Holy Week

The Beauty and Danger of Anticipation

Art_James Tissot_The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

 

Look at this crowd: in James Tissot’s painting, excited people await and greet Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Two things are obvious about his arrival in the city. We notice the huge and enthusiastic crowd. And, we notice the object of their attention, Jesus riding on a donkey. At first, we naturally assume an affinity between these two things. The crowd is joyful about Jesus precisely because he is the answer to their questions, and the apparent solution to their concerns. Who he is seems to fit neatly with who they are, and with where they want to go. After all, who wouldn’t be happy when long-nurtured hopes and expectations are about to be fulfilled.

As Matthew describes the scene, the crowd responds to Jesus’ arrival in two ways, both of which evoke historic precedent. We learn from 2 Kings about the followers of Jehu ~ when they learn he has been anointed king, they spread their cloaks for him to walk on.1 And in 2 Maccabees, we learn how Judas Maccabaeus was greeted upon arriving in Jerusalem, after defeating Israel’s enemies. The people honored him by waving palm branches in the air. To clinch the point, Matthew want us to know this: that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowd’s dramatic response was a fulfillment of God’s word through the prophet Zechariah: “”Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 
And the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

In other words, as Matthew describes Jesus’ arrival in the city, the crowd’s greeting of him suggested a similar hope, that he might vanquish the repressive powers causing God’s people to suffer. This Nazarene might be the one to make God’s Kingdom present in their time. These observations can help us appreciate how Jesus was greeted when he arrived in Jerusalem, and how he was viewed soon after. For, like many leaders in history, he was the object of an immense amount of hopeful projection.

Consider again at the crowd in Tissot’s wonderful painting of Jesus’ arrival. How many of them are looking directly at him? And of those, how many actually see him, and for who he is rather than for what he represents among their pre- existing desires? Notice how many in the crowd are carried away by the moment. They are excited by imagined possibilities, rather than by the Kingdom concretely at hand. This situation is not merely of historical interest, nor is it primarily about other people, living at another time. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is also about us, and about why we are drawn to worship during Holy Week. For his arrival invites us to consider our intentions this week, as we greet with palms our Lord’s arrival. And it prompts us to consider how we might best walk with him through the rest of the week.

 

This image is from James Tissot’s painting, The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem. I am indebted to N.T. Wright regarding the specific references to earlier biblical precedents for the way Jesus was greeted upon his arrival in Jerusalem. This reflection is based on my sermon for Palm Sunday, which may be accessed by clicking here.

Holy Week and the Good Samaritan

Art_Tissot_The Good Samaritan

In telling his story about the Good Samaritan, Jesus was answering the question, “who is my neighbor?” At first, it may seem he was teaching us about how to live in God’s Kingdom. Cautioned by the negative example of the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side of the road, we should follow that of the charitable Samaritan who provides hospitality. But we can also hear the story as telling us something essential about God’s own charity and hospitality, and about Jesus’ role as God’s Messiah.

We are like the traveler in Jesus’ story who has been set upon. We often feel injured by life’s misfortunes, and the bad things that have happened to us through no fault of our own. Yet, God has not left us alone, to try and sort everything out. Instead, God in Jesus has come right to our point of need, and has ministered to us personally.

The mystery at the heart of Holy Week is this: God did not bypass the world’s need and suffering. Instead, in Jesus, God deliberately and willingly entered into the heart of the world’s darkness to offer the gift of light. God in Jesus took on every limitation we experience, and every pain we can endure. Why? So as to transform these real things from within.

Because God in Jesus did not bypass our world’s need and suffering, we shouldn’t bypass the way God entered into these everyday challenges. In God and with God, we have the holy opportunity to experience how the Spirit transforms our hurts and sorrows, and the emptiness of much of our lives. We see this particularly vividly in our services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Let us be with Jesus as he walks into Jerusalem to receive praise, and face scorn. Let’s be with him as he reclines with his friends for their last meal together. We can be with him as he enters the garden, prayerfully shaping his final resolve to live and die within God’s will. And we can be with him as he allows himself to be put to death on the cross for the sake of the world’s need and suffering.

As we walk through Holy Week with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can rediscover how God has entered into, and transformed, our needy world.

 

The Good Samaritan image above is by James Tissot. Notice the figure in the upper left corner, who bypasses the traveler in need. Holy Week will be observed in most Western Christian churches this year during the week of April 9-15.

Our Beauty in His Eyes

Art_Tissot_Brooklyn_Museum_-_What_Our_Lord_Saw_from_the_Cross_(Ce_que_voyait_Notre-Seigneur_sur_la_Croix)_360KB

We are accustomed to looking up at him on the cross. Good Friday may prompt us, at least for a moment, to allow a reverse in the direction of the gaze.

For we are the objects of his attention, and of his love. If we discern anything about the meaning of Holy week, and the events within it, it is this: He acted for us, and not for himself. And God was in him, as he did so.

James Tissot pictures Jesus’ view from the cross on that dark afternoon, two thousand years ago. Just below his feet, he saw Mary Magdalene, prostrate with grief, showing her love for him. Just behind her, cloaked in dark blue and white, is his mother, hand across her heart, experiencing the sorrow it had been predicted she would endure. And to the left of Mary, in Jesus’ vision, we see the beloved disciple, John, in a white outer cloak over a green tunic. These three, and the two others behind Mary, are sympathetic figures. They have come to be by him in his darkest hour.

Others in Jesus’ field of vision may vary in their sympathies with his suffering. The Roman soldier cloaked in red could be the centurion, about whom we read in the Passion narratives. Standing by the cross, Tissot depicts him with a pained look on his face. He is beginning to realize that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him. By contrast, the two other soldiers near him appear either puzzled or disgusted by the whole situation.

As we survey this scene portraying Jesus’ field of vision from the cross, we cannot miss the group of men on horseback in the middle-ground. They are Scribes or Sadducees, those with power and wealth in the city, who had argued for his crucifixion. Some are shown taunting him. Some appear self-satisfied. And at least one is looking up at the darkening sky, which is already putting the upper edge of the scene in shadow.

He has acted for all these people, and especially for the ones who have turned against him. He looks upon them with love, and with a plea for God’s forgiveness. He knows what is in people’s hearts. What we so often forget is that he knows us better than we know ourselves. We may not understand how he knows us; but we do know that he knows us. We know that he loves us. And this is enough.

This is not a time for us to ponder the unknowability of God. This is a time to focus on our vulnerability, and our total knowability in God’s eyes. It is a time in which to contemplate the complete self-revealing of God, by Christ, for us. And to remember that he did this on a cross.

 

James Tissot, What Our Lord Saw From the Cross. For a link to my Good Friday homily, from which this is adapted, please click here.