And so we begin our descent into Jerusalem for the last days of Jesus’ earthly life, the culmination of everything. What an emotional rollercoaster - even when we know how it ends – anxiety, excitement, dread, shame, grief and then absolute joy! It is important I think to journey slowly and deeply not rushing too far ahead. So on Palm Sunday let us explore our excitement and confusion about what sort of a savior this Jesus might be. (Gospel of the Palm Liturgy Luke 19:28-40 and of the Passion Luke 22:14 – 23:56)
‘Hail and hosanna, Jesus of Nazareth, all our hopes are in you! Hail and hosanna, Jesus the Christ, lead us into the bright future we believe is our heritage! Hail and hosanna, Christ my Savior, save us from our circumstances – from oppression, from suffering, from being down trodden and forgotten!’ So our forbears in faith effectively cried out when they saw Jesus on a donkey making his way into Jerusalem.
It must have been an electric moment. Jerusalem was full of pilgrims coming to celebrate the Passover. It was always a hot bed of political and religious passion at such times. And here was Jesus clearly summoning up the prophetic image of a king who would do away with war. And to make it really clear that there was a choice to be made between one form of power and another Jesus was processing into Jerusalem at the same time as the Roman troops were processing in by another route. The clash of choices was being made alarmingly clear. It must have been thrilling and risky to wave palm branches in the air and shout with hope and expectation. No wonder the Roman authorities were on the look- out for up risings and rabble rousers. But we know that it will not be long at all and the crowd will dissipate, even turn against him. Even the most faithful will deny, hide and run away.
It is too easy to look back and criticise those who came before us as unusually naive, foolish or cowardly. Why were they looking for political or worldly salvation when it was their eternal souls that were in need? Do not we easily rally around a new politician or guru, or cause or diet or bumper sticker philosophy only to give up under pressure? Do we not want to be saved from being ourselves and from our circumstances? And yes the experience of Christ does save us by ultimately transforming and converting us. But much of our desire is to be taken over by someone or something that will save us from real life. We too are prone to waving palm branches in the air and hoping that Christ is the one who will lead us to safety, comfort and to successful life. But Jesus never promised that, even as he rode into Jerusalem looking like an alternate king. Especially as he rode into Jerusalem to partake in his last meal and last day of earthly life.
What, if we are honest, do we want to be rescued from? What struggle or suffering have we that we still desperately want to have Jesus promise we shall not have to bear? In what ways are we as desperate, as desirous of rescue, and of being reinstated into a time and culture of plenty and honour, as those first peoples who gathered along the winding route into Jerusalem?
I once had a wonderful spiritual director who told a story at a retreat she led about falling in love with a savior three times. If I can remember her first savior was when she was a very young child and nearly drowned and a woman with long wet flapping skirt scooped her up and returned her to dry land. Sarah (not her name) said for a long time she would play in and around the long flapping sheets drying on the clothes line and feel alive and safe. Then as a young woman she got into trouble again in some rough surf and was saved by a man who she later married. And then as a mature woman (and psychiatrist) she was on holiday and while white water rafting fell overboard. A large powerful local guide reached into the water and pulled her back on board. Although Sarah knew what was happening she said she fell in love with this guide for several days. As part of her retreat reflection Sarah then talked about the delight of falling in love with our savior but then needing to grow beyond that first flush of excitement into something much deeper. Again I ask, what do we desire to be saved from? Loneliness, exhaustion, shame, meaninglessness and existential angst? What sort of savior are we looking for? And in what ways is Jesus as savior less and more than what we are hoping for? If we are honest Jesus is a savior who comes to us in failure and vulnerability, in brokenness and abandonment, ultimately in defeat and death. And yes in life, love and hope that cannot be contained even by death.
And what is the response of Jesus to the people’s excitement and fevered hope? He allows them to have their hope and to express it – indeed he seems to suggest they need to shout out and that if they were not able to the stones themselves would! But Jesus is not seduced or distracted by the crowd’s limited understanding of what is needed to bring freedom and fulfilment into their lives. Having acknowledged their desire Jesus gets down to business, to the great work of his life, to love us even into the dark recesses of death. He prepares for the Passover knowing it will be his last festival with his disciples and friends and family. He prepares for his last meal, the meal in which he shall become the bread and wine of the ritual meal that had sustained his people since the time of liberation from Egypt and the people of faith ever since, in the meal that converts us taste by taste, morsel by morsel.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ three years of ministry and now these last days he creates these perfect book ends. We are reminded that in preparation for his ministry Jesus struggled in the wilderness with the foundational story of his people – that of the great exodus, the journey from slavery and oppression to liberation and a home of their own. And now at the end of his ministry he chooses this time to bring to completion his story and life’s work in the great festival of the Passover, the sharing of the meal that gave sustenance to the chosen people as they ventured out on the great and terrible journey to liberation. Jesus offered the people a renewed covenant spoken in the language of human flesh; he took them even deeper into the story they already had; he became the fulfilment of the old story in a new and everlasting way.
I think it important to pause here – to savoir this last meal, to transition with the disciples from the excitement of the street to the quiet interior of the upper room and its own disturbing motives of confusion and anxiety. And then our focus turns toward Jesus and the unbearable suffering that we know he went through. Knowing what lies ahead I tend to leave the detail of the arrest, trial and death, to Good Friday allowing us to more fully enter the story at this very human point of choice and companionship so that we might feel the depth of his love and suffering, his sacrificial self giving, and struggle to stay present to such scorching love.
Part of the wisdom and beauty of our tradition is that by marking Maundy Thursday, then Good Friday, and only then the good news of Easter Day we allow the true depth and breadth of the great love of God to shine in all the corners of all our individual and corporate places so that we might be healed and transformed by the love that coursed through the broken body of our Lord. Over the days of Holy Week I encourage you to take heart, to open your heart, to this story that is ancient and ever new and to allow the mystery of such love to do its work within you and through you.
Come Lord Jesus Christ, come and save us from all that limits us to receive and share your love.