Is 50:4-9a; Ps 31:9-16; Ph 2:5-11; LUKE 22:14-23:56
Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of Christ’s suffering and also share in his resurrection. AMEN.
“Let the mountains and all the hills,
Break out into great rejoicing at the mercy of God.
And let the trees of the forest clap their hands.
Give praise to Christ, all nations,
Magnify him, all peoples, crying:
Glory to thy power, O Lord.
Seated in heaven upon thy throne
And on earth upon a foal, O Christ our God,
Thou hast accepted the praise of the angels
And the songs of the children who cried out to thee:
Blessed art thou that comest to call back Adam.” (From an Orthodox Hymn for Palm Sunday.)
This hymn for Palm Sunday expresses the joy and celebration that we rarely manage to hold onto even for a minute on this day. We know in most churches from the minute we walk in on Palm Sunday that the celebration will not hold. We know red is the color of celebration, but our frontal is mixed. Whether a parish has the vestments and hangings to change smoothly from bright cheerful red to red tinged with black, the liturgy changes from Palm Sunday to the Passion by the end of singing “All glory, laud and honor…accept the prayers we bring, who in all good delightest, thou great and gracious king.” We don’t sit on, enjoy, live in the celebration for any appreciable time, literally no time to appreciate Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem surrounded by crowds of followers, singing, cheering and honoring Jesus as Messiah.
We move away too, the Psalmist is aware of his mortal limits. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.” We have no idea why or, a how or for what reason the speaker has enemies or why he’s been persecuted, but we know the speaker trusts in the Lord, asking for the Lord’s face to shine on him, and in loving kindness to save him. The psalmist simply acknowledges that he (or she, although tradition finds that’s unlikely) is human, has erred, and yet feels secure in the Lord’s hands. He expresses that genuine frustration that I would guess we all come to from time to time, when we simply say of ourselves, “I blew it; what do you want from me; I’m just human, and I did it wrong; there it is.”
In contrast, Paul tries to figure out a way for neither the Holy One nor Jesus to be responsible for Jesus’s death. Here the Holy One neither willed the death, nor did Jesus invite it. Paul struggles to provide a rational—or here theological way—way to accept and understand Jesus’s dying. He tries to explain, if not where fault lies, at least where fault doesn’t lie. He wants at minimum for Jesus not to have been involved in his suicide, nor G*d involved in his murder. He explains that while Jesus was “in the form of G*d, he did not regard equality with G*d something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient even to the point of death.” I’ve heard this repeatedly, but it doesn’t provide for me an explanation I find useful. While I know and even can offer definitions of all those words, here Paul doesn’t make the death clear to me. I want to say to this, for me, almost word game, “Nice try, but if I’m to live life in the understanding of a good and loving G*d, this won’t do. It squirrels around to make a reasoned possibility, but this one won’t do.” I hear Paul wanting to offer one of the possible word solutions to what for him is the impossible conundrum, of “How can this be?” He works out a way, but for me, the “emptying” has always seemed more philosophical than helpful. I experience generous acts of love from taking on more and more and more, and wearing out, not emptying. The emptying out theology as contrasted with the filling up theology is, not surprisingly, often gender linked, and since the overwhelming weight of philosophical theology was written by men, the emptying out has been more often described and accepted, or at least been understood to make believable sense. I get what Paul is saying, but I’d guess it didn’t happen that way.
Then we hear the narrative of Jesus’s death on a cross. We have heard every detail of this before, and we’ll hear it again. We see it depicted around us in the various Stations of the Cross, and each account is a little different. Some of the greatest pieces of music ever written narrate these accounts. Many people’s walk through this week includes listening to one of the Bach Passions, maybe more so than the relevant parts of Messiah. Many of us resort, not to theological rational chess games for an explanation either to “How did this happen?” or the underlying human question, “Why (or is it) How, does evil exist?” to experiences of art. The political machinations of the narrative are more offered at the moment. Jesus was challenging the Roman authorities in an occupied city, already a tinder box, and the military administrative forces couldn’t allow such a huge public display of strength opposing the occupation and subjugation there. Those in power could neither permit threats to the Roman army, not allow this people’s movement, to occupy and take over the “system” in behalf of those without. Stability was threatened; order was at risk; and chaos or armed struggles lurked as a possibility. Various levels of governing authorities found that unacceptable. It seemed easier to remove the focal point of the force advocating for justice and the right, than to deal with that movement or the issues. This narrative is not described or worked out, but it surely shadows and underlies what we do read and hear. While that’s all probably the case, it just doesn’t touch what we know or feel of the Passion.
Here’s what we do hear. A good and righteous person having lived a simple life heartening people to bring about God’s reign on earth, was caught by a political system. That system, fitted into the scale of evil to effect the capture and trial of the person working for both justice and peace, working for “just peace,” could not contain either the person nor his movement. Was the system evil by design or just the way it worked out? I’d say people don’t usually, or even often, intend to be evil or even bad. I’d guess order was seen as the value, and it is a valid one in a crowded city of conflicting and jumbled situations, like hungry people, unfair labor practices (slavery,) unequal distribution of power, money, and authority, inadequate housing, rampant illness, discrimination among various groups, of gender, class, group identity, and on and on. That’s modern thinking around the stories Jesus told, the people he traveled with, and the actions he took. We hear all this in simpler, clear stories, parables, accounts, and more to make up the accounts of Jesus’s life and death.
The Passion we just heard presents a play, an artful stenographer’s, almost a court reporter’s account of what happened. Scholarly analysis by history, sociology, and more can point out the threads which can show the myriad of issues present, but the narrator doesn’t do that, at all—or very little. We simply hear an account of what happened.
We hear Jesus’s capture. We hear him not defend himself for any charges. We hear his friend betray him. We hear the soldiers do their job. We hear the court do what the government expected it to do. We watch mutely and miserably as the events unfold. We hear Jesus not struggle out of the charges. We see no army of rescuing angels.
Each of us has heard all of this before. We know where it’s going, and if we avoid church of any sort on Palm/Passion Sunday and Good Friday, we don’t have to be part of it overtly again. Elizabeth Jennings wrote:
“It was the amazing white, it was the way, he simply
Refused to answer our questions, it was the cold pale glance
Of death upon him, the smell of death that truly
Declared his rising to us. It was no chance
Happening, as a man may fill a silence
Between two heart-beats, seem to be dead and then
Astonish us with the closeness of his presence;
This man was dead, I say it again and again.
All of our sweating bodies moved towards him
And our minds moved too, hungry for finished faith.
He would not enter our world at once with words
That we might be tempted to twist or argue with:
Cold like a white root pressed in the bowels of earth
He looked, but also vulnerable — like birth.”
If we listen, and if we hear thoroughly, faithfully, and honestly, not skipping ahead for solace only and not for strength, this account we hear is the one the disciples and crowd experienced on that long ago day: Jesus died.
That is what we are to accept and live with; it is part of what we are baptized into. Jesus died. We can’t understand what’s next, without accepting this: Jesus, Son of Humanity, died.
© Katharine C. Black C Palm Sunday 24 March 2013