Apr 122017
 

In Western Christian tradition today goes by a number of names including  Holy Wednesday and Good Wednesday. It can also be called Spy Wednesday because of certain events mentioned in the gospels. Unfortunately the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel diverge considerably on the order and timing of the major events of Holy Week although they generally agree concerning the events themselves with some minor variations as to particulars.

According to Mark (12:3-10) on the Wednesday before his death Jesus was in Bethany in the evening:

3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. 4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. 6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

The chronology in John is very different.  There the event happens before the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, but in some Western liturgical traditions Mark’s chronology is accepted and gives us the name Spy Wednesday where “spy” means essentially “ambush” or “betrayal.” Two events are linked in Mark’s narrative – the anointing of Jesus and Judas’ decision to betray him – but in John the relationship is much clearer, and some added details have caused a lot of speculation.

In John it is Judas who complains about the waste of the perfume but he is accused of hypocrisy in that he didn’t want to help the poor but himself. Seeing the lost opportunity enrich himself he goes to the Sanhedrin seeking a bribe for betraying Jesus’ whereabouts. The general point is that Jesus preached openly in the daytime and generally infuriated the authorities with his message which was harshly critical of the status quo from which they all benefited. They wanted to get rid of him but were afraid to arrest him in broad daylight surrounded by a sympathetic mob.  In the evenings, however, he seemingly vanished into thin air and no one, with the exception of his closest friends, knew where he went. To seize him in the evening one of his friends would have to turn on him. Judas obliged.

The woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus is not given a name in Mark but is called Mary in John.  Luke places this whole event at a different time in Jesus life, and characterizes the woman as a sinner. Putting these diverse details together leads a few commentators to declare not only that the woman, named Mary, was a sinner, but that she was none other than Mary Magdalene. This identification is extremely problematic. Mary Magdalene comes to the fore during and after the crucifixion, it is true. She is highly prominent, especially because she is said to be the first witness to the resurrection, and the first evangelist. She is mentioned in the gospels more than most of the apostles by name. Medieval scholars conflated her with the Mary who anointed Jesus, and taking the theme from Luke, suggests she was a reformed prostitute. These are completely unwarranted conclusions. There is not a shred of evidence from the gospels that Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute, nor that she was the Mary who anointed Jesus. Mary (Miriam) was a very common name.

Scholars are also deeply divided as to why Judas betrayed Jesus. The darker side of all of this, that is rarely raised, is that the Romans executed him, not the Sanhedrin, but the gospels all go out of their way to blame the Sanhedrin for starting the whole process. Hence in history one of the crimes laid at the door of Jews by Christians, fueling anti-Semitism, is that they (not the Romans) killed Jesus, and so must pay for their sins.  That narrative works for the gospel writers because they, thus, avoid appearing anti-Roman at a time when being publicly anti-Roman got you killed. So, Judas betrays Jesus to the Sanhedrin, not to the Roman authorities. Judas was greedy and was looking for a bribe, so he sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. What really happened?

Nothing really adds up here. Why would a trusted member of Jesus’ inner circle betray him at all. We could start with the idea that there were 12 apostles.  Were there really? There were 12 tribes of Israel so there is some clear symbolism being promoted here. But “the twelve” are a bit of a shadowy lot. The gospels do not agree concerning the names of all of them for starters, and clearly some are more central than others. What do you remember about Thaddeus, for example, or Bartholomew? Judas Iscariot is identified as the treasurer of the group (or keeper of the purse). Otherwise there’s nothing to single him out prior to his betrayal.

One idea that springs off the top of my head is that there was a genuine inner circle – Peter, James, and John – and a lot of hangers on who came and went, some closer than others. Judas was one of these fringe elements who was intrigued by Jesus’ message but without a lot of conviction in it.  There must have been a lot of this type – especially men. What is clear from the gospels, as well as Paul’s letters, is that the backbone of Jesus’ following were women, not men. This makes the scene of Jesus’ anointing at dinner all the more poignant. The guys just, more or less, sit around and do nothing while a woman makes a profound sacrifice of love and devotion (and one of the supposedly faithful men sneaks off and sells him down the river).  This mirrors the general state of affairs in Judah (and the Roman empire) of the day, and is still the dominant posture of many Christian denominations. They lived in, and we live in, unabashedly patriarchal societies. Was one of the major problems that Jesus had with the powers that be – Jewish and Roman – that he had a very large female following in a culture dominated by men? Hard to say, but I suspect so.

