So it begins! The climax of the Lenten season is upon us. Jesus enters the gates of Jerusalem to the shouts of the people, to the 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. Little wonder 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, out of 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—which hasten the week’s outcome. 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, and the great paradox that only one so close can betray so fully.
We have Holy Thursday—Maundy Thursday, for the mandate to love—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!
Zechariah’s prophecy is so stirring! “Rejoice greatly…shout aloud…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 witnessed a procession along the Apian Way 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. Gimme a J! Gimme an E! Gimme an S-U-S! Jesus, Jesus, He’s our Man. He can do it, yes He can! And Zechariah’s words lend themselves so easily to that kind of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Because we today are so susceptible to messianic fever. Four years ago during the presidential campaign folks cheered the idea of ushering a messiah into the Oval Office. This year, it seems we’re more concerned about which devil, Republican or Democrat, will do the lesser amount of damage. But…you can still sense it in all the discontent, that if a rider on a white horse should appear, from either party, we’d gallop off after him. “Hosanna! Blessed is he that comes!” Ah…but just ask the Germans of 1933 how things worked out when you elect a messiah.
What makes Zechariah’s words on Palm Sunday so hard to grasp is that we are so accustomed to the classic rags-to-riches story. It animates our culture. Whether it’s the old Horatio Alger stories of hardworking youth who ultimately make good, or the more contemporary real-life versions starring Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs, we are primed to expect it. We want a story that portrays that upward mobility to which we ourselves aspire. But the story which begins today isn’t like that. It goes the other way.
So in our service today, we began with the procession, the parade with palms. But then we went on to read Philippians. What’s remarkable about that early Christian hymn which St. Paul cites in the 2nd chapter is the dramatic movement it portrays. Jesus leaves the glory of His inheritance to be joined to us in every way. And the service today will not end as it began!
But Jesus goes down this direction. He embraces His downward mobility, refusing 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 this 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 dare tell no one 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 Jesus’ self-emptying to become man and die…but it is certainly more than a little taste of what St. Paul is urging upon us in Philippians.
Now what the prophet Zechariah and the apostle Paul and the evangelist John are all telling us is that this King who comes to us on His donkey, this Messiah who pours Himself out, does so for the express purpose of filling up those who have been emptied, and even eviscerated, by this life; to fill up with His life and His love, His grace and His gifts all those who have been emptied! He pours Himself out that we may be full!
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 doing the equivalent of walking in His inaugural parade rather than riding a limousine or a golden coach or a big white Jesus-mobile. But that misses the point.
The donkey is such 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, comes as the Son of David, the Messiah, the Shepherd King. And like David, Jesus too is a Man of blood, who will certainly have blood on His hands by this week’s end…His own blood, on His own hands, and His feet and His head, His back, His side…pouring it out for a world whose own blood can run so cold. That is the humility of this beast of burden…the donkey…and also Jesus Himself. So it begins.
“Behold, your King comes to you!” That’s today, then Monday, then Tuesday, then Wednesday, then Thursday, then Friday, then Saturday, before we get to Sunday again and those Hallelujahs! We walk these days with Him who pours out Himself so that we may be filled; with Him who dies that we may live, fully. So it begins!