Palm Sunday without the Palms
Usually on Palm Sunday we gather outside our church or in the streets and parade waving our palm fronds high singing Hosanna. This year we will be celebrating this wonderful and disturbing event on our own. It is both sad and also an opportunity to go deeper.
Jesus came riding the colt of a donkey, as he knew the prophet Zechariah had said a future king would, a king who would banish the weapons of war from the land. But on that day there were two processions into Jerusalem; Jesus from the Galilee to the north and the Roman governor of Judea from the west. Jesus came enacting this long remembered promise at the very moment that the other procession was making its way into the city – the procession of the Roman governor of Judea and the imperial army for they were nervous this time, Passover, every year about Jewish uprisings against the Roman Empire.
So Rome made its presence felt with the spectacle of its power and its theology of peace through victory and oppression. And Jesus came with a raggle taggle following that declared peace through liberation from oppression. They were on a collision course. And in so many ways we have been on a collision course ever since, wanting the peace Jesus spoke of and yet looking to power plays more in keeping with the Roman empire.
We see that at the level of international politics where we pray for peace between the nations but then watch them take ‘proportionate’ actions that keep the game of peace-through-victory-and-might going once more around the board game.
We see it between religions and ethnic groups with a declared desire to respect one another’s differences but we shall get one more criticism in before we stop.
And of course in our families, we desire connection and peace and yet each wants the others to give in first and admit they’re wrong and ask us for forgiveness (which we would of course grant them so long as they ask first!).
We somehow always feel called or entitled to be on the winning side of life. Jesus’ disciples over the next days will make clear that they felt called to be on the winning side of salvation. After all they had come to recognise Jesus as the anointed holy one of God, why would that not also mean that he was to be the winner, the new leader, the long awaited King?
But in the language of Philippians Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ... Jesus found becoming the fully human and divine one meant becoming humbled, brought low. Now this was either something Jesus pretended to do, out of false modesty or as part of a prepared script for the sake of the audience, or he truly allowed himself to be emptied out and humbled. And then, only then, did he discover in the place of humility his own fullness and the exaltation of being the Lord’s anointed son.
There is nothing in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ passion for us that suggests an easy acting, rather there is a heart breaking journey through betrayal and abandonment and grief. Jesus must endure the waving of palms and calls of Hosanna knowing how misplaced those hopes are and how fickle the followers are going to prove. (Matthew 21:1-11, 26:1-75)
We could look back and ask how did his contemporaries not see that he was becoming the fulfilment of the suffering servant? But what about us? Do we not often prefer our Messiah triumphant, or at least the uncontested winner of history, the spiritual magician who will ease our burdens and sooth our brow, who would dictate the right decisions in language and volume we can easily digest and follow? If we are honest sometimes our Saviour, our King, is if not disappointing then at least confusing. And quite frankly sometimes a bit embarrassing. Jesus is about to become, dare I say it, a bit of a ‘looser’ in the Australian idiom. If that language is too disrespectful then we may be more comfortable with ‘despised, rejected, a man of sorrows, one acquainted with grief.’
Maybe it is our false hopes for an easy journey to the winners seat that sets us up so often for betrayal – for being seemingly betrayed by the deal we think we have made and for betraying the one we say we follow. We know who the anointed one is but we do wish he would be more kingly. We know who the righteous one is but we want to be declared right our selves. We call him Lord and Saviour but we want to determine our own path and terms.
So before we rush to Easter Day and the joy and relief and certainty that it suggests let us wave our metaphoric palm fronds along the side of the road to Golgotha and confess our naive hope for a leader who would lead in inspiring ways and a saviour who would rescue us from being us, from the problems and consequences of being us.
Most of us long to be rescued and revived not forsaken and reviled, we wish to be honoured and raised high not brought low. As modern people we are, maybe rightly, suspicious of philosophies of humility and suffering fearing the loss of the individual self in the name of communal morality and endeavour.
Yet it is great love and great suffering that seem to most fully have the power to remake us and reshape us as loving souls, as compassionate beings, as deliriously joyous survivors.
Yet again in the Easter mysteries we are about to be brought, ready or not, kicking and screaming, into the holy mystery of life that comes from death, love that is birthed out of hate, and victory that is entered through defeat. Holy week should shock us, unhinge us a little, rework us out of our complacent hope and self pity into surrender to dying and stumbling into the blinding new light of love.
There is often the risk that the familiarity of the story might dull our senses to the anguish, the terror, and eventually the thrill of new life but this year we face the plague of the virus and the disruption of everything that feels ordinary, safe and predictable. This is very hard to bear physically, socially, financially. For some of us it throws our faith around as we struggle to understand where God is in all of this. I cannot answer all of these questions for you but I do know that we are in a better and truer place to truly understand the mystery of Easter when we are aware of the circling of death, fear and hate. We are more open to birth and new life when the old way of life is so unsettled. And I am absolutely convinced that God is in the midst of the suffering just as he was with Jesus in all his trials and suffering. Do not let our fearfulness keep us away from the cross or the tomb in case we miss the beginning of the new age.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come give us courage to journey with you, to watch and wait, to enter into your story as we know you enter into our story.