Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lent Six: Encountering Contradiction

Jesus Entering Jerusalem, Giotto di Bondone,
 Florence, 14th century
Palm Sunday has always felt a little disconcerting.

It seems we start the service with palms and praises, shouting “Hosannah,” and end with the reading of Christ’s trial, chanting “Crucify him.”

We enact, together, what church scholars call “the sign of contradiction,” from Luke 2: 34-35: 34:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

The Latin for “spoken against,” “contra dicere”, is our own word “contradiction.”

Jesus, the child born in a manger, embodied contradiction, and the Sunday before Easter, called both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, draws us into that contradiction, raising more questions than it answers.

How would a child of blessing be a sword to pierce his mother’s heart?

How could something that seemed to start so well appear to go so wrong?

How could promised blessing become a stumbling block?

The crowd, gathering to applaud Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cried “Hosanna!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the king of Israel!”

The word “Hosanna” itself carries contradiction: it comes from the ancient Hebrew “Hoshanna,” which meant “Please save us,” a supplication from the needy.

Yet it’s used, on Palm Sunday and elsewhere, in a more triumphant way.

As we read the text, are we gathered as a crowd to plead for help?

Or shouting out victory over our opponents?

The uncertain context makes me uncomfortable.

Luke’s account, (19:38-40) says this:
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 
unknown Armenian artist, ceramic tile
So yes, the crowd was right to greet him with palms and praise.

Yet misunderstood what it was he was doing, unable to see he was heading toward his death. 

Instead, they linked the promise of Messiah with political victory in a way some followers have done ever since.

Then, in frustration, just a few days later, some, not all, joined the cry of “crucify him.”

In the gospel accounts, the passages between Palm Sunday and Jesus’ arrest are rich with confusing, urgent instruction: Jesus’ last words to his followers, words of warning, encouragement, and reminder that the story would not unfold the way they imagined.

In these passages there is a growing sense of bewilderment among his listeners, sometimes turning to confusion, sometimes to anger, then betrayal.

In the liturgical church, the week of Palm Sunday to Easter is called Holy Week: the heart of the Christian calendar, the focus of our faith.

A roller coaster of emotion.

A mirror to our inner intent.

What we want, like the crowd of Palm Sunday, is a smooth, sweet narrative with a clear, quick outcome: problems solved, enemies conquered, happy endings in place.

Smooth sailing toward the future.

What Jesus offers is something else completely:

A walk toward ever greater humility.

A reminder to set our own need aside and love and care for the hungry, homeless, imprisoned.

Forgiving silence in the face of opposition.

A sword to pierce both side and soul.

No wonder Judas turned away in fury.

No wonder Peter withdrew in fear.

No wonder ever since we’ve attempted to rewrite the story, linking faith and political power, lashing out at those who challenge our vision of victorious Christian life.
Betrayal in the Garden,
Max Thallman, woodcut, Germany 1921

Reading the passages, I find myself shaken.

It’s all too familiar.

The pompous leaders.

The unyielding power.

The outraged response at the quiet voice inviting us to take up our cross, love our neighbor, forgive yet again.

Father, forgive us, for we don’t know what we do.