I am not exactly at the cutting age of contemporary culture, by reasons of age and disposition, but I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the term “flash mob.” Thus, while attending the Palm Sunday Mass at my parish last night, and in particular reflecting upon St. Mark’s description of events leading up to the procession, it occurred to me that this street celebration was not a spur of the moment thing, but a pre-arranged and reasonably well orchestrated event that stands on its own two feet as a significant New Testament event. To refer to the Palm Sunday procession, as we often do in parish life, as the kickoff to Holy Week probably does not do it Biblical justice.
Mark’s Gospel, historically the first of the Gospels, drops more than hints; it flat out gives details of key elements of the planning. In 11: 1-7 Jesus initiates the event by instructing two disciples to fetch a specific beast of carriage, a colt. That the disciples have little difficulty finding the colt, and that the apparent owners release a valuable animal at the mere mention of Jesus’ name, strongly suggest earlier negotiations, conceivably by Jesus himself. Verse 11:7 describes the disciples draping the animal with their own cloaks, indicating a kind of dignified enhancement of Jesus not previously initiated by him in his public ministry.
Verse 11:8 is particularly intriguing; while many people spread their cloaks before Jesus, others “spread reeds which they had cut in the fields.” Obviously there was an expectation of a special event, which leads to inevitable questions such as who planned this event in the first place and what was it supposed to signify. The cry of the crowd gives some information: Jesus is honored as “he who comes in the name of the Lord” and “blessed is the reign of our Father David to come!” The nature of these exclamations is futuristic and apocalyptic. This parade has something to do with a radical and fast approaching future event. There is very little indication in Mark that this has much to do with the Romans, let alone call for armed revolt; in the very next chapter Jesus defends paying taxes to Caesar. No, this is a religious event and in a very real sense the target here is the religious establishment.
Why did Jesus orchestrate this event as he did? The 520 B.C. Book of the Prophet Zechariah, 9:9ff begins an intense and dramatic prediction of the triumphant appearance of the Messiah concluding in what the NAB calls “the final assault of the enemy on Jerusalem, after which the messianic age begins.” Of great interest is Zechariah Chapter 14, which describes the final battle in great detail. And from where does the Messiah launch the culminating cosmic battle? The Mount of Olives, the very same place from which Jesus begins his solemn entry into Jerusalem.
So it may be that Jesus appropriated the prophetic tradition, and his planned procession was a visual statement that he had come to fight the saving Messianic battle once and for all in Mother Jerusalem, let the chips fall where they may. Certainly Mark portrays Jesus in a combative mode. In 11:11 he reconnoiters the Temple Precinct like General Lee studying the landscape of Gettysburg. In 11:12-14 he curses an unproductive fig tree (symbolic of temple indolence?) In 11: 15-17 Jesus physically storms the money changers in the Temple (and the authorities who condoned this). Mark 11:27-33 is a nasty confrontation with temple authorities on his authority to do what he is doing. Chapter 12: 1-13 is a cutting parable (the unworthy tenants) predicting the destruction of the bad caretakers of God’s vineyard. In 12: 13-17 Jesus deftly derails current priestly practice with his famous “render unto Caesar” proclamation. In 12: 18-27 Jesus puts to scorn the Sadducees, who attack belief in resurrection after death (the tale of the unfortunate seven times widowed woman.) His attacks upon the temple hierarchy continue through Chapter 12. Chapter 13 is devoted almost entirely to “The Supreme Tribulation,” or what we might refer to as the end of the world (and obviously the end of a stagnant priestly cabal.)
It is quite clear, then, that Jesus has begun the final Messianic battle. His procession into Jerusalem may have rattled the priests (Luke 19:39 is quite explicit about the Temple’s reaction to the procession), but his relentless attacks upon a corrupted priesthood led his enemies to dispatch him as soon as possible. So while it is fair to say that the Palm Sunday procession, so to speak, was in a real way the first concrete act in the drama of Calvary, it may be even more accurate to think of it as a call to battle, the decisive first charge in the cosmic battle of the Messiah to restore the purity of the faith of Abraham and Moses by ushering in the eternal conquest of a lasting Messianic Kingdom.
