Palm Sunday

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.

Beauty and Holy Sorrow

Art_Peter Koenig Palm Sunday

 

The moment is filled with paradox. Jesus enters the royal city, proclaimed as “the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord—even the King of Israel.” Luke says his appearance signals “peace in heaven.” As he arrives, he is keenly aware that tremendous confusion lies at the heart of the recognition he is receiving. And Peter Koenig’s painting captures this nicely.

Koenig portrays Jesus dressed completely in white, suggesting his identity as ‘pure victim’ and ‘true priest.’ The painter takes a symbolic approach to the scene, envisioning it in a contemporary setting. Though we see an ample supply of date palms in the background, people in the crowd are waving flags. I count at least 18 communities or nations represented by those flags, including Israel, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, as well as Nicaragua and Cuba. Surely , a crowd of people from many nations, united in their enthusiasm about Jesus’ arrival, is a sign of hope, is it not? Why would he be weeping?

He is weeping because he knows what is in people’s hearts. He knows how thin is our perception, and how halting is our embrace of him. We so often assume that, by virtue of our common affirmations, we can overcome our divisions. As if we could all agree upon a combination of human civil laws, and then arrive at the unity we all desire. But he knows that the healing of the divisions between the nations will not occur until the real human problem has been dealt with. The real problem is sin. It will be dealt with by his cross and resurrection, and most importantly, by the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Only these events will heal the divisions we have experienced since the demolition of the tower of Babel.

We see two figures in foreground unroll a band of penitentially-colored purple fabric. They discern a more appropriate way to greet him, than do those who wave symbols of the partitions between us. We so often behave as if we were less than the one people of God. Yet, the Body of Christ replaces all our competing affiliations, a fact not yet apparent to those who shout Hosanna on this day. This same heedlessness is suggested by Koenig’s portrayal of those who seek to greet him by climbing up on a cross. Soon, they will lift him up on this same form, confirming their need for him to be among them. If he weeps on this day, he weeps for us. We are among those for whom he asks forgiveness, for we know not what we do.

 

Peter Koenig, Entry into Jerusalem. To view more of his paintings, click here. See Mark 11:1-10, and John 12:12-19. To access my Palm Sunday homily, on which the above is based, click here.