Tuesday, 7 April 2009
It’s only human to want to be popular, to be acknowledged, to be liked, to be loved. It affirms our often fragile sense of self-worth, it reinforces our sense of purpose, that our lives have meaning.
And it’s only really a small step from this fairly innocuous desire for popularity, which we all share to a greater or lesser extent, to the cult of celebrity which so disfigures our cultural life at the moment. We are encouraged to want to be somebody, to have people notice us as we pass by. Go out and buy the designer sunglasses, audition for a reality T.V. show and you are already halfway there.
But traditionally in human history, those who were given this kind of glory and adulation weren’t just famous for being seen on television. They were the people with power - kings and queens, successful political leaders and victorious generals; they were popular, but they were also feared for the power they wielded. Just look at the figures carved on the Roman victory arches we can still see throughout continental Europe and the many imitations they gave rise to over the centuries. The desire for acclaim, to be seen as a liberator and a saviour, to be hailed by the crowds, runs very deep and, as we know, it‘s not only confined to ancient history or to totalitarian dictators.
But what about Jesus on the first Palm Sunday,riding into the holy city of Jerusalem mounted, not on the customary white charger, but on a donkey, on “a colt, the foal of an ass?” It seems almost a parody of a triumphal entry - riding on a donkey with the cloaks of his followers thrown on the ground before him and the branches from the trees along the roadside scattered in front; isn’t it a world away from the conquering heroes of history, a world away from the conventional view of the time as to how the Messiah was going to ride into his city, to take possession of it and bringing about the kingdom of God.
But the donkey wasn’t an incidental thing - Jesus doesn’t ride it into Jerusalem by accident, just because one happened to be available. The Gospels nowhere else describe Jesus as travelling other than on foot. The donkey is chosen to match the prophet Zechariah’s vision of the Messiah‘s victory procession. By doing this Jesus is laying a claim. But it’s a claim with a difference.
In St Matthew’s Gospel, after his triumphal entrance into the city, Jesus goes straight into the Temple precincts, driving out the moneychangers who had set up stalls at the entrance, he then heals the blind and the crippled and after a final confrontation with the chief priests and scribes goes out of the city again spends the night at Bethany, a village about two miles outside Jerusalem. We know it from St John’s Gospel as the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the friend Jesus has brought back from the dead.
So what is going on? Is this a pathetic failure at a popular revolution, or are we being asked to look much more searchingly at what is going on?
There is a deliberate act of parody going on here. Jesus is showing his utter disregard for the politics of power. This isn’t what God’s Messiah is all about, he is saying. This is the real thing, but it’s not what people were expecting. What we see at the beginning of Holy Week is a continuation of the theme begun at the Annunciation and at the stable at Bethlehem and one with which we will be very familiar before this week is over, if we stick with it.
This isn’t about triumph at all, it has nothing to do with heroics or celebrity. It’s about renunciation, the self-emptying of God in solidarity with his people. The real triumphal procession through Jerusalem didn’t happen on the first Palm Sunday; it happens on Good Friday. The Man of Sorrows, whipped and beaten through the streets on the way to his execution, this is the real triumphal progress. The real victory is the victory of the cross, which will be seen for what it truly is only on the morning of the Resurrection.
After all yesterday’s drama and excitement, everything goes quiet. Jesus remains with his followers teaching them, preparing them for what must happen next, praying in a way we can hardly comprehend. This week we, too, are about to walk with Christ along the Via Dolorosa, along the Way of the Cross. The victory which he will win by his suffering and death is won once for all; it can’t be repeated. We can’t repeat it, although here at the Eucharist day by day we re-present it to the Father as the only thing we have which is worth offering. We offer the saving death of Christ to the Father so that we may share the life he has won for us.
We can’t repeat the victory of the Cross, but we are meant to unite ourselves to it and to the one who hangs there. What does that mean? How can we join ourselves to this once-for-all act on which the future of the world is determined. The cross is the “still centre of the turning world.” The cross stands, as everything - the world and everything in it, its past, present and future - revolves around it.
Joining ourselves to the Lord’s victory, taking up our own cross and following him means being liberated from those things which threaten to enslave us, freeing us from the fantasies which lead us to see the world from any other perspective other than God’s. It is inevitably a way of renunciation, of turning our back on things which may not be too harmful in themselves, but nevertheless represent a distraction from the things we need to do to grow closer to Christ. The way of the Cross is the Christian life and, like the story of Holy Week itself, is very much a matter of alternatives taken and not taken, choices made and not made, both by the Lord himself, his apostles and disciples, and his opponents, and it‘s a journey which will last us a lifetime. Our Lord’s way of triumph and of victory is very often the one which looks like total failure in the world’s eyes, but which ends up offering us the gift of true life, life without limit, life without end. This week shows us how.