I am reading Michael Moore’s autobiography aptly titled Here Comes Trouble. Moore, as you may know, is an Oscar-winning film maker and bestselling author, he is also a rather zany, off-the-wall kind of bloke. Moore was brought up a devout Catholic, thought of becoming a priest, but dropped out early along the way. In a chapter in Here Comes Trouble entitled “Holy Thursday,” a reference to Maundy Thursday which we celebrate today, he tells how after Mass one of his duties as a young altar boy was to take the censer outside the church and dispose of the smouldering incense and coal. On the Thursday evening before Holy Week in 1967, while he was doing this, he saw a man in the church parking lot stand up on his car floorboard and, in a loud strident voice, shout out to all the parishioners as they were coming our of church “King’s been shot! They’ve shot King! Martin Luther King!” Moore writes:
At that moment – in what I will recall for the rest of my life as one of the most depressing things I would ever witness – a cheer went up from the crowd. Not from everyone, not even from most. But from more than a few, a spontaneous joyful noise came out of the mouths that had just held the body of Christ. A whoop and holler and a yell and a cheer…
Moore ends the story with these words: “What was special about this night? Every Easter from then on and for the rest of my life, I would know the bitter answer.”
I wonder how many people in Jerusalem cheered when they heard the news that Jesus had been arrested and condemned to die by crucifixion. “He had it coming to him,” they might have said. “He was a trouble maker! His parents should have reined him in!” “Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey! How much more provocative could he get? The authorities had to do something.” “We were a bit stupid to welcome him with our Hosannas. ‘Crucify him!’ would be more appropriate.
It had been a very tough week for Jesus and his disciples, this Holy Week as we now call it, and it was reaching its crescendo as Thursday evening approached. So what was special about this fateful night? Judas agreed to betray Jesus. Jesus shared his last Supper Jesus with his disciples. Peter denied Jesus. And Jesus himself left the Supper and went out into the dark night to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray that he did not have to go through with his ordeal. But finally, after a long time of wrestling with his soul, Jesus accepted his fate as God’s will. Immediately after, while he was still in the Garden he was arrested and dragged before the High Priest who condemned him, spat in his face and slapped him. A short while later Jesus was locked away for the night as a criminal. What a dramatic night that was! Betrayed, denied, arrested, imprisoned, and a last hurried meal with his friends. He even washed their feet. A night to remember, to be sure, but at the time a bitter foretaste of the terrible day that awaited Jesus with the dawning of Friday morning. Jesus’ fate was sealed.
How would we have reacted to the news that morning as we read the Jerusalem Times or listened to Radio Israel? Not now, of course, for we have the benefit of hindsight, but back then when Jesus was widely regarded as a deluded prophet, would be Messiah and troublemaker. Would we have cheered like the crowd coming out of Michael Moore’s church, or like him experience deep depression at this terrible turn of events? Would we have cheered, sighed, cried, or simply turned the page or turned off the news? It’s so difficult to know, isn’t it? How are we to tell whether a terrorist is actually a freedom fighter or perhaps the Messiah? We have only to remember how whites felt glad and relieved when Nelson Mandela was arrested and imprisoned those many years ago to realize how easy it is to react in ways that later prove to be so wrong. We, too, get caught up in the frenzy of the crowd: “Crucify him!” we shout, or think it silently to ourselves.
Spare a thought for those poor disciples on that frightful day on which they fled from the scene! What a night to remember for them! They had been with Jesus for almost three years. Daily listening to his teaching, witnessing his healings, applauding him when he stood up to the authorities, puzzling over some of his sayings, and wondering all the time whether or not he was in fact the Messiah. They themselves did not quite know how to respond to him. Yes, they were thrilled by his reception into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when they got a chance to walk alongside him and bask in the acclamations of welcome. But ever since then things had gone wrong. All their hopes were suddenly being dashed. What a night this was turning out to be! The news must have spread around town like wildfire. “Jesus of Nazareth is arrested! Jesus the so-called Messiah is in prison awaiting execution! The followers of Jesus have fled into the darkness…” Three cheers – Crucify him!
We sometimes forget how the Christian faith we profess started. There was nothing calm and tranquil like a church tea party with a few polite speeches by prominent people to launch a new religious movement like one might launch a new book, an art society or, with louder rhetoric, a political party, today. No razzmatazz to celebrate the birth of Christianity -- only an imprisoned would-be Messiah, a bunch of disillusioned followers, and a traitor who was contemplating suicide. And a “whoop and holler and a yell and a cheer” and lots of “Crucifies” from those who thought he was simply a stupid, misguided imposter…Not an auspicious beginning, I would say. But ever since, as Michael Moore said on that fateful Thursday after Mass when the news of Martin Luther King’s death was broadcast, that is how he would always remember Easter.
The seven words from the cross we have considered these past weeks of Lent have taken us into some dark places and deep waters – all of them necessary, all of them important. We have had to journey with Jesus to this hour, as we still have to journey through the three hours of his death on the cross. But I can’t wait now for Easter day. I don’t want to remember Easter as though it all ended with death. I don’t want to stop the journey at the cross or at the silence of the tomb. I need to affirm faith not fate. I need to cry out “Hallelujah! Christ is risen!” But I can’t do it just yet. I must first remember this night on which he was betrayed, took bread and broke it, and gave it to his disciples… do this in remembrance of me” he said. I can’t wait to shout “Hallelujah!” once again. But not right now. We must first remember this night as it was, and share the broken bread, and drink the cup in remembering this night.
(John W. de Gruchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus.)