Receiving the Hyssop

Listen to Good Friday reflection here: Receiving the Hyssop

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Psalm 22

Hebrews 10:16-25

John 18:1-19:42

A Good Friday reflection for the Seven Last Words service at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Sunday April 6, 2012.

“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” Luke 23:34

“They put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. And Jesus received the wine.” John 19:29

There is a plant that grows on the Western Wall in Jerusalem (and it has been growing there for thousands of years. According to First Kings, it’s been there since the time of King Solomon). The plant is called hyssop. It’s a green herbal plant with purple blue flowers that has a strong minty scent. The plant is mentioned in the Bible several times, usually in reference to sacred ritual and ceremonial cleansing. According to Exodus, the elders of Israel used the hyssop plant to wipe the blood of the slaughtered lamb on the doorframes of all the Hebrew houses in Egypt. Death, which claimed the lives of all the firstborn children in Egypt, passed over the houses that were covered by the blood of the lamb, thus sparing the lives of the firstborn Hebrew children, an event which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters are commemorating this very night. The name Passover—Pesach—refers to death passing over the firstborn Hebrew children. It’s also where we get the word “Paschal” for the Paschal Triduum, the Paschal Mystery, the Paschal Lamb.

The hyssop was used to wipe the blood of the sacrifice, which protected the Hebrew children. Over the last several weeks, some of us have been exploring the anthropological roots of sacrifice. We learned that, according to the anthropologist René Girard, the sacrificial system is an expression of the human need to blame and to lash out in the midst of tensions and anxiety. The hyssop acts as a symbol of the sacrificial system and thus as a symbol of this human need to blame and to lash out, even if it means shedding innocent blood. We see this human need to lash out expressed in the prophet Isaiah’s Songs of the Suffering Servant, which we read, in which the prophet describes the peaceful and cathartic release associated with this lashing out: “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” In Isaiah, the Suffering Servant receives the blame for whatever tensions were plaguing God’s people. In Exodus, the innocent one who receives the blame for all the tensions and anxieties afoot during the Hebrew’s tumultuous final days in Egypt was the Passover lamb, who was slaughtered and whose blood was spread with hyssop.

In the Gospel passage we read, the author makes seven explicit references to the Passover. From a literary perspective, the central reference to the Passover in John’s Passion is the verse that refers to the hyssop: “They put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. And Jesus received the wine.” The author of John intends to make a point by explicitly describing Jesus receiving the wine, an act not described in the Synoptic Gospels (where he’s offered wine, but never actually receives it).[1] Also, no other Gospel author mentions the “hyssop,” which makes it clear that the author of John is offering his own unique interpretation of the Passion with this reference.[2] In John, the apex of Christ’s ministry is not the resurrection, but the hour of glorification on the cross and the center of the hour of glorification is the receiving of the hyssop. Jesus receives the hyssop, which represents the human need to blame and to lash out. But Jesus does not receive it in order to affirm it but to transform it through his forgiveness.

Jesus knows that he will rise from the dead (v. 2:19) and, according to theologian James Alison, “resurrection is forgiveness”: forgiveness to everyone responsible for Christ’s crucifixion and death, including the Jewish authorities, the Roman soldiers, and the disciples who abandoned him, denied him and even the disciple who betrayed him.[3] The author of John expects the reader to read the passion account in light of the divine forgiveness expressed in the resurrection. The author expects the reader to have the divine forgiveness of the resurrection in mind while reading about Jesus receiving the hyssop. In this way, the receiving of the hyssop is Christ’s way of forgiving everyone even as he is being crucified. In Luke, Jesus prays on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In John, Jesus says essentially the same thing by receiving the hyssop, saying, “I receive your need to blame and to violently lash out and I forgive you, even though you have betrayed me, left me to die, and killed me.”

By receiving the hyssop, Jesus invites us all to bring our human need to blame and to violently lash out to him, even if it means directing it against him, because he is the only one who can take it and transform it through his forgiveness. By receiving the hyssop, Jesus invites us to stop blaming and lashing out against each other, against innocent victims, against scapegoats. This is why Jesus cleansed the temple, because God’s people had made a habit of blaming and lashing out against innocent blood in their sacrificial system. At the cross, Jesus says to us, “Give me your anger and violence and your need to blame. I will take it and transform it through my forgiveness. You no longer need to blame others.”