Today’s putative events took place, as did so many of Jesus’ telling moments, at the meal table. I’ve talked quite a bit about the typical cuisine of ancient Judah, so you can pick from the many standard ingredients: lentils, olives, grapes, fish (of course), as well as eggs, flatbread and the like. Meat would not have been common, and, naturally, I’ll save lamb for Sunday. The ingredient that springs to mind for today is figs because of another minor (and inscrutable) event of Holy Week. On the way to the Temple one day Jesus is hungry but when he inspects a fig tree for fruit is has none (because it is not the right season). So he curses it, and on returning it has withered. What did the tree do wrong? Would you curse an apple tree in March because it bore no apples? About the best commentators can come up with is that Jesus was symbolically cursing people who are all talk (showy foliage) and no action (fruit). Maybe so, but figs are great – dried or fresh.

When they are in season I slice fresh figs and eat them on bread with sharp cheese. The combination is unbeatable. For a truly great sandwich place figs and cheese between slices of whole grain bread and grill the sandwich on both sides until the bread is nicely toasted and the cheese melted and gooey.

Apr 092017
 

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, and the last Sunday in Lent. These days, ever since I left the U.S. and stopped preaching, Palm Sunday sometimes creeps up on my unawares.  Not this year, because I am paying attention, but it past years it has often caught me by surprise because I have been traveling for my birthday or the like. In 2012, for example, I was in Cusco for my birthday trip to Machu Picchu, and on the Sunday following I walked down to the center of town and came across dozens of women sitting in the street weaving crosses, crowns, and other decorations from palm fronds.  Everyone in town was carrying palms of some sort, and there was a generally festive atmosphere. At midday there was a gigantic parade of church and civic groups before the town’s dignitaries with hundreds of onlookers all around the main square and side roads.

The following year, again by surprise, I bumped into a local church procession in Buenos Aires near my apartment with congregants carrying olive branches and singing as they toured the block around the parish church. Palms are traditional in many countries because of the gospel narrative, but in quite a few places where palms were difficult to come by in the past, people carry, and wave, branches of olive, yew, box, willow, or other local native trees. Olive branches are standard in Rome and I believe that the custom was transferred to Argentina by Catholic monks from the Old World in colonial times even though palms are plentiful there. In fact in the gospels only John specifies palms. In the others they refer to “branches” and in Spanish this day is called domingo de ramos (Branch Sunday).

The narrative of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before the Passover when he died is found in all the canonical gospels.  Here’s John (12:12-15):

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

The quotation at the end comes from Zechariah’s messianic prophecy (9:9), and the shouts of the people come from the Psalms (188:25-26), leading a great many Biblical historians to question the historicity of the event. Did this really happen or is this a wishful (theologically apt) construction of the gospel writers to make a point, underscoring their beliefs concerning the upcoming Easter events? Jesus proved himself to be the foretold Messiah, so he must have entered the city as a peaceful king as foretold by the prophets.

There’s a lot of ancient symbolism thrown together here and the gospels do not exactly agree on specifics. In some cases there is clear confusion. Matthew for example commands his disciples (21:2-3), 2Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me.And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” Later (21:7) the disciples lay their clothes on the donkey AND the colt and set Jesus on BOTH of them – seemingly. How they managed this is a miracle in its own right. How does one ride two animals simultaneously? What seems likely is that Matthew’s Hebrew was not up to snuff and he misread (or misunderstood) the original from Zechariah which reads:

See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey

The original Hebrew is poetry using the frequent Hebrew poetic device of duplication for emphasis. Zechariah is not saying that the king comes riding on a donkey AND a colt, but that the donkey in question is a colt, the offspring of a donkey. Duh !! The fact that the triumphal beast of burden is a donkey and not a horse is also significant. The horse as a king’s mount is a symbol of war; the donkey is a symbol of peace.

It was not uncommon in the ancient Near East for people to spread clothes and branches in the path of a conquering hero. The specific identity of branches as palm fronds is unique to John. The palm was a very complex symbol in ancient times in both the Greco-Roman and Egyptian worlds which John was presumably familiar with. In the Roman Empire, which strongly influenced Christian tradition, the palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory. It became the most common attribute of the goddess Nike or Victory. For contemporary readers of John, the procession would likely have evoked the Roman triumph, when the triumphator laid down his arms and wore the toga, the civilian garment of peace that might be ornamented with emblems of the palm. In ancient Egyptian religion, the palm was carried in funeral processions and represented eternal life. The palm branch later was used as a symbol of Christian martyrs and their spiritual victory or triumph over death.

