Holy Wednesday is an atmosphere, one that begins after Jesus’ spits his red-hot, furious monologue at Temple authorities. There is nothing left to say, and so a quiet cold settles in, like metal hardening, unalterably fixing the tracks ahead. We know what’s coming.
Jesus takes his disciples to the Mount of Olives. There, as darkness falls, he tells them of things to come. The news is not good.
Jesus says that he knows his death is imminent; his disciples will be left alone. This is a blow enough. But it is not all. The forecast beyond is almost equally fearsome. False Prophets. Wars and rumors of wars. Famines, earthquakes, and pestilence. Persecution. Death. Tribulation. End Times. Darkened sun. Falling stars. A return of the Son of Man on the clouds of the sky, the thief in the night. Angels with trumpets. Those left behind. Apocalypse.
Throughout my tender years, I spent a lot of time on this dusk-dimmed Mount of Olives, wide eyes and shallow breath, marinating in a general terror, as I imagined the specter of the future, tried to unlock the prophetic codes, so that I could be prepared, so that I could know. Had the cosmic squall passed? Or was it all still to come, in my very own lifetime?
I didn’t know. I still don’t know. I have figured out pretty much every mortal problem I have set my mind to, but the Olivet Discourse evades me, like a nightmare seen “through a glass, darkly.” I have read some of the high theological theories, and I am too well acquainted with the lay theories. I still don’t know, but have long, long grown weary of the throbbing fear, and grown ireful at those with unloving agendas barely covered by fig leaves, who seem to delight in terrorizing their brethren with blockbuster-slasher film imaginings of how the Great Tribulation is ever just around the corner; how it will be (improbably) led by centrist Democrats and full of United Nations-orchestrated beheadings of newly-saved college-educated girls whom the Rapture left behind as punishment for their intellectual precociousness.
So I left that dusk-dimmed Mount of Olives for many years.
Now I return to the scene, older, harder to spook, equipped to stand up against those who sow indiscriminate, out-of-context fear among God’s flock, choking out the highest truth of love, all to advance small-hearted schemes.
“God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
Yes, now my mind is sound enough, quiet enough, that I can notice what has been missed. The conclusion. After his wholly petrifying but somewhat abstract descriptions of the suffering to come, Jesus gives his crestfallen friends instructions – in terms that are relatively easier for the blinkered human mind to comprehend, and also timeless. Because whether from past or future, an apocalyptic darkness stalks our planet, and with it comes violence, deception, hate, betrayal, “love grown cold.” Emperor Nero. The Black Plague. The Inquisition. The destruction of Native American civilization. The Triangle Trade. The World Wars. Fossil-fueled climate change.
What should we do in the face of all this? Jesus answers:
First, watch. Keep your lamp oil stocked and nearby. One does not even need to turn to esoteric interpretations. Just look around today at the state of our coronavirus-stricken world. To be prepared for crisis, we must pay attention and mind our needs. Instead of stubbornly ignoring the flashing signs around us, and in our fecklessness becoming a liability to our loved ones, we must put down our pride and illusions, and (as they say on airplanes) “first secure our own oxygen masks, so we can be of use. As people back in Kentucky (my home state) say to those recklessly and unnecessarily pursuing the supposed glory of martyrdom-by-idiocy: “Get down off the cross honey, we need the wood.”
Second, we must use and grow the “talents” that God has gifted to us, even when we are scared and intimidated. What if we aren’t the best? What if we are misunderstood? What if we are mocked or persecuted? We cannot let fear drive us to hide, in effort to preserve, our Selves. First, it won’t work. Second, we’re missing the whole point of Life.
And third, finally, the most blessedly specific, unambiguous, material instructions of all. In the absence of Christ in the flesh, continue, as he did:
Feeding the hungry.
Giving water to the thirsty.
Taking in the stranger.
Clothing the naked.
Healing the sick.
Visiting those in prison.
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Most of the Olivet Discourse remains impenetrable to me. Jesus even warns, it’s actually impossible to understand inasmuch as “the day and the hour” of the events he is sketching out is unknown – unknown even to Jesus. Being human means bumping up against frustrating limitations of understanding; at least for most of us, this seems to be an unavoidable feature of the otherwise wild and miraculous condition of embodied existence. For every legitimately astonishing discovery we make, new mysteries appear at the edge of the universe.
Mercifully, when the unknowable begins to overwhelm, when fear of the future threatens to plunge us into morally unproductive terror, we can fall back to the practical, humble guidelines Jesus issued to his disciples on the eve of his arrest: just observe, prepare, be yourself, and take care of each other, every single one, most importantly the “least of these,” those at the bottom of society’s brutal pecking order. And then you will know life everlasting.
While these directives seem straightforward enough, we will find the effort to live accordingly proves surprisingly provocative, offering more than enough grist for the spiritual mill.
Marcie Smith is a lawyer teaching in the department of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has a JD from the University of North Carolina School of Law. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin Magazine and at nonsite.org.