29 March 2015 (Year B)
Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The Passion according to Mark
Except for its first three hundred years or so, Christianity has been the majority religion, the religion of the establishment in Europe and later in the Americas. Once Constantine promoted Christianity to, as one of my history professors once put it, “most favoured religion status,” Christianity, or at least the Church, has been aligned with the powerful, the influential. If you wanted to have position in western society you had to be a Christian. The old religions just wouldn’t do anymore and any traces of the old gods and goddesses were subsumed into Christian practice and what remained of their cults syncratised. Bride became St Brigid, for example, and this happened over and over in Africa and in the New World as well. Jews, too, were marginalised and just forget about being a Muslim. If you wanted to be in government, have a good job, go to the right schools you had to be a Christian and, depending where you lived in the post-Reformation world, the right kind of Christian. As late as the 1970s (and still covertly today) institutions closed themselves off to non-Christians, or the wrong kinds of Christians. Even today, when we talk of a post-Christian world (a Eurocentric notion in any case, as much of the world was never Christian), here in America Christianity—and let's be honest, conservative Christianity—remains a dominant cultural influence at the heart of the political establishment.
It is a strange aspect of our history that so quickly and so throughly did our faith become embedded and aligned with secular power and privilege. It is so strange because Jesus himself, always and everywhere, from the moment he appeared in the flesh, was the marginal figure who embodied the unexpected choice, the unexpected moment, the unexpected person. When we imagine how God might intervene decisively in history, we would never imagine that God would enter our reality as a new baby. We would never imagine that God would become so vulnerable, so much in harm's way, would grow up as we all do, even getting left behind on a family vacation. We would never imagine that God would exercise power and change lives by healing, reconciliation, and teaching. We would never imagine that God would come to a far corner of a great empire and call into relationship those on the margins, those whom society rejects, call tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, and others forgotten by the world. These are not our society’s traditional markers of power and nor were they those of the late Antique world into which Jesus was born. I have said it before, and I will say it again, what power values today would have been easily recognised by the Roman and Jewish authorities in first-century Judea.
We need not make Jesus into a hippie to name him and his work as counter-cultural and deeply subversive. Jesus was dangerous. He subverted his own society’s notions of who was important, who was to be included, of what a powerful man was supposed to look like and how he was to act. Jesus worked with everyone, loved everyone. He stood with the marginal. He also stood with the powerful and yet refused to be coopted by them, refused to be aligned with them and with their cause. His love, his call, his transformational faith and life was for everyone. It was a call to a marginal life, an unexpected life, an inverted life. And all this made Jesus' followers dangerous; this made the Jesus movement dangerous.
And there is no part of the Christian story where this realisation, this understanding is more apparent, more powerful than in Holy Week and Easter, in the culmination of the Paschal Mystery. Over the next week we will journey together and experience these moments of surprising, exciting, reversals, upheavals, and live the counter-cultural, unexpected events that changed everything and call us to live as if all this mattered. It calls us to live radical lives engaged in the work of love, cooperating with God in bringing the values of vulnerability and love from the margins to the centre. It calls us to challenge the alignment of established Christianity with the power elites who continue to support systems of oppression and violence.
Today we begin our journey as Jesus enters Jerusalem and heads off for the temple. Nearing Jerusalem, Jesus seems to have decided that he was going to make something of his entrance and he sends his disciples to get the tied-up, never before ridden colt. They drape the horse with their clothes, Jesus gets on, and the people respond themselves by spreading their garments in the road along with the “leafy branches,” all as signs of respect for the man they see riding in. Jesus performs the processional entrance of a king or military commander and yet, as well we know, he is neither. Here at the outset, Jesus takes the image of secular power and subverts it, transforms it. The kings and generals that the people knew protected the interests of the powerful and upheld the social order, kept people in their place. This king, this triumphal ruler embodies a different set of values, a different understanding of people's relationship to each other and to God, to the ultimate meaning of the cosmos. What is more, the triumