and Uncle Graham Paulson talk about cultural genocide and forgiveness in the same breath. It is an honor to listen to someone who is possible of such a witness.
Lent is a season of preparation. But the process of preparing for Easter does not need to be all negative commitments and focused on the things we don’t do.
One opportunity for developing new positive practices during Lent involves learning to see. The Gospels recount at least three different instances after the resurrection in which followers of Jesus were not able to recognize or “see” him: Mary at the tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, the road to Emmaus, and the delayed reaction when Jesus gave great fishing advice.
The truth of Easter is not always readily apparent. It requires the ability to see clearly. This means rubbing our eyes, clearing them of gunk, and focusing our vision.
Having recently shifted from spending most of my day in an office to spending almost all of it outside, I’ve been ruminating on what it might mean to practice seeing the non-human or natural world more clearly. Here are my initial reflections:
Have you ever been moved by a sunset? A star-filled canopy of the night sky? A canyon-filled horizon? A towering wooded cathedral?
What was the feeling? Gratitude for the beauty? Humility in the midst of grandeur? Inspired to greatness while experiencing greatness? Joy in celebration of it all?
At the heart of the Lenten season is an interesting paradox.
Lent is not observed in the making of Lenten commitments, but you can’t actually observe Lent without making a commitment.
Elsewhere at Sojourners, Jarrod McKenna reminds us that Lent is not ultimately about “giving up stuff” but about “the preparation of our hearts for what God has done in Christ.” Adam Ericksen encourages us that, “The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial.”
To both these points and posts I say, amen.
But as a lifelong Protestant who recently returned from spending time with Benedictine monks and nuns in New Mexico, I’ve come back with some evolving perspectives on fasting and other ascetic practices from the Catholic tradition. This isn’t in contradiction to either of these authors’ perspectives but more of a summation of my recent convictions as someone who has tended to skip the Lenten fasts altogether.
Here is what has struck me. I do not believe most Western Christians today are so focused on giving up their creature comforts for Lent that they are in danger of making their faith dependent upon physical fasting. Maybe I’m generalizing too much. So I’ll make this statement more personal:
My greatest struggle has not been that I have been so committed to “giving up stuff” for Lent that I have forgotten that God’s grace is unconditional. Rather, I have tended to avoid the discomfort of giving up my daily habits and physical dependencies by using a vague sense of “inner attitudes” of preparation as an excuse. As a result, I believe I’ve been missing some real opportunities to be receptive to God’s grace.
There are few reasons I believe this to be so important.
Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ - John 2:15,16
This is one of the most important stories in the life of Jesus. So important, that it’s one of a handful of stories that all four Gospel writers actually all share.
Even though they remember it differently.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke — they recall that this episode where Jesus entered the Temple grounds and stirred stuff up once and for all — they remember it near the end of his life. They place it as one of the main reasons that Jesus is arrested and put to death as a capitol offense against the Roman Empire.
Walking into the Temple — run by the Jewish religious elite who had been put in place by the Roman imperial oppressors — was tantamount into walking into a federal government building and blowing it up.
Except Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus is a pacifist. Jesus is a prophet.
We’ve all heard the sidewalk preachers and TV Evangelists quoting the Gospels, telling us, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"
It’s a claim that is generally intended to strike fear and trembling in the hearts of many. We’re supposed to straighten up, do right, and atone for all of our heinous, sinful ways.
If you went to my kind of church growing up, there wasn’t a sermon that went by that you didn’t hear the pastor say something like, "The end could be today, tomorrow or next week. So you’d better beg for forgiveness, get right with the Lord, or risk getting ‘left behind.’"
The season of Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, yes. But we’ve come to misunderstand both what it means to repent, and what Jesus is talking about when he foretells of God’s coming Kingdom.
As for the latter, Jesus preached to some degree about the afterlife, yes. But his Kingdom-talk primarily was focused on us, on receiving and co-creating God’s Kingdom vision for ALL of us, here and now, in our very midst. So rather than talking about some hellfire apocalyptic end-times, he’s urging us to open our eyes, to see what’s right in front of us.
We can have what he, what God, long for us. To live in a world inspired and living into the Kingdom possibilities just there, nearly within our reach if we’ll only claim it and risk everything to fulfill it.