God is Always Needing to Be Born

Essay by Lauren Van Ham on 1 February 2018 12 Comments

January is over and 2018 is finding its voice. Each year extends possibility. Within the possibility, events take place – births, deaths, celebrations, mishaps – and history is made. Meister Eckhart, the 12th century mystic proclaimed,
We are all meant to be mothers of God...for God is always needing to be born.

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​I belong to a church that has a fairly sophisticated membership. We are inclusive and pride ourselves on our openness to diversity of race, socio-economic background, ethnic background and sexual orientation. It's a warm, comfortable atmosphere in which to worship, and people remark on the welcoming nature of our congregation. I cringe, however, every time we enter the Lenten season, especially as we get closer to Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Some of the references to the Jews clearly foster an anti-Semitic atmosphere. There are Jews in the choir and some in the congregation as well. While sophisticated people realize there is a 2000-year span of time between the Crucifixion and today, still there are people who succumb to literalist interpretations and justify their own prejudices. I am especially concerned about the impression this makes on children and for the feelings of the Jews who sit in the pews and listen to these readings. How can we address this and still read the accounts in a faithful manner?


Dear Cynthia, your concerns resonate deeply with me. Although context is not everything, it affects everything. Texts that emerged originally within a Jewish milieu and embody intra-Jewish differences, today land upon the heart and ear as anti-Jewish rhetoric within the very core of the holiest days of the Christian liturgical year. To be unresponsive is to be irresponsible. Our multicultural and interfaith context requires that we make significant changes in worship if we are to be faithful to the Christic wisdom path of Jesus.

Over the past decade I have worked with communities within the Episcopal church, at least one of which has various faith traditions counted among its worshiping membership, to reconceive the vision of Holy Week, to draw upon radically inclusive translations of scriptural texts, and to preach in such a way as to deliberately and forthrightly acknowledge the anti-Jewish history and rhetoric of prayer, song, and story, and to rewrite the liturgies we pray that shape our searching souls. Let me offer a few concrete examples.

Our flyer for Holy Week speaks of The Wisdom Way of Christ: A Holy Path for 21st Century Seekers. The spiritual path of the realization of our Christic nature, not sacrificial atonement, is the genesis of our worship. Within this embracing vision, the distinct liturgical days receive their renewed focus, drawing principally from the Wisdom literature of the scriptures. The Reign of Wisdom is the meaning of Palm Sunday. Being Sent to Serve is the thrust of Maundy Thursday. Companionship and Cross, not abandonment and isolation, is the heart of Good Friday, and the reality that Light Renews our Life is the message of Easter.

But it is not enough to reform the liturgies of Holy Week. The liturgies and readings and songs and prayers which shape us throughout the entire year must be reworked to reflect more clearly the Jewish spirituality of Jesus of Nazareth. We also need to radically expand our vision of what a faith community is today. For not only are there Jews who sit beside Christians in our faith communities, there are also Muslims and Unitarians and Buddhists and those who consciously eschew labels of identification and are searching for a safe place to search and question and be supported.

What this diverse presence brings is an invitation: the faith community exists not to convert to a belief system, but to welcome into faith journey. There is a universal relevance in the Christic wisdom path of Jesus: each and every being is a unique and precious embodiment of the Holy Source; a chosen One of immeasurable worth. Too often the light of Christ is dulled and distorted by text and ritual when it need not be. Our responsibility is to polish the lenses from centuries of deadening dust.

~ Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Connection between the Crucifixion and the Passover, Part II


Last week I began the analysis of the crucifixion of Jesus as it appears in all four gospels, examining in particular the claim that this founding moment in the Christian story occurred in the context of the Passover, which celebrates the founding moment in the sacred story of the Jewish people. I raised the question as to whether that connection is literal, remembered history or is rather an interpretative liturgical adaptation. My first clue was found in an examination of the narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark, the earliest gospel, which scholars generally date in the early 70's C.E. In that story of the Passion, (14:17-15:47), I pointed out that we have a format of a 24-hour vigil divided into eight clearly marked three-hour segments. The material that provides the content of this account has been lifted not from remembered history, but from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. That was my first clue. Christians need to embrace that even the treasured description of Jesus' crucifixion is not literal history, it is later interpretative material. Jesus died alone with no one standing by to record what happened. Mark has made that clear by his assertion that when Jesus was arrested all of his disciples forsook him and fled (Mark 14:50).

It is the setting of the crucifixion story against the observance of the Passover that first started my questioning process. Passover is observed in the Jewish world on the 14th and 15th days of the month of Nisan, which would place it in late March or early April on our calendars. The biblical narrative in Mark, Matthew and Luke (to put them in the order in which they were written) suggests that the Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem took place just five days before the Passover. It indeed was the Passover celebration that drew Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem in the first place. If this entry came a week before Passover it would move the date to somewhere between mid-March and the first of April.

Yet the Palm Sunday procession, according to the earliest narration in Mark (11:1-10) was accompanied by the spreading of leafy branches that they cut from the fields (Mark 11:8). The only trouble with that little detail is that at that time of year, there are no leafy branches in the Holy Land. The leaves have not yet come out! Is that a hint that the Palm Sunday procession was either not history at all or was not originally in the spring of the year? It is at the very least a provocative clue that we might want to probe further.

The next step in our analysis comes when we examine the passion narrative in Matthew, which was the second gospel to be written, coming some 10-12 years after Mark. However, we know that Matthew had Mark in front of him when he wrote, so any time we see that Matthew has overtly and clearly changed the text of Mark, we need to ask why. What was his reason? Can we discover his agenda? Looking at Matthew's version of Mark's Palm Sunday procession story (Matt. 21:1-9) we discover a fascinating note. Whereas Mark refers to the cutting of "leafy" branches, Matthew, perhaps aware that there were no leaves on the branches of the trees in late March or early April, simply omits the reference to the leaves. This means that in Matthew's gospel the crowd only cut branches (v. 8). A branch without leaves might better be called a stick and sticks without leaves are not thought of as instruments that can be spread or waved. It is the leaves that provide the cover on the ground on which the procession can move. It is the leaves that flutter when the branches are waved. So I become slightly more suspicious when Matthew omits the leaves from these branches.

Turning next to Luke who wrote some 5 to 10 years after Matthew, and who also had Mark before him when he composed his gospel, we discover another interesting clue. Luke's Palm Sunday story (19:28-44) has omitted any reference to the waving of the branches at all.

There are no leafy branches in Luke because there are no branches at all. Luke has replaced that gesture with another. In Luke's Palm Story the people only lay down their clothes before him (v. 36). Was Luke also suggesting that Mark's story did not add up and he wanted to make it consistent? There were no leafy branches to be waved in the Holy Land in March.

When we come to John's gospel, that is generally dated somewhere between 95-100, we believe that we are dealing with a different and independent source. He is not dependent on the rest of the synoptic tradition.The data we find here is thus even more fascinating. John does not appear to identify Jesus' entry into Jerusalem with the Passover. He has been there in the region for some time. Jesus however stages a procession into Jerusalem just a few days before the Passover. When we recall that John is the only gospel that claims to be based on the work of an eyewitness, his placement needs to be looked at carefully. I know of no scholar who thinks this gospel was actually written by the disciple of Jesus named John Zebedee. However, there is a strong scholarly tradition that suggests that the Fourth Gospel John might be the work of a disciple of the apostle John and thus might reflect more remembered history than the others.

The Johanine note that I wish to add to the growing data, however, is that John is the first gospel to suggest that the branches they waved were made out of palm and thus were evergreen. Palms however would not be characterized as "leafy branches." By naming the Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, we have stamped the day with its particular identification with palm branches so it is of interest to note that only in a book written 65-70 years after the crucifixion does the narrative suggest that palms were used in the triumphal entry. One wonders why that note would have escaped the memory of the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke. None of this is yet a persuasive argument. It is only a series of hints that are becoming cumulative — so on we move.

We come next to the story of a fig tree that Mark relates as coming on the day after the Palm Sunday procession (Mark 11:12-14, 20, 21). Mark's account says that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he went to the Temple and looked around. Presumably he saw the commerce and the moneychangers at work but he did nothing more than to take in this scene before withdrawing for the night to Bethany where the group was headquartered, probably at the home of Mary and Martha.

The next day on their way up to Jerusalem from Bethany for the activity that came to be called the cleansing of the Temple, Mark tells us that Jesus was hungry. Seeing a fig tree in the distance, he went to it seeking figs. However, no fig tree bears fruit in late March in the northern hemisphere. Jesus, apparently unaware of that bit of reality, is irate and curses the fig tree to eternal barrenness. It is a strange portrait of Jesus, generally ignored by sermon writers. To curse a fig tree for not bearing fruit in March is not unlike blaming a man for not getting pregnant. It is to be judged for the inability to do the impossible. After this episode, Mark relates the dramatic story of Jesus driving those buying and selling as well as those changing money from the Temple. Then on the way home, Mark concludes the fig tree story by observing that Jesus' curse took. The fig tree had withered to its roots.

Is this again hidden evidence of a different dating process? Had this story been in the fall it would not be so jarring, so difficult to understand the actions of Jesus. Is this a hint that it was originally a fall narrative and that when it was moved into the orbit of the Passover in early spring all of its now inappropriate time references were not smoothed away?

Once more we turn to see what Matthew and Luke do with this strange story as they work from Mark's text to create their own. Matthew relates the fig tree story almost identically. He simply makes it wither at once and does not have to revisit this uncomfortable narrative as Mark does. Luke however omits it altogether in this context, but earlier in his gospel (Lk 13:6-9) he uses much of this material in a parable about a fig tree that it does not produce fruit, creating in the owner of that land the desire to cut the unproductive tree down. His foreman saves the tree for at least a year with the promise of digging around it and fertilizing it.

The leafy branches reference in the first Palm Sunday triumphal entry story and the fig tree story were both told as part of the preamble to the crucifixion at the time of the Passover. They both seem out of place in that early spring setting. Is there a hint in these narratives that the original context of both was the fall of the year? They look like they have been moved and rather clumsily at that. When these things are examined one cannot help but wonder if these accounts were not originally connected with the fall of the year and, sometime between the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels, were moved because the crucifixion had been attached liturgically to the Passover, and the death of the Paschal Lamb at Passover had become the way the death of Jesus was interpreted. I invite you to hold that possibility open until we can examine another clue that seems to suggest that the details of the Palm Sunday story have been borrowed from another Jewish tradition that occurs in the fall of the year.

To that story I will turn next week as this series on the relationship of the Passion Story of Jesus and the Passover of the Jews continues.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published February 9, 2005