So it begins! The climax of the Lenten season is upon us. Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem to the shouts of the people, to their songs of praise…only to hear those voices at week’s end turn first to accusation and then to jeers, as He goes to His death on a Roman cross.
The climax of the whole Christian story is upon us. The climax of all time and history in upon us! Little wonder, then, that each of the evangelists—Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—slows down at this point in his Gospel. Each of them moves from the fast-paced, panoramic view of Jesus’ life and ministry, from which they each capture significant moments along the way, to this almost slow-motion recounting of Holy Week, of Jesus’ final hours. Each step of this journey is significant. Each step deserves the care and the detail which the evangelists give it.
That’s why we have Holy Week. Not just a few holy minutes, but the whole, holy week. We have today, Palm Sunday, on which it begins. We have Holy Monday, on which we ponder the confrontations between Jesus and His opponents—the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. We have Holy Tuesday, on which we ponder the disciples’ struggles with events that rush around them like whitewater rapids, leaving them confused and afraid. We have Holy Wednesday, on which we ponder the treachery of Judas Iscariot.
Then we have Holy Thursday—Maundy Thursday, for the mandate to love one another—and to taste again the flavor of Jesus’ gift in bread and wine. We have Good Friday, when the darkness becomes palpable, the silence unnerving. We have Holy Saturday, the day of waiting, because faith always has its days of waiting. And then, we have Sunday again, Easter, the Resurrection, all the more glorious because of the slow, pondering journey through this week. Easter is an empty day, a hollow, shallow day without all of this week, this Holy Week. So it begins!
St. John cites the prophecy of Zechariah. “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming!” Sound the trumpets! Strike the drums! Wave the banners! Drop everything and cheer!
And Jerusalem did exactly that on that day. No Caesar in procession along the Apian Way received a welcome like this one in Jerusalem that day. The city was turned upside down. So much so that the Pharisees, those religious fanatics who were always afraid that someone somewhere was having a good time…the Pharisees are scandalized. “Look, the whole world has gone after Him!” And hell hath no fury like a Pharisee scorned.
And it would be so very easy for a preacher to ratchet up the rhetoric on Palm Sunday. “Jesus, Jesus, He’s our Man. He can do it, yes He can!” And Zechariah’s prophecy lends itself so easily to that kind of sound and fury…signifying nothing.
We today are so susceptible to messianic fever. “Deliver us from evil!” we cry out. The world teeters perpetually on the brink of war. Social forces rip and rage in every direction. Religion takes it on the chin and dishes out its own share of violence. You can sense it in all the discontent, that if a rider on a white horse should appear today we’d gallop off after him. “Hosanna! Blessed is he that comes!” Ah…but just ask the citizens of Germany in 1933 how well that electing a messiah thing worked out.
What makes Palm Sunday so hard to grasp is that we are so accustomed to the trajectory of rags-to-riches stories. They animate our culture. Whether it’s the old Horatio Alger stories of a hardworking youth who ultimately makes good, or the more contemporary real-life versions, we are primed, psyched to expect it. We want a story that portrays the upward mobility to which we ourselves aspire. But the story which begins again today isn’t like that. It goes the other way.
So in our service today, begins with the Gospel and the parade with palms. But then we went on to hear the Philippians Reading. And what’s remarkable about that early Christian hymn which St. Paul cites is the dramatic trajectory it portrays. Jesus leaves the glory of His inheritance to join to us in every way. Which means that the service today does not end as it began!
But Jesus goes down this direction. He embraces His downward mobility, refusing to grasp the glory that is His so as to pour Himself out in love for us. St. Paul is not merely reciting history. He is inviting us not only to contemplate Jesus’ act of self-giving on the cross, but also to embrace it for ourselves. “Have this same mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,” he urges.
That may seem hard to imagine, and yet each of us has had moments where we have sacrificed something for others, or at least we have witnessed tremendous self-sacrifice. If you are a parent, you know, even if your children do not, the extent of your sacrifices for them.
And whether at home or at work or simply as a member of the human race, you also know, even if you never tell anyone else, how wearying, how very tiring, it can become to empty yourself, to be the rock, the confidante, the worrier, to pour yourself out for the sake of another. No, it’s not the same thing as what Jesus is doing…but it’s certainly more than a little taste of what St. Paul is urging upon us in Philippians.
What the apostle Paul and the evangelist John are telling us is that this King who comes to us on His donkey, this Messiah pours Himself out to deliver us from evil! That’s NOT the way we think deliverance should work!
By some sweeping legislative action…by a dramatic upheaval in the social order…by a show of arms against a hostile force…that’s how it should work! But Jesus comes to pour Himself out! He comes to deliver us by filling up those who have been emptied, even eviscerated, by this life; filling up with His life and His love, with His grace and His gifts all those who have been emptied! He pours Himself out that we may be full! And in so doing, He delivers us.
So much is often made of Jesus’ donkey on Palm Sunday. The lowliness of it compared to the warhorses of Rome, as if Jesus were walking in His inaugural parade rather than riding a limousine or a big white Jesus-mobile. That’s true, but it misses the bigger point.
The donkey is a King David beast. It was Solomon who first imported warhorses into the army of Israel. In David’s day they only had donkeys. No horses, donkeys. So Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is not so much a slap at the powers that be, as it is a reminder that He who comes to deliver, comes as the Son of David, the Shepherd King/Messiah.
And like David, Jesus is a Man of blood, who will certainly have blood on His hands by this week’s end…His own blood…pouring it out for a world whose own blood can run so cold. That is the greater humility of this beast of burden…the donkey…and also Jesus in His beastly humility. So it begins.
“Behold, your King is coming!” That’s today, then Monday, then Tuesday, then Wednesday, then Thursday, then Friday, then Saturday, before we get to Sunday again and all those Hallelujahs of deliverance! We walk these days with Him who delivers Himself into evil, delivers Himself into death, to deliver us from evil, from death to life…life in all of its fullness…now and forever So it begins!