All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.
At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.
The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."
“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.
We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.
Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave.
Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.
As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.
I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."
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We call it Holy Week. But it was a terrible week.
His trial reeked of injustice. His own disciple sold him out for a few pieces of silver, betrayed him with a kiss … and hung himself.
As he was arrested, one of his closest friends disregarded all his teaching on love, pulled out a knife, and cut a guy’s ear off. (Jesus called him out … and healed the other guy). A lot of the stuff that happened that first holy week was pretty unholy.
Once arrested, he was passed back and forth between politicians and bureaucrats. There was Caiaphas the priest, the Sanhedrin council, Pontius Pilate, the crowd — everyone seemed to want him dead, but no one wanted blood on their hands. Even Pilate washed his clean.
They had all kinds of accusations. Insurrection. Inciting a riot. Conspiracy. Terrorism (plotting to destroy the temple). Blasphemy.
But all he did was love. And heal. And give people hope.
Despite any substantial evidence, witnesses, or signs of any crime committed, he was pronounced guilty and sentenced to die.
As he awaited his fate, he was bullied, interrogated, harassed, tortured, beaten to a pulp. The authorities humiliated him and stripped him naked. They mocked the claims of his divinity, ramming a crown of thorns onto his head and wrapping him in a royal purple robe as they laughed.
And so it went. This man who many believe was the holy one that the prophets spoke of, the long-awaited Messiah, God incarnate, love with skin on— was executed, brutally. He died with his body convulsing as his lungs collapsed, with vultures swarming overhead, hoping to clean up after the execution. There is nothing more evil than what happened that “Good” Friday.
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?
I used to hate Good Friday. Jesus dying a gruesome and unjust death didn’t seem particularly “good” to me. Even now, when I watch a Jesus movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told (or let’s be real: Jesus Christ Superstar), I find myself secretly hoping that someone in the crowd will say “wait a second! Just four days ago we really liked this guy. Crucifixion is a terrible idea, let’s go have Passover.” Mic drop.
The idealist and optimist in me would prefer to be reminded that the cross was empty, that Jesus was alive, to focus less on Good Friday and more on Easter Sunday. But I have come to appreciate the image of Christ on the cross much more now that I’m an adult and there are things that I have said and done in my life that deserve a reckoning. Jesus is there, gladly bearing my sin on the cross.
I’ve come to appreciate that there are so many broken and twisted places in this world that need a Redeemer. And Jesus is there, undoing the power of sin and evil on the cross.
Editor's Note: Sojourners is celebrating Earth Week with a special message series every day next week. Click here to join us!
“Behold, I am making all things new!” says Jesus in the book of Revelation. It’s this spirit of hope and second chances that we celebrate at Easter time. Life triumphs over death and decay. We get a second chance.
But what about our planet? A cursory glance shows us that God’s creation could use some renewal.
Creation is definitely groaning. We’re losing species, spilling oil, and changing our climate at an alarming rate. We’re building sea walls and responding to pumped-up natural disasters. Energy companies are pushing for even more access to the fossil fuels that are harming God’s creation. Action from Congress seems far away, and moneyed special interests are working hard to block other kinds of action.