What to Leave In, What to Leave Out
If you are following the biblical readings assigned for Holy Week you'll be reading a lot of John. On Good Friday we'll hear the passion narrative from John's Gospel and parishioners will see the following rubric, printed in italics below the heading for the reading, in their service leaflets: "The Gospel According to John was written at a time of tension when the Jews who followed Jesus were separating themselves from those who did not. The congregation is reminded that when John writes "the Jews" he is referring to particular leaders of the Jewish community in Jesus' time, and not to the Jewish people as a whole. Last week I told a colleague that I didn't think the rubric was necessary and I wondered if we should take it out. They disagreed, which is good, meaning we are both necessary!
The rubric is included in the leaflet because, as Rowan Williams puts it in his chapter on John in one of our Lenten reading selections (Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgement) "[John] reads painfully today because the history of the Gospel's reception includes so much of that anti-Jewish passion that disgraces and disfigures Christian identity."
I can't think of a religious sect (or a person, for that matter) that isn't disgraced and disfigured by parts of its own identity and history. Nor can I think of a canon of sacred writing that doesn't contain stories that undoubtedly contribute(d) to the disgrace and disfigurement of its adherents. If we start making apologies for the biblical texts we call holy we should probably start adding lots of apologies in our service leaflets. By Easter Sunday this week we will hear about the Lord tossing the Egyptians into the sea and about the Lord striking down all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals. I didn't see any rubrics in the drafts of those leaflets: Exodus was written at a time when God was vengeful but he's nice now... it wasn't all the firstborn that would be killed but just the ones who didn't get the memo about putting blood on the door, etc.
Not long ago the Cathedral wrestled with the issue of removing two images of the confederate flag portrayed in its stained glass windows. Do these images disgrace and disfigure our identity as a nation (or as a faith) or do they rather accurately convey something important about that history which needs remembering? Does removing them solve the problem they represent or does leaving them provide an opportunity for conversation? On the issue I'm sure that these and many other scenarios were debated among the Cathedral's leadership and this blog post really isn't about the issue of glass images that might need to be shattered but Holy Week, metaphorically anyway, is. Holy Week is a time to ponder all that disgraces and disfigures our identity (both past and present), as individuals, as followers of Jesus, as Christians and as members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, even when those images are conveyed within the canon of Holy Scripture and especially when they are distortions of the God who within our tradition is a God who loves us so much he loves until the end, even death on a cross.