Our group stood on a catwalk looking over the restored floor on an ancient house in Sepphoris, Israel. It was a beautiful mosaic depicting two women as the hostesses and presumably owners of the house. Like all 1st century mosaics, it was rather busy. One could see many scenes. One scene in particular captured my attention. It was a triumphal procession. A male figure rode in triumph on the back of a donkey. Other figures waved palm branches. I appreciated the scene with my biblically trained aesthetic. There was only one problem. It was not the scene I recognized from the Scriptures. The male figure riding the donkey was not Jesus. Rather, it was the figure of the Greek god Dionysius.
The God of Wine
Who? Yes, that’s right. The god of wine was honored in a room designated for festive dinner parties. Why wouldn’t he be depicted there? Someone could argue that such a depiction would have offended ancient Israelite religious sensibilities. We don’t really understand what form ancient Israelite practice and attitudes were. St. Paul mentions the “Judaism” of his day. He does not give us a good picture of what day-to-day life was like for his people. What we can piece together is primarily how intellectuals of the time thought. Ancient Galilee, where Sepphoris is located, was filled with diverse communities of people. Encounters with different cultural practices had to be common.
Dionysius was one of the lesser gods of the pantheon. He was still popular. Of course, he would be. Dionysius had his origins in the area of Gibeah (modern day Ramallah) where King Saul was born. The practices surrounding the life of this god included three parts. He was reborn each Spring. He died each Autumn. And he triumphed at the grape harvest. Dionysius’ life was one that encompassed the mysteries of life connected with the land and food. He was not the only deity connected to life this way. He was prominent.
Justice And The Mystery Of Life
Dionysius was always dying and being reborn. His life was one of promise and loss. As I previously said, he represented a mystery. The mystery is this. Why is life so predictable? And why is life so precarious?
Justice, represented by the goddess Dike, was invoked to help alleviate the unpredictability of life. If we don’t understand why Fortune (a most unpredictable goddess) works as she does, at least we can overcome the failures that occur in life. Dionysius’ rebirth was an overcoming of sorts. The season returned for a chance at better opportunities.
The Israelite neighbors of the aristocratic women of Sepphoris could not draw any conclusions about the mystery. They took a different approach to the problem. King Saul was the first true ruler of all the twelve tribes of Israel. His story is that of a King who represents the mixture of righteousness dwelling with injustice, being chosen and yet rejected by deity, sanity and madness together, as well as triumph ending in defeat. The Israelites understood that life was purposeful even when we did not recognize it as such. To be a people chosen and set apart for divine purposes was to be either accepted or rejected. Does a person live as a people of the covenant and suffer? Or does one suffer by not living as a person of the covenant? It was the choice of every Israelite throughout their history.
Jesus The Symbol Of The MysteryGalilee produced an Israelite who embodied this dilemma. Jesus from Nazareth represented to the gospel writers many aspects of how life can be approached. St. Matthew claims Jesus perfectly fulfills the covenant. St. John understands that God in Jesus binds the mystery of life into the divine self. St. Mark argues the power of God overcomes this mystery. St. Luke claims the mystery is solved and humanity is part of the solution.
The gospel writers each have a different purpose in how they tell the story of the triumphal entry of Jesus. John is the prominent reading on Good Friday. It is often neglected on Palm Sunday. It brings the basic elements of the stories told by the others. There is a connection to the Dionysius mystery involved in the telling.
John is the one that tells the story of the wedding at Cana in the second chapter. The wedding festival is celebrated with Jesus and his disciples in attendance. The host runs out of wine. Jesus rescues the situation by turning the water in the jars for ritual cleansing into wine. The host learns that his guests believe he has brought out the “good stuff” toward the end of the feast.
The triumphal entry in chapter 12 of the gospel claims that the crowd who arrived to see it that day were looking for an important sign. They not only wanted to see Jesus. They wanted to see Lazarus who was just recently raised from the tomb.
Overturning the Dilemma
I write this on what is traditionally called “Lazarus Saturday.” Reading John 11 as part of my Morning Prayer, I pondered these issues. Jesus has overturned the mystery of life’s predictability and precariousness. Lazarus lives! The righteous man who died leaving two grieving sisters and no male heir suffered the greatest injustice in the world as the people saw it. After the triumphal entry, the Pharisees are dismayed while the rest of the world (embodied by the Greeks) seek to meet with Jesus.
The question for the rest of the week is simple. What else will Jesus overturn? John places the overturning of the money changers tables in the temple after the wedding in Cana in chapter 2. Normal courses of injustice are being overcome by Jesus and will be by his disciples. The greatest commandment about loving God and neighbor is being replaced with simply love each other in chapter 13. The usual “pecking order” of the world is disturbed by the Resurrected Jesus. In the last chapter, Peter, the first of the Apostles, receives important instructions about how he will live, conduct themselves, and die. Life for Jesus’ disciples is neither predictable nor precarious. Life is now a matter of love for human beings being the divine purpose.