Monday, March 22, 2010

Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem and Hippo[1]

The 4th century Jerusalem church got ready for Easter by tracing the steps of Jesus from one traditional place to another in the course of Holy Week. Egeria, a Spanish pilgrim, narrates her Diary the movement of the Jerusalem faithful around the holy places available to them: the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, the anastasis (the place of resurrection) and other places. The Jerusalem Christians lived where these landmarks were and so could experience Jesus’ passion and resurrection as historical events “remembered.” It must have been impressive and powerful “to walk where Jesus walked.” In Jerusalem, if someone asked, “How do you know Christ lives,” the people could answer, “There is where he was crucified and here is where he was raised.”

In early 5th century Hippo, a city in North Africa where Augustine was bishop, Christians experienced the resurrection differently. They didn’t have the “props” of the historical places. What did they do? These Christians celebrated baptism on the eve of Easter (as did the Jerusalem church) and the evidence of the resurrection was not an empty tomb; it was new and wet daughters and sons of God coming up out of the pool as those who had died and been raised with Christ! (Romans 6: 3-11) They were called infantes—infants, the newly born, the twice born. Though most were adults, they were newly born of water and the Spirit and so were, by grace, signs of the power of God to start a person’s life all over again—from darkness to light, from blindness to sight, from death to life, from sin’s slavery to life lived to God. In these, the missionary church saw the new being available in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

If someone asked the Christians of Hippo how they knew Christ lived, they would point to the infantes and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In Hippo, Resurrection was much more than a singular historical event; it was the continuing reality of the risen Lord in the church and in its actions in daily life in the world where God placed them.

Our North American churches are more like Hippo than Jerusalem: The evidence of the continuing life of Jesus is in the Meal we share with him, who commissions us anew each week to “love and serve the Lord” in all the places where he sets us—home, work or school, leisure, local and world politics, and yes, church. I commend to you the MemberMission website for theoretical and practical help in such worldly enactment of our faith.

“Alleluia! Christ is risen!” is not just a slogan or a liturgical exclamation to use on Easter Sunday. It is a cry of recognition when we see the risen Lord in acts of costly compassion and courageous justice. It is the cry of joy at the holiness of life we are becoming!

Unfortunately, much of Christian preaching and liturgical celebration in Holy Week and Easter in our North American context, absent the font and new sons and daughters born from the waters of baptism and welcomed to the feasting with the church around the table, will lack the evidence of present resurrection. And so, Easter festivities are impoverished and dependent on attempts to assert the historicity of something remembered. Note: I am not dismissing the historical core of the Paschal mystery. Rather, I am yearning for present-day apostolic witness of the church to and with those whom Christ is raising from death to life in the mysteries of a present Easter.

I wonder if there is a positive correlation in our experience of the resurrection and the degree to which we take seriously those who are asking questions, searching for deeper meaning and turning from death into the mystery of grace in the waters of baptism.

Conversely, how many 21st century North American churches are content to remember Easter as an past event and simultaneously resist the risks of present pregnancy in attending to those around us who God is birthing by water and the Spirit?

I will confess my bias here and my yearning for 21st century North American churches to rediscover and engage in catechumenal ministry[2] as enactment of the Paschal mystery in relation to the dominant culture.

Jerusalem or Hippo? Symbols of a profound choice!

1. I am indebted to Dr. Walt Knowles for his unpublished paper, “Holy Week in Hippo: the Weeks Surrounding Easter in a North African Parish” (dated 08/04/09) for the contrast of liturgical observance in Jerusalem and Hippo. I have not done his work justice here, and the questions and conclusions I draw from it are my own.
2. For those unfamiliar with the “catechumenate” I encourage you to find out more consulting the following links: See “Making Disciples in the 21st Century” or “What Is the Catechumenate?” Also explore Christian the North American Association for the Catechumenate webite.