Holy Week Homilette
Don C. Postema, Ph.D.
Holy Wednesday, March 23, 2016
- also called “Spy Wednesday,” an allusion to Judas’ betrayal of Christ
It’s Holy Week, the eternal now in which the Holy draws nearest to the mundane world in its pain, suffering, betrayal, and brokenness. It’s intense and packed, liturgically and metaphorically. With services every day, and on some days more than one, a priest has a hard time running all the way through Holy Week to Easter on her own. At St. John’s, our senior priest does have a pedigree that includes cross country, an athletic endeavor known not for its sprints but for its stamina. Or, as the college coach of my roommate’s cross country team said, the longer the race, the better my runners look. For this Holy Week, our priest has decided to tag team the preaching bouts during Holy Week, drawing from the bench of theologians and philosophers he’s assembled for just this purpose. His strategy is to conserve his own preaching energy for the major events, recruit those who are always ready and willing to assume the pulpit, schedule them so early in the mornings that few, in their pre-coffee mental fog, will remember what they said afterwards, hoping that there’ll be a team medal at the end for a race well run.
The Lectionary Readings for today are:
Isaiah 50.4-9a. Introducing the Suffering Servant
Psalm 70. The Suffering Servant’s Lament: Help! Don’t Tarry!
Hebrews 12.1-3. A Metaphor for the Suffering Servant: Run the Race, or No Pain, No Gain
John 13.21-32. Suffering as Betrayal: What About Judas?
It’s customary to reflect on the texts for the day in homilies, even when they are homilies-lite. The choice of the four texts today appears to be intended to demonstrate the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New, a literary device aimed at showing that a single work with multiple authors nevertheless has thematic unity. One of my teachers used to call this the “pre-figuring” of the New Testament in the Old, and wielded it as his hermeneutical weapon of choice in teaching Bible classes. The focus of the texts today is the Suffering Servant, introduced in Isaiah, given voice in the Psalm, taken up in the metaphorical running race in Hebrews, and suffering the ultimate betrayal at the hands of one whom he has loved in the Gospel of John.
At risk of being accused of adopting a Deconstructionist literary theory, and with a certain impatience with the customary glosses over these texts during Holy Weeks past, I will simply focus on two ideas that seem to protrude from these texts this morning. First, to listen as those who are taught. Second, sustaining the weary with a word. The Isaiah text has a perverse personal appeal, initially, because of my bearded state: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. Clearly, I’ve survived the beard-pluckers for years, though its current hue is evidence of my long travail.
What does strike me in the Isaiah text is this section:
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
That I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens –
wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
And I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
To listen as those who are taught. As a teacher, I would like to be known as one who listens as a student listens, modelling openness and receptivity to different ideas and experiences as potential sources of insight and understanding. Adopting the Socratic maxim to “Know thyself” leads to Socratic wisdom, the paradoxical stance of knowing what one does not know. Socratic wisdom and Socratic ignorance turn out to be the same thing, apparently a contradiction. What stands in the way of this recognition of the finitude and fallibility of one’s own knowledge is just what Isaiah identifies as “rebelliousness,” turning away from the Socratic truth to the safety of one’s opinions and beliefs, especially those that are crowd-sourced. To listen fairly and judiciously, yet not uncritically, is a virtue worth practicing. The Suffering Servant, to invoke an old sense of suffering as being shaped by something or someone else, is one who allows the ideas, beliefs and values of the other to affect the servant, to make a fair impression. Listening is difficult because it requires de-centering from oneself and sometimes suspension of one’s most cherished beliefs. This sort of listening is in short supply in a society that applauds bravado and belligerence, unwarranted self-assertion at the expense of encountering and critically considering the beliefs of others.
Sustaining the weary with a word also resonates and provokes reflection. Who are the weary? They are fellow sufferers who tire of listening, who tire of persisting in their pursuit of what is good and true and beautiful in the face of an onslaught of the powerful and their uncritical acceptance of self-serving ideologies. The weary are those who falter in their pursuit of the good, not from lack of will, but from lack of insight into the good. The weary lose their resolve for the truth when lies seem to be at the heart of those who flourish. The weary lack reminders of the beautiful in their everyday lives, beset not only by the ugly but also by the cheap and the tawdry. The weary are those who experience isolation from a community which would sustain them in their suffering.
How does the teacher sustain the weary? The word spoken to the weary is a reminder of the centers of meaning hidden just beneath the surface of our world. These meanings or values, like gems along the shore, require a discerning eye. In some ways, these words make the invisible visible – which is just the work of art. Art or the discovery or creation of meaning, is nourishing to the soul of the Suffering Servant. Art speaks the word which soothes the weary. It makes the real present, as George Steiner argues in Real Presences. The artist or teacher stands between the transcendent or the gods and the rest of us, speaking in a manner that makes the invisible visible to us. Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, thought of the work of the artist as bringing the real to light, speaking the first word which opens up the ground of our very being to us. In Christian terms, this is just the Word become flesh, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. Sustaining the weary is the incarnational work of those who follow the Christ as the Suffering Servant. This is our work as we listen to the Holy this week and all weeks.
©Don C. Postema