My favorite sacred site in the Holy Land and perhaps in the world is the Western Wall, where the hyssop grows. When I first visited about ten years ago, I remember feeling instantly drawn to this ancient wall, which once stood closest to the Holy of Holies, where the divine presence of G-d once dwelled. Another name for the Western Wall is the Wailing Wall, which is an appropriate name for it, since many Jews do not pray passively or politely before it. They wail at it, punch at it, scream at it and release all their inner turmoil at it. And the wall just stands there, receiving all of it with rock steady equanimity. Initially, I felt like this was kind of an inappropriate to pray, perhaps even a little blasphemous. I remember watching an older man, who appeared to be homeless, wail against the wall with violent desperation, moaning and punching at the wall. I tried to keep my distance from him and so walked a few yards away from him to pray to the wall by myself. But after a short time, the man actually approached me and asked me my name. I hesitated, but then told him, “My name is Daniel.” He then said,  “Ben?”

“No,” I responded, “My name is Daniel.”

Again, he asked, “Ben?”

By this time, I was thinking there must be something a little wrong with this guy. First, I was a little taken back by his eccentric prayer style, but now I was wondering if this guy was really all there. I decided to say more clearly, “No. My name is not Ben. My name is Daniel.”

But still, he asked, “Ben?”

Finally, I decided to leave this situation, which I felt must have been some kind of joke, but right before leaving, I realized what he was actually asking me. He was asking for my father’s name. “Ben” means “son” or “son of” in Hebrew. So I finally answered his question and told him my father’s name, “Bob.”

He then exclaimed, “Daniel Ben Bob! Shem tov (which means good name).” And then he gently placed his hands on my head and prayed a blessing over me.

I misinterpreted his question as a sign that something must have been wrong with him when really he just wanted to know my full name in order to give me a blessing. I then began to wonder if I was misinterpreting his eccentric prayer style as well or at least judging it too soon. The man was clearly dealing with a lot of suffering and turmoil, but he was able to give it to God at the Wailing Wall, confident that he was being held and loved. And, as a result, he was able to share some of that same love with a random stranger (me) who was judging him from a distance. I have come to understand that style of prayer as not only biblical, but also central to my understanding of the cross and Good Friday. Just as the homeless man lashed out against God at the Wailing Wall, we are invited to bring our anger and need to lash out to Christ, who receives it just as he received the hyssop, with patient love and forgiveness.

We can pray to Jesus the way our Jewish brothers and sisters pray to the Wailing Wall. We can pray like the Psalmist of Psalm 22 and boldly ask God, “Where are you? Where are you in the midst of all this anxiety and stress and suffering?” We can hold God accountable and even blame God the way the Psalmists so often do. God allows us to do this and even prefers that we do this to him so as not to do it to others. God allows us to do this because God knows that we will be transformed by his love and forgiveness in the process. God holds us in our anger and violence the way a parent holds a young child who is kicking and screaming. Even as the child is kicking and screaming, the parent still holds the child patiently and lovingly until the anger subsides and the child finally melts into their parent’s loving arms.

As the Epistle to the Hebrews says, we can pray with confidence because “He who has promised is faithful” to hold us and forgive us and transform us in the midst of all our wailing and moaning. “He who has promised is faithful” to hold us and forgive us even as we crucify him.

[1] “When Jesus received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished’” (19:30, my emphasis). In Luke 23:36-37: “The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” In Matthew 27:34: “There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink.”  Mark 15:23: “Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it”

[2] Although I refer to the author of John with the masculine pronoun, I am aware that the gender of the author has been reexamined. See Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 2003), 233-254.

[3] “Judas’ terminal sin was not his treachery (with all due respect to Dante), but his inability to believe in the possibility of forgiveness—what we usually call despair.” Alison, 9.


One thought on “Receiving the Hyssop

  1. Thank you again for your insights, DDL.

    Having participated in a tenebrae service on Good Friday, I think we still put the Jews in a negative light (“Crucify him! Crucify him!”), although they probably saw themselves as faithful adherents of Judiasm. What boundless love Jesus showed when he prayed for his father to forgive them, for they knew not what they did. Too bad Christendom hasn’t followed suit over the centuries.

    I must get that book by Sandra Schneiders.

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