This juxtaposition of life, death, and triumph brings us back to the events of Holy Week. Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week which is a bittersweet moment in the Christian calendar observed by Catholics, Orthodox, and many mainstream Protestant denominations alike (even those that are not especially keen on Lent).  Holy Week is the climax of Jesus’ ministry when his role is made fully manifest. He preaches to huge crowds, performs miracles, and cleanses the Temple of moneychangers. He is both a hell raiser and pacifist bringing a new dispensation to the world. As such he is both praised and reviled: by the mob on the one hand, and by the Temple authorities on the other. The gospels cast the mob as terminally fickle, however. They are awed and excited by Jesus at the start of the week, and howling for his death by the end.

Jesus plays a cat and mouse game with the Temple authorities all week, openly preaching in the center of Jerusalem by day where he is kept safe by the crowds, but spiriting away in secret to the isolated suburbs at night where the authorities cannot find him until he is betrayed by one of his own. This is a teacher/preacher who has made a name for himself in the provinces but is now a grand celebrity in the capital and is making the most of it. Of course in Roman Imperial times this was an exceptionally dangerous game to play. The Romans were ever fearful of a Jewish uprising and there were many secret rebel groups bent on violent action. The Romans had no compunction in killing off ringleaders if they caught them. Scholars debate endlessly to this day as to whether it was the Romans or the Temple leaders who were responsible in actual historical fact for Jesus execution and I will have much more to say about this on Maundy Thursday. For now I will note that starting with the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday the gospel writers are setting the stage for a showdown between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, and the Romans are very much in the background, seemingly innocent bystanders. I suspect that the Romans were taking much more notice than they are reported to have been.

My Lenten wreath today has only the central Christ candle lit as a stark reminder that while the world temporarily rejoices, the light of the world is moving on to face his death alone. Holy Week was a very lonely time for Jesus despite all the hustle and bustle in Jerusalem. I will extinguish the Christ candle on Good Friday.

Hearts of palm are the obvious ingredient of choice for today. Heart of palm is harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees (notably the coconut (Cocos nucifera), Palmito Juçara (Euterpe edulis), Açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea), sabal (Sabal spp.), pupunha and pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes) palms). Harvesting of many non-cultivated or wild single-stemmed palms results in the death of the tree (e.g. Geonoma edulis).  Some palm species, however, are clonal or multi-stemmed plants (e.g. Prestoea acuminata, Euterpe oleracea) and moderate harvesting will not kill the entire clonal palm.

An alternative to wild heart of palm are palm varieties which have been domesticated as farm species. The main variety that has been domesticated is Bactris gasipaes, known in Ecuador as chontaduro, in Brazil and Costa Rica as palmito, and in English as the peach palm. This variety is the most widely used for canning. They are self-suckering and produce multiple stems, up to 40 on one plant, meaning that modest annual harvesting does no damage to the main plant. Another advantage that the peach palm has over other palms is that it has been selectively bred to eliminate the vicious thorns of its wild cousins. Harvesting is still a labor-intensive task, and thus palm hearts are regarded as a delicacy in many parts of the world. In the U.S. they are readily available canned and are not expensive. I always kept a can or two on hand when I lived in NY.

As is common, I used to use hearts of palm in salads, or on their own with a simple dressing. As a salad component the sliced hearts add some texture and flavor to a salad. They come packed in an acidulated liquid (typically ascorbic acid), so they can be a bit astringent. I used to like to drink the canning liquid but it may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a lot sweeter than pickle juices which I know some folks like. Salads made with all crispy components such as hearts of palm, green beans, and asparagus make a welcome change from their leafy brethren. As a simple side dish for the day – dripping with Holy Week symbolism – I suggest plain hearts of palm dressed with the flesh of passionfruit.

Hearts of palm can also be cooked. They can be plain grilled, or baked. In the latter case, slice them thickly then toss them with olive oil, finely diced garlic, chopped fresh parsley, and grated cheese. Bake in a hot oven until they are nicely golden.