Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 12:12-19) transports me to the small office of the First Baptist Church of Matanzas three Friday nights ago, where Kim and I were hanging out with Kairos Center administrator Wanda Hernández Murga and her husband, Pastor Orestes Roca Santana. With no breeze stirring to silence the expressions of qué calor, we found the cramped office quarters with its AC window unit a comfortable haven from the humid heat. Kim had spent the evening with Wanda and the church’s youth group, leading theatre games. I had spent the evening with Orestes and a couple of other men from the church, watching El Gran Silencio, a film documenting the austere life of the residents in the reclusive French monastery of Grande Chartreuse. The Carthusian monks are completely devoted to the life of prayer, and spend most of their time in absolute silence, save for the chanting prayers of worship and short periods of conversation on Sunday afternoons. After a bit of debriefing of this fascinating movie, and a report of the success of the youth group meeting, something turned a switch for Wanda and Orestes, and they started quoting lines and complete scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We quickly joined in the fun. If you want some uproarious laughter, just spend time with southern accented folks and Cuban Spanish accented folks trying to impersonate the British brogues of Chapman and Cleese and Palin. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that satirical parodies of power and privilege play well in Cuba. Wanda did a great opening scene of King Arthur and his squire, Patsy, riding their horse (actually nothing more than Patsy banging two halves of a coconut together) to a castle. This led Kim to remember another scene where Patsy plays the coconuts and Arthur “rides” up to another castle, encountering two peasants on the way. An argument about how Arthur got be King and the derivation of executive power ensues. ARTHUR: I am Arthur, King of the Britons. WOMAN: King of the who? ARTHUR: The Britons. WOMAN: Who are the Britons? ARTHUR: Well, we all are. We’re all Britons and I am your king. WOMAN: I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective. A lengthy argument and explanation of the collective’s governance follows, and the impatient Arthur finally interrupts: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet! WOMAN: Order, eh — who does he think he is? ARTHUR: I am your king! WOMAN: Well, I didn’t vote for you. ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings. . .
One of the more interesting bits of contemporary New Testament scholarship reveals the context of King Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, interpreting the pageantry as an act of political parody, comedic street theater poking and prodding the presumptions of power and the hopes for restored imperial privilege. Palm Sunday worship hasn’t caught up with the scholarship, as we generally wave the palm fronds and have kids singing hosannas on Christ the King Sunday as if the entry was nothing more than an opportunity for praise and exaltation. The satirical parody of power is lost on us. In an era when the Roman governors came into the city with pomp and circumstance, many of the hopes of the masses centered on their own hero mounting a warhorse and riding into the city in the same manner, waving Excalibur to signify that Divine Providence was behind the revolution. The donkey-riding circus clown Christ rained on the parade of these hopes. As it turns out, there were two strains of hope weaving through the sacred texts of the Jews. The imperial hopes were there, to be sure, with a Son of David figure leading the charge. But the Hebrew scriptures include another strain, a strain of prophetic hope imagining a very different kind of Savior riding into town. Jesus chose the prophetic hope, mounted Zechariah’s donkey, and proceeded to lampoon the militaristic imperial ideology; he was calling people to lay down their sword and shield and trust their lives to a different kind of power, a different kind of security. When Jesus made his clumsy entrance on that awkward donkey to the chorus of cheering hosannas, those with ears to hear and eyes to see would have soon been laughing uproariously. Maybe they went home and gathered in cramped quarters to begin sharing their own impersonations of the scene.
Toward the end of El Gran Silencio, that documentary about the austere Carthusian monks, there is a scene where the robed and hooded monks are walking single-file through the bitter cold of snow. At first it is reminiscent of Graham Chapman’s self-flagellating monks in the Holy Grail. Except this walk, which ends up on the peak of a mountain, turns out to be a Sunday afternoon hike, affording the monks the rare opportunity to talk and laugh in great glee. They take turns sliding awkwardly down the mountain slope. The relief of laughter is immediate, as each monk tries his hand at “skiing” on nothing but shoes, usually falling head over heels in the snow. It makes me think that these monks, these devoted prayer warriors, might just appreciate Monty Python. I’m sure they would have appreciated Jesus and his street theater performance, inasmuch as their whole lives were a testimony against the presumptions of privilege. Perhaps a deeper prayer life such as that of the Carthusians could free us from the cultural captivity of our worship. That kind of prayer could one day lead us to see Palm Sunday as an annual opportunity to play the clown and perform satirical parody, poking fun at our own culture’s presumptions of power and privilege. Maybe it’s time to trade in our palm fronds for some coconuts.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.