It is Palm Sunday. We begin with triumph and end with utter tragedy. Jesus had spoken truth to power and the religious leaders and the Romans had had enough. The ideological battle between empire and the Kin-dom is entering its final stage.
Many times this week, in church and in other fora, we will hear, “Jesus, died for our sins.” Will we never move past atonement theory? A loving God does not demands the son’s death to appease anger over our sins. Jesus died for what he lived for—justice. He had the courage to speak truth to power. Jesus died because he posed a threat to empire and priestly domination. Jesus lived to show us how to live. Luke’s account of the passion includes a vignette on service leadership.
The Gospels give some indication that Jesus had gone underground. He was hiding out at Ephraim. When he surfaced, it was one more in your face to empire. Mocking triumphal Roman military entries on proud stallions, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. The crowds that later in the week would demand his life cheered and waved palm branches. The week goes from “Hosannas” to “Crucify him!”
While he is seated at table with an outcast leper, a woman comes and pours oil over his head. It is an anointing fit for a king and it prepares Jesus for his ultimate encounter with the powers and principalities. The greedy Judas and others challenge the waste of the costly ointment. Jesus will not assume the mantle of messianic king. Rather, he chooses the mantle of the suffering servant of Isaiah. He will give his back to those who beat him. He will trust only in Abba God while the powers and principalities try to destroy him.
Mark’s account is probably the earliest account. Mark sees no need to gloss over Jesus’ intense suffering and the density of the disciples. Jesus, knowing what lied ahead, ate a meal with those who would soon abandon him. One would betray him with a kiss. Jesus, however, looks ahead. He holds no malice toward the disciples. In fact, he tells them that he will rejoin their company in Galilee. “I will go before you into Galilee.” They will be reunited and he will arise in them. This reminds us of Romero—“I will arise in the Salvadoran people.”
Jesus enters the garden of Gethsemane overlooking Jerusalem’s East gate. He falls to the ground in pain, suffering and agony. There is an olive tree in that garden that is over 4,000 years old. The tree silently witnessed the pain, suffering, and struggling of Jesus who is so fearful that his sweat flows from him as if he were bleeding. He gets up and goes to his friends. They are asleep. They cannot even watch with him. Even after three years, they still do not understand. He feels alone and abandoned. He falls prostrate again and asks Abba God to take this cup from him but only if it is God’s will.
From his vantage point on the Mount of Olives, Jesus can see the torchlight mob heading his way. Judas enters the garden, kisses him, and the priestly officials seize Jesus. He is about to encounter the fate that has befallen so many when they have dared stand up for what is just and speak truth to power. He is whisked away to a trumped up “trial” with false witnesses before the Sanhedrin. The charge which carries the death penalty is blasphemy. He has spoken the truth he understood from Abba God. He was one with Abba God. They could not handle the fact that the man before them—the man who had challenged their onerous, oppressive purity and debt codes—had spoken the truth. God demands mercy not rules, regulations and rituals that keep people in oppression.
The Jewish religious leaders must demur to the Romans. They take Jesus to Pilate who seems to be inclined to find a way to release Jesus. Instead, cowering to the demands of the religious leaders and the rabble they have stirred up, he releases a terrorist named Barabbas.
The Romans mock Jesus. They humiliate him. They spit in his face. They bow before him as they place a crown of thrones upon his head. The beat him with whips before the load the cross bar on his shoulders and lead him to Calvary. Jesus goes it alone. The ever-faithful disciples are nowhere to be found. In fact, Peter, in spite of all his protestations to the contrary, has just denied that he even knew Jesus. We think of all the world’s political prisoners who have been beaten, tortured, and executed because they dared speak truth to power. All of a sudden their “friends” did not know them!
The cross is the Roman version of capital punishment. Some Romans even called for it to be banned because it caused such great suffering. The victim slowly and painfully suffocated to death. In the company of rebel terrorists, Jesus is hoisted upon the cross. He is gasping for the breath that will not come. He is totally abandoned. He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Realizing that Abba God will empower him to triumph over the powers and principalities, Jesus gives it up, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” He dies knowing he will rise again in the community, in the community of his followers who, after the resurrection experience, will understand fully.
Our pilgrimage this week is not through the narrow, winding streets of Jerusalem but through the narrow streets of our hearts. We have to, in the words of Saint Benedict, listen with “the ears of our hearts.” We also have to see with the eyes of our minds. In many ways, Jesus’ story is our story. He grew in wisdom, age and grace and came into full contemplative union with Abba God. We too are striving for contemplative union with God. Union with God comes not through pageantry and pomp and circumstance. It does not come though rituals and practices. It comes from humble service. It comes from taking up the towel and bowl and washing the feet of others. It comes from sharing our bread with those who have no bread. It comes from loving service to one another. It comes through forgiveness of our enemies. It comes from placing ourselves in the presence of a loving, merciful God. It comes from trusting totally that, whatever happens, we shall overcome sin and death in the person, power and presence of the Risen Jesus.
But first, we must journey to and through Good Friday. The cross is the way up and out. As Jesus is lifted up on the cross and in resurrection, he lifts us up. We grow in wisdom, age and grace. We enter deeper into contemplative union with God. His journey is not our journey. It is our pilgrimage of the heart. Perhaps, we have gone underground in our own Ephraims. Perhaps we are afraid that the empire will strike back when we openly proclaim the Gospel values that lead us into contemplative union with Abba God. It is time to leave Ephraim and walk boldly to Jerusalem, knowing that we will suffer along the way and perhaps even die, as many martyrs have. It is time to proclaim the Gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus. His victory will be our victory.