As the Jerome Biblical Commentary and other sources explain, the solemn procession is not just the beginning of a “holy week.” It is the first charge in the three-day onslaught.
Normally I have an end zone in sight when I start a blog entry, even on my rambling days. But this morning I have a collection of parochial and social loose ends that I can’t reconcile, at least in a crisp organized way. This current “dyspepsia” of mine began last night. My wife and I attended the vigil Mass in our home parish and then enjoyed a pleasant social evening. When we got home I kicked back to read our church bulletin, specifically to see how our Catholic Charities campaign was progressing. Our pastor had mentioned in his public announcements yesterday that the current status for our parish was in the bulletin. That was a tip off to me that the returns might not be stellar; sure enough, we currently stand at 66% of assessed goal, I think. Unfortunately there is not a breakdown of cash already donated vs. pledges, a common mistake in parish bulletin-ese that confuses as much as clarifies. The announcement states our total as “pledges to date.” I think our pastor meant the figure as the whole smash. No pastor, including me in my time, ever lived with the illusion of 100% return on pledges. Professional fundraisers have a formula for that.
When I woke this AM (groggy in daylight savings time) I put on the coffee and started checking out the neighboring parishes. As my parish has a good reputation as a financial flagship, so to speak, I decided to check the church bulletins of sixteen other parishes in our diocese to see how things are going. In no particular order, these are raw stats of percentage of goal met: 88%, 35% (on 46 pledges), 52%, 73%, 22%, 41%, 50%, 52%, 42%, and 68%. Another parish is probably exempt because of its reported $2 million mortgage (the practice here has been to fold Catholic Charities into standing construction debt). Another parish reported a debt of $3.5 million and probably also falls under a similar circumstance. One large parish did not post Catholic Charities returns but did post a $500,000 operating shortfall for 2015 in its weekly offertory report. (The first quarter of a Florida church year is often the most lucrative due to the influx of “snowbirds”.) Three parishes did not publicly report in their bulletins on line sites of those I visited.
This is one man’s walk through the data currently available online. The Diocesan website reports that the 2013 campaign did meet its goal, and in fact exceeded it by 10%, returning a percentage of that excess to parishes proportionate to their success. 2014 was not posted, though possibly due to time constraints. Perhaps 2015 will be a diocesan winner, too. But observing parish finances wherever I go in person or on the internet, I have a sinking feeling that monies available to parishes and dioceses in the future will be significantly less. We have talked a lot about the priest shortage in the U.S. It may be that a money shortage will be just as crippling to the Church’s ministry.
My diocese has a “circle of honor” of sorts by which its major donors are honored on-line and in fundraising publications. I suspect most dioceses do. I know personally or by reputation a fair number of such church philanthropists locally; a majority of these donors are “old money,” long time contributors whose giving patterns were formed in a different time. This kind of giving, often induced by skilled pastors who wined and dined, will not continue. In other entries I have documented the loss of the young to the Church—the diminishment of religious influence on the generation of millennial new Catholic adults. See the detailed but very worthwhile Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (2014).
But another factor of Catholic life is its changing spirituality. Again, as I daily research for the blog, I come across hundreds of grassroots Catholic spirituality moments. I am presently involved in one from my own parish. Grassroots spirituality is enjoying a new springtime, as adult Catholics gather to share faith, study the scripture, create small faith communities, etc. Should these kinds of movements endure, what does that augur for “the institutional Church” and its administrative needs?
Increased spirituality may not necessarily equate to greater Mass attendance and structured financial support. This morning’s Washington Post carried an interesting story of research undertaken by NORC, which has been tracking religious practices in the United States for about half a century. NORC discovered that many Americans do pray, 57% at least once daily. Only 40%, however, participate in organized church service even once a month; this marks an all time low in the NORC longitudinal study.
Thus, preliminary research on several facets of contemporary church life is telling us that (1) our pews are emptying; (2) dependable donors are aging; (3) young Catholics alienate from the Church at significant rates; and (4) spiritual revival is not synonymous with financial revival.
Hopefully chanceries are getting the same data in their fiscal planning.
This Sunday, the Second in Lent, has historically proclaimed the event known to us as “The Transfiguration.” That this account appears in three of the four Gospels (John’s being the exception) gives us confidence in its importance to the earliest Christians, and to the understanding that some historical event lies at the basis of this very symbolic theological event.
Scholars to this day are not exactly certain what to make of the chronological location of the text. The two main schools of thought connect it to the Baptism of Jesus (as the Father’s affirmations are strikingly similar) or to a post-Resurrection appearance which Mark has edited somewhat. Liturgically the Church has always been comfortable with Mark’s pre-Resurrection placement in Chapter 9 as an act by Jesus to strengthen the Apostles by a taste of the glory of heaven, a lesson easily applied to a fasting Christian Church in Lent.
Looking at the text critically I am always surprised at its connectedness to the Hebrew Scripture, notably Exodus and the prophets, particularly Elijah. The location of the Transfiguration is not recorded by Mark, who would prefer us to stay focused on the fact that Jesus went up a mountain, period. The parallel to Sinai is so obvious that Mark doesn’t trouble himself to state the obvious. Sinai is the place where Moses sees the face of God; lo and behold, Moses is a central character here. In this instance Moses represents the connectedness or completeness of the Jewish law and expectations with the new Kingdom of God announced by Jesus.
Elijah’s presence adds another important dimension, particularly suited to the three members of the Twelve who might be able to absorb the implications. Elijah had a difficult time of things according to the chronicler of the books of Kings. Despite his dramatic works, he was often on the run from persecution, usually instigated by the wicked Queen Jezebel. In short, Elijah was the embodiment of the cost of discipleship if that term where alive then. Mark, it seems, is attempting in this treatment to connect the trials of Elijah to those of Jesus and to Jesus’ disciples.
Elijah’s departure in a chariot of fire is known by anyone who ever attended catechism class. What is less known is that the idea of his heralded return at the end of time was a prediction by a much later prophet, Malachi; the disciples evidently knew of Malachi’s prediction, and as they come down the mountain they fumble over two matters of great mystery to them. The first is Jesus’ prediction earlier in the Gospel of Mark that the Son of Man (Jesus) would be put to death and raised in glory. This is at odds with the disciples’ shared Jewish understanding of Elijah’s return; Jesus has announced his imminent death and glory, but there is no sign of Elijah. Jesus explains that Elijah has returned in John the Baptism. This could not have calmed apostolic nerves, for Mark 6:6b-34 is a long and gruesome account of the Baptist’s unjust imprisonment and death at the hands of another Jezebel, the spiteful Herodias, (disputed) wife of the reigning King Herod of Jesus’ day.
But there is another nagging question on the minds of the disciples, and Mark highlights it here in the context of the Transfiguration and matters of the future. The disciples, according to Mark, “discussed among themselves privately what rising from the dead meant.” This text has special meaning to me, as it almost sunk my boat during an oral examination many years ago. A professor asked me what a man in Jesus’ time and milieu would have thought about the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. The simple answer is that a small minority of Jews would have spontaneously conceived of life after death and the glorification in new life. Ironically, only the Pharisees entertained this new and novel idea. The majority of Jews—and certainly the countryside disciples—did not entertain this possibility. We see in Matthew 22:25-32 and Luke 20:27-38 that the old guard Sadducees attempt to poke fun at Jesus’ teaching on everlasting life with a ridiculous scenario of a woman widowed seven times.
It may be that Mark’s Transfiguration account is an attempt by the evangelist to help the early Church process the preaching it had heard about the Resurrection appearances and glorification of Christ after the grave. It is an interesting feature of all four Gospels that post-Easter narratives are marked by varying degrees of confusion and consternation. Perhaps we underestimate the quantum leap of bearings required of those earliest hearers of the Word. Couple this with the multiple other messages of today’s Gospel, and one can truly say that “Mark said a mouthful.”
On My Mind