Notes for future Holy Week doings....Never again blame the Jewish people

Now that Holy Week has passed a few notes regarding future Holy Week celebrations: Things to do and things not to do ever again.

(i) Palm Sunday:  Make it Palm Sunday, as we did this time at St. Peter's, by having the entry be the primary reading and a long crucifixion narrative a "last gospel," read following the post communion prayer and after which the congregation leaves in silence. (about its content see below.)

(2) Try to keep the "insider" language to a minimum... words like Exultet, Triduum and Tenebrae are perfectly fine, but anyone outside the small circle of friends will not get it.  The song of joyful liberation,  the Three Days, and A Service of Worship in the darkest hour, or something like that at least tells the reader something of what is going on. Every time we give a new secret handshake sort of word to things we make it clear... this is for the insiders.

(3) We have to do something with the texts that are read, rightly or wrongly, that it is the Jews who collectively were responsible for Jesus' death.  The fact is they are understood that way. It does no good to have the congregation, playing the part of a Jewish crowd, cry out "crucify him!" The more pious in the congregation will see themselves as culpable, but many will see themselves acting the part of a Jewish crowd. 

But more importantly - and let's get this straight - the responsibility for Jesus' execution lies at the hands of particular political and religious leaders who (as often happens) are afraid of any challenge to their power.  The Jews did not kill Jesus, the Romans (as a people) did not kill Jesus, not even the politicians and religious leaders as a lump of people killed Jesus.  Those are classes of people, and accusing a class of people of deicide is a sure path to the condemnation of a whole group who become scapegoats for the responsible. So we need to stop glossing over the reality that our Good Friday liturgy damns the Jews. Whatever was meant by the text, the reading of the text by Western Christians has added fuel to the fire that leads to Holocaust.

So who is responsible?  Well, it turns out specific people following up on assumed responsibilities are. And, strangely, given the possibility that God might require something like this sort of end and death, God has some responsibility in the matter.  We are mostly sure that just because something is fulfilling the ends put in place by God's wisdom, the persons directly responsible are still responsible.  Pilot can not just wash his hands of the matter. Neither God nor the crowd clear him of some responsibility.  As for the Jews, some Jews thought Jesus was the Messiah, others did not.  So some Jews were glad to see him go, I suspect. And others became his followers. That is a very far cry from saying the Jews are responsible for Jesus' death.

I have a friend who is convinced that the reason why Jews are accused of killing Jesus is because when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire it was an embarrassment to think that the Roman authorities killed Jesus, so the whole responsibility was put on the Jews as a people.  He may be right. 

But right or wrong, the point is taken: Whatever the blame at the outset, it is not the Jews as a people who are at fault.

So, this is the last time I will participate in Holy Week Services that intimate otherwise. I will not read, "may his blood be upon us and our children," and I won't read "for fear of the Jews" and I won't say "crucify him" with the weasel out that after all I am playing the part of a Jewish crowd.

I will perhaps be unemployed next Holy Week. That's OK. There are better things to do. We can push the Church to get beyond the early skirmishes with the community out of which we came. Just because the memories of that struggle make it into the writings doesn't mean they have merit as enduring claims.


  1. Mark, I so agree. I did not attend church this Palm Sunday, and I was the better for it. About the long Gospel, how about leaving it out altogether on Palm Sunday? For people who can't or do not attend Holy Week services, counsel them to read the account of the Last Supper and the long Gospel at home on Good Friday to see what happens between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.

    And do not blame the Jews. Thank you.

  2. Mark -- I am thrilled that you have posted this. People simply do not understand that uncritical participation in 1st century faction fights reproduced by the authors of some of our earliest texts poison our rituals. I don't know how we get beyond this, but every voice raised helps.

  3. I have called the Passion reading on Palm Sunday “The Big Mistake.” Mark goes even further than I did in suggesting changes to our liturgy.

  4. We of a matter of course explain all these things. But we do read the scripture. To simply not read and appropriately explain and interpret the scripture is harmful in its self as it leaves the interpretation in the hands of careless dogmatic preachers. To keep silent or ignore is to approve. We owe the people and God more than that. Mike Williams, Georgetown Presbyterian

  5. Mark, I often, even usually, agree with you (your essay on GAFCON is right on!), but I think that regarding Holy Week you slip off the rails a bit. I agree with MikeThePastor. For one thing: The Prayer Book names the Sunday before Easter quite correctly: [Primarily] The Sunday of the Passion: [Secondarily] Palm Sunday. The entry into Jerusalem is not what that Sunday is about, except as the Prelude to the Holy Week drama. (Many years ago, a colleague and friend of mine made this statement about Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, and it has always stuck with me: “It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, [and] moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.”) I think it is absolutely necessary that we read the synoptic Passion Gospels (in rotation) on the Sunday before Easter, and John’s Passion Gospel on Good Friday. Yes, John’s Gospel is problematic. We must face that, not duck it. (The fact that what John means by “hoi Ioudaioi” is not what we usually mean by “the Jews” is hard to explain, but we have to try.) The truth is that the Scriptures, Hebrew and Christian, are filled from almost the beginning to almost the end with texts of terror (Phyllis Trible only scratched the surface). Do we ever read the Exodus story without horror? Biblical literalists have raised skipping over these texts, or explaining them away, to an art form -- or worse, have bought into them and have become themselves spiritual terrorists. This is one of the reasons why good, thoughtful people, not only in our own time but throughout history, have rejected what they perceive to be the Christian Faith. We do ourselves and the Church no favor by hiding from the multitude of problematic texts. But we certainly need to do a much better job of teaching and interpretation. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Or perhaps, “Who takes offense and then deals with it.” Jesus means us, all of us.
    Bill Moorhead

  6. Mark

    I agree with Mike the Pastor.

    That people are ignorant and easily misled is no fault of theirs. It is our fault. If we merely choose to ignore the difficult parts of scripture rather than work through them and teach the hearers about context and interpretation we might as well just pack it up an go home.

  7. Omg Mark, you are calling for the inculturation of worship! :). Hoi iudaioi is better translated as the Judeans... And no, we need to keep the Passion on the Sunday of the passion because it developed before the onservance of Good Friday and besides, those who will not be there on GF need to hear it in order to make sense of Easter.

  8. If I remember correctly, in the far olden days, there was Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday, and Easter Sunday, along with the Holy Week services, a far better arrangement. The liturgy for Palm Sunday ought to be a joyful and celebratory. I love the festive Palm Sunday hymns and processions, but I find it quite jarring to move into the "last Gospel" reading on the same day.

    I understand that clergy are not free to change the liturgy and the lectionary to suit themselves, but I think the people of the church are ill-served by the present arrangement. I can dream and say how I'd like things to be because I am not in a leadership position and have no power to make change happen.

  9. Hi Mark,

    Another suggestion, perfect for next year (year of Mark). The past two cycles, our did as you did on Palm Sunday, but instead of a "last gospel," we hosted a community salad luncheon, followed by a reading of the entire Mark's Gospel. We had a team of 8 well prepared readers, who each read a chapter, then in the second half, another chapter. The fresh voices helped. For anybody who has not heard a gospel read in its entirely in a single sitting, it is pretty dramatic.

    Lou Poulain, lay member
    St. Thomas Sunnyvale CA

  10. Is it a start, in the readings, to translate Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios) correctly as "Judeans"?

    Christ is Risen!


  11. Why do you assume that it's only the western church that has a problem with anti-semitism, with blaming the Jews for Jesus's death?

  12. Hi Mark,

    Well..Hmmmmm. I hear what you're saying, but as a Lay Person I don't know that I ever thought of the Crucifixion as "something the Jews did", even though I have participated in decades of Palm/Passion Sunday readings, enactments etc.
    I have to say I like very much to participate in a Passover feast during the Holy Week activities and getting into both of the Jewish and Christian modalities at once. I find I feel the historic political, religious and spiritual conflicts all together and that gives me (I believe) some flavor of the upheaval at the time.
    It's a very moving story, and why assign blame? The point is we're all humans and equally susceptible to hubris, fear and error - any of us could have said "Crucify him!" not because we're Jewish but because we're human. That's what I take away from playing the crowd scene. The people on the scene happened to be Jewish, but let's not kid ourselves...! We're all out there with Peter.

  13. As a teacher and preacher you positively assert that the difficult scriptural passages hold the Jewish people responsible if you refuse to proclaim them for that reason.

    It is common in many cultures that making false accusations leading to another's death puts the accuser's life and household on the line.

    The same author who says that the apostles hid for fear of the Jews asserted that salvation is through the Jews. Yes, there is a need for intelligent interpretation here.

    Scripture itself, if it addresses "blame," throws out a pretty broad net--a betraying disciple, a friend who denies, a cowardly procurator, a jealous religious establishment, a fickle mob. Yes, indeed, historically there have been many who have thrown the blame onto innocents, and this has been shamefully widespread, and long-lived. So do you acquiesce in reading the gospels as somehow blaming all Jews as Jews, or do you teach what the gospels actually say and mean? You have the podium, not the laity. You can preach. You can pray. You can have inserts in the bulletin or make an announcement prior to the beginning of worship. If you avoid the passion narratives because you consider them toxic, you will implicitly teach others that indeed they are toxic, and those of your flock who still accept scripture's authority may even therefore conclude that those distortions and abuses you avoid are the very teaching of the Word of God, through your own actions.

  14. O must confess, I rather agree with Mama Hog. I've never believed that it was just Jews who condemned Jesus It was our common humanity - that Jesus shared and then redeemed.

    I also find it hard to think that God punished Jesus for our sake. My belief is that WE punished Jesus, and in return, have received his forgiveness and our redemption.

    This, for me, is the heart of it all. Christ is Risen. alleluia!

  15. Grandmere Mimi, I love you, but it's off-track for the Palm Sunday liturgy to be "joyful and celebratory," except with bitter irony. Jesus was going to his death, and he knew it. The crowds who were shouting "Hosanna!" had no idea what was really going on.

    Borg and Crossan suggest (and who knows? they may be right) that at the same time Jesus was riding down from the Mount of Olives on a donkey with a crowd of peasants and entering Jerusalem from the east, Pontius Pilate was riding up from Caesarea on a war horse with a detachment of Imperial soldiers and entering Jerusalem from the west.

    "Palm Sunday" was a creation of the post-Constantinian church in Jerusalem. Quelle surprise.

  16. The first time I attended a Good Friday service at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City, I fled in horror when it came time for the congregation to rant about "The Jews!" "The Jews!""The Jews!" The rector understood my reaction, but he'd done the service so many times it didn't seem exceptional to him.

    I've come to agree with critics who call John's Gospel a slick religious novel starring a different Jesus from the one in the Synoptics. It's full of great quotes, sound-bytes, but there are reasons the Fundamentalists love it.

    Incidentally, we've attended several second-night Seders with Jewish friends, and this year the Exodus story hit me with a similar horror -- the death of the Egyptian first-born, yes, but also the invasion of the neighboring land by people slaughtering in the name of their god. Too many echos of today's Israel's dealings with Palestine . . .

    (But Israel can rightly point to Western colonialism that bloodily imposed the conquerors' ideas of morality on differing native cultures. US hands aren't clean.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.