Easter is the hardest season to retain the concept that scripture is not history. No part of the Bible was composed with the idea that historical events were being accurately recorded. Even if the episode being mentioned had actually happened in the way it was described that was irrelevant to the theological lesson that was being proclaimed. Palm Sunday was not about Jesus bravely riding on a donkey into Jerusalem while children welcomed him with palm branches strewn on the pavement.
Nor were the stories of the other events of Holy Week meant to be taken literally. They were not to be taken metaphorically, either. They were to be discerned theologically. They describe how people grasped what God was doing in Christ. The story was not to describe what Jesus was up to as he rode into Jerusalem that day in 33 A.D., but was an example of how one discerns what God is up to all the time.
For the first auditors of those stories, and those included people who had been present along the roadside, in the garden, and at the tomb, it would have been blasphemous and unthinkable to presume to pontificate on what God was doing. God is not available for our inspection and analysis. God’s holiness is not all about size, either. It is not that God is vast, but that God is godlike, other, imponderable, awesome, and stupendous in power and purpose. God is beyond description or speculation.
Whatever you want to say about God the answer is NO.
You can see what God does, however. The affects of God’s actions are discernable, if one chooses to consider them long enough to come to a profound Ah, Ha! That insight then unites all else, and tends to grow as one’s perspective expands about what else there is.
The Gospel’s “good news” is that a group of people who had encountered Jesus of Nazareth ruminated on their experiences and arrived at a collective Ah, Ha! They shared some of their stories and discerned a core of meaning. The meaning was profound, they testified. The meaning was earthshaking. The meaning was consistent with older stories being told, especially older stories being told by Jews, which included overlapping stories from Phoenicians, Persians and others. The meaning was profound and pertinent. It was timely and important.
Two ways developed to transfer that insight.
One was through sacred narrative. The stories were told in juxtaposition so that a narrative that already had made a profound impact on the listeners was heard alongside another story which the narrator testified contained the same profound meaning. If that worked, sooner or later, a listener would have an Ah, Ha!
The other way to transfer the insight was through re-enactment of a sacred encounter in which the profound meaning was manifested. Times of life-passage (birth, marriage, death, for example) were prime times for re-enactment, but so were annual cycles that mimic birth, fecundity, and death. Those re-enactments of divine-human encounters were meant to provide opportunities for participants to have an Ah, Ha! … and to then regularly revisit the breakthrough so it could expand to include everything that is current.
But the ascertaining of insight into the meaning of life was not the same thing as grasping God, the Awesome and Magnificent, the Eternal and Transcendent. When one has broken through into understanding, the first thing one understands is how little one knows. But the yeast of understanding is planted and one’s perspective is no longer static.
[Woodcut by Sadao Watanabe, 1913-1996, “Entry to Jerusalem”]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.