In the time before America became part of me, while I was still alive to its idiosyncrasies, I would marvel at its culture of memorial. The trail of all of our shared history marks places by events or the people that shaped them. In Europe this has mostly been the prerogative of royal houses, and it is part of the founding character of the United States that anyone’s life can be commemorated. I used to like walking over a crossroads named after an infantryman or a schoolteacher, the subtext was that people of all stations in life build our quality of life, not just those of high social rank, and so it had more of a chance of remembering talent or virtue than most of the royal or aristocratic memorabilia back in England.
But the relentlessness of it would chafe. You couldn’t just drive on an interstate in New York, it had to be the Governor Thomas Dewey Freeway, you landed at John Wayne airport on Orange County and even the swings and slides in my local park would forever immortalise Hiram J Hackenbacker (or whoever’s) whose playground it would become. At worst, you could not pray in the National Cathedral in Washington DC without considering the family names of benefactors etched in huge serif upper case stone letters, a perpetual obscenity which violates the first rule of religious philanthropy: that you are only giving back to God what is God’s in the first place.
When you consider the high reliance America’s public sector has on private philanthropy you have to ask why this arrangement is so dependable? Any dime-store psychologist will tell you that it is about the need for significance and about the fear of death and oblivion. It is a way of making sure that you have not been overlooked, it is a way of buying good memory, it is a way of immortalising your name, just in case God doesn’t deliver. It is the final testimony to the supremacy of the individual, there is no common achievement, no civic good.
It is also driven by fear, the fear of being nothing, the fear of being forgotten.
Today we rehearse a story whose power lies in living where this fear has no power. It is not a story without fear or despair. It is the sense of loss, betrayal and abandonment that makes it an heroic story. But the events of Holy Week have at its centre a man who is not driven by the fear of death. As difficult as the journey becomes, there is an underlying persistence to the end. Jesus may be the central figure in the Holy Week story, but it is not about him, he points to something beyond himself, his words and acts are testimony to God’s purpose, not his immortality. He walks towards death as if its horrors were a mirage.
We can’t begin to engage with this imaginatively unless we can conceive what it would be like to live as if our deaths were behind us. Imagine if your death were not somewhere in the future, but in the past. Think of what could be set aside.
Concerns about status, rivalry, family feud, affronts to dignity, seeking justice for a wrong done, needing to be noticed, given our proper regard, even the need to be memorialised. All these things would melt away along with all their imperatives, that intensity, because they are driven by the fear of death. With our deaths behind us, all these melt away and look trivial, even frivolous.
The Last Supper is not Jesus’s attempt at memorial, it is framing his death in a way that invites his followers to emulate, to live as if their deaths are behind us and mortality an illusion. This is the power we see unfolded in Holy Week.
It is fulfilled after Easter Day. The resurrection stories in Christian sacred texts are about a man walking among his friends whose death is behind him. He is walking a new life. He doesn’t go back to Herod or Pilate or the high priest Caiaphas or Judas Iscariot for revenge, or even vindication. He returns to the life-enhancing business of meals with friends, and his presence a testimony to their never having to fear for themselves, an invitation to put the fear of death behind them.
Paradoxically, this life becomes one of the most remembered in history, but the power of its message remains confined, hidden even from many of his followers, and seen only by those with eyes to see.
So we rehearse the final days of a man walking towards his death, surrounded by the wreckage of a world financial system, driven by a few who are compelled to acquire, profit, and rob in the futile cause of being significant, and trying to stay their mortality. This week, the way ahead is in their midst.