Sunday, April 5, 2009

April 5, 2009 - Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday several years ago found me waking up at 4:30 in the morning to wait outside the mud walls of a small village in the Nile Valley of Upper Egypt for the bishop to appear. He would symbolize Jesus, and his arrival in the village would commence the yearly procession of the palms. I was on internship that year, and my supervisor had led a group from our congregation in Cairo on a pilgrimage-like tour to several ancient Coptic Christian sites during orthodox Holy Week.

On that particular Palm Sunday morning, we had arrived in this small Christian hamlet not simply to observe but to participate in this ritual they had performed on Palm Sunday literally for centuries. It was to be, I reckon, the most nearly realistic of all my previous Palm Sundays. We waited outside, waving real palm branches that had been torn down the night before from the date palms along the Nile banks. Some had woven their palm fronds into elaborate mats. Our village hosts were native middle-eastern farms-people, people who worked the fields for their livelihood, and whose drab cotton tunics were not costumes but their actual daily clothes.

We had only been given a two-hour window for his possible arrival, and so everyone had all arrived early so as not to miss it. The procession of the palms would wind its way through the narrow city streets, and end in the village church. Once inside, the Palm Sunday parade would flow seamlessly into the beginning of their first Holy Week liturgy. The bishop eventually showed up, although not on a donkey. He was in a mid-90’s-era red Fiat sedan, already fully robed and ready, but as soon as he jumped out of the car, the whole town erupted in shouts of “Hosanna” and we waved our palm branches as he led us through the mud streets of the town, into the courtyard, where children shouted from rooftops. Holy Week had now begun in that village, the way it had for roughly sixteen or seventeen centuries straight with a level of realism that cannot be duplicated by many places.

We like do this with Holy Week. It arrives each and every year with the Christian faithful assembling in churches, public places, on cathedral steps to re-create to some degree the events of Jesus’ own last week before his death. We strive for some level of drama or realism, for we know that these events make some sort of difference to us. You and I may not actually be from the Middle East, and we probably don’t have palm trees in our yards, yet we each clutch in our own hands today a palm for waving, a token of realism to connect us to things that happened on a week centuries ago. Jesus goes to Jerusalem at the time of Passover and is hailed as King of the Jews on the streets of the city. Yet basically by the time the week is over he has eaten his last supper in the Upper Room, been betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, crucified on Golgotha, and left dead in an empty tomb.

They are a shocking and stirring string of events, and each year, whether in isolated villages in the Middle East with processions and palms or in suburban Protestant churches in America with their dramatic readings and mournful hymns, we gather to remember them and travel the path of Jesus. We come to Holy Week, palms in hand, bread and cup in hand, to walk lock-step with our Lord.

Yet I wonder if Holy Week is not better thought of as the time our Lord walks lock-step with us—not that we’re the center of the universe, and that God is trying to catch up with our pace, but that in these events we see the desire of a God so driven to love and save that he will not withhold his Son from living the human condition, every step of the way. Jesus, God’s Son, walks lock-step with humankind, and suffers everything that goes along with that, which means God ends up knowing betrayal, the fickleness of fame, the desertion and denial of friends, the violence of hatred, the bitter coldness of the grave. Jesus, the much-anticipated Messiah, does not cling to his royal, divine status and choose a way of life and death that befits a God, but empties himself, as Paul recites in Philippians, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness and being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

When we enter into the events of Holy Week, we are not simply trying to re-create the somber and, at long last, uplifting events of that whirlwind last week. We are claiming something dramatic, something incredibly profound about the God we worship. French Dominican theologian Jean Lacordaire once exclaimed in a sermon, “God on a cross! That is all my theology!” That is, of all that we might say about God and what God is like, that he empties himself to walk this way of sorrow and be handed over to his death somehow captures all that we would need to say.

The events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week show us that God is inextricably bound to his creation and the sore length of its experience, and he is bound to it with love. God will not back out of or back down from this love. God will not find another route into the city, or weasel his way out of its nastier parts. God will not receive our fair-weather shouts of “Hosanna!” without also bearing the angry demand to “Crucify!” Jesus, once and forever in the form of God, once and forever free from sin, will thoroughly show his solidarity with his creation by succumbing to the worst that sin has to offer.

Jesus, once and forever in the form of God, once and forever triumphant over sin, will thoroughly grant salvation to his creation by rising from the tomb.
And so, when we grip our palms today, when we find ourselves moved by the readers’ rendition of Jesus’ last week, when villagers half a world away await once more for their robed bishop to leap out of a small car and start the somber procession let us remember that all these things chiefly proclaim God’s love for us, not our love for God. We don’t just give thanks for the opportunity to reflect with Jesus in his final moments but we praise a God who dies to be with us in all our moments, a God who knows the sting of a friend’s betrayal, and we could add…the depth of a widow’s loneliness, the fear of a refugee’s lifestyle, the despair of a cancer patient’s days, and the loss of a parent’s only child. In each and every situation where it seems we walk painfully alone, God is, in fact, there. Nothing is off-limits for this God, and the farther we stray, the more earnestly seek the ways of death, the more determined he is to walk right there with us.

And, as we learn this week, he walks much farther still…on the cross, going the length of where our sin would eventually take us.

So, here’s to a dose of reality, here’s to music and drumbeats and palms to give the drama a little more impact. And here’s to a God who decides to be real with us, taking the form of a slave.

Here he comes! Get those palms ready! Shout “Hosanna! God save us!” Watch his steps. Here he comes. To walk with you. To walk for you. To walk…with love.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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