Tuesday of Holy Week: Part 3 in the Language of Christianity Series

Tuesday of Holy Week: Part 3 in the Language of Christianity Series April 4, 2023

Tuesday of Holy Week takes us deeper into the drama of Jesus’ fate. It also allows us to explore the limitations of religious language further. 

Dishes at a meal
Ashim D. Silva/Unsplash

My Palm Sunday post suggested that one of the biggest impediments to religious faith today is one of language. Then in yesterday’s Monday of Holy Week post, I proposed understanding “humanity” and “divinity” as two modes of the same experience rather than binary opposites. The gospel reading for Tuesday of Holy Week blows the human vs. divine issue out of the water. 

In the very first line of the passage from John, we see that Jesus is “deeply troubled” because he knows his betrayal is at hand. Being “deeply troubled” doesn’t seem very God-like. But I think that’s only because of the limitations of language.  

I think we have created God in our own image. In our defense, though, what else could we do? 

Explaining the Unexplainable

All we can know is what we know. Early humans had no way to understand the sun’s apparent movement, the changes in weather, or the causes of illness. We knew we couldn’t create such circumstances ourselves, so we concluded – logically at the time – that something far more powerful made those choices for us. We thought these unintelligible events in nature must be manipulated by something supernatural.  

Then we had to figure out why a supernatural being of some sort would choose sun and rain sufficient for providing food at one time but powerful storms that destroyed and even killed at another. We needed a way to understand why someone young and healthy one day turned up dead the next while another lived to old age.  

Just as we created God in our own image, we came up with the explanations we needed by assuming it was all about us. If my neighbor’s crops fail, it must be because he – or his parents or their parents – did wrong by the supernatural beings calling the shots. If my daughter gives birth to a healthy baby, it must be because she – or I or my ancestors – have pleased the gods.  

A Need for Revision

But we aren’t the early humans. Thousands of years have brought with them advances in numerous areas of science. Those discoveries have provided compelling evidence that the worldview of our ancestors no longer rings true today. 

Unfortunately, we cling to outdated language in our creeds, catechism, and religious rituals. We suffer from a form of dissociative personality disorder. Although we understand the universe that science has uncovered for us, the Church continues to use the language of supernatural engineering of the natural world. This breaks my heart.  

But I’m not the only one who feels the effects of this disconnect. In 1991, only 6% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. But during that one decade alone, those numbers more than doubled. By 2012, 20% fell into this category; by 2016, the last year for which Public Religion Research Institute data is available, that figure was up to 25%.  

Young people have dramatically moved this needle. The youth and young adults known as “nones” comprise 39% of the demographic. Only 15% claim to be Catholic. The bitter irony is that today’s largest denomination is the “nones.” Indeed, something is deeply, terribly wrong with organized religion if people believe being “nothing” is more authentic than being “something.” 

Religious Language 2.0

I think that at least some of what is terribly wrong is the language we use. But I choose not to become one of the “nones.” Despite its failings, something real and beautiful is at the core of the Christian message. Put another way, I think it’s worth saving the story of salvation. We don’t need to leave the Church. Instead, we need to reinterpret the definitions of religious concepts in ways that align with our understanding of the world today.  

In my last couple of posts, I’ve suggested that “humanity” and “divinity” aren’t the opposite notions we often assume. For me, “God” is not a powerful spirit-being in the sky making decisions about my life and everyone else’s. As I wrote yesterday, I prefer Paul Tillich’s explanation that God is not so much “a being” as the “Ground of Being.”  

Such a belief has consequences. That means that assigning traits like perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful, and unchanging may not make much sense. Those terms might fit the supernatural engineers that the ancient Greeks and Romans worshiped, but not for this understanding of who or what God is.  

Tuesday of Holy Week

So, what does all this have to do with the Tuesday of Holy Week? If we understand God in these more expansive terms, then there’s room for Jesus to be “deeply troubled.” He wasn’t performing a role; he felt the same way you or I would feel if we knew our time was about up. And not because of some magical union of “two natures.” I think there’s just one nature with different ways of experiencing it. There’s just one Life of which we are all individual parts. There’s just one sacred unity of which we are all diverse manifestations. 

If that’s true, then that means that what was available to Jesus is also available to us. Heavy stuff.

The Tuesday of Holy Week is sometimes called “Spy Tuesday” because of the cloak-and-dagger scene involving Judas. When Jesus says one present will betray him, Peter presses him to identify the culprit. “‘It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.’ So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas….” (John 13:26). Et tu, Brute?

The thing that’s most compelling for me about this passage is how earthy it is. Even identifying the betrayer is accomplished not by a crack of thunder but with a piece of bread. Even this revelation takes place not in a temple but at a meal. How very human. How very divine.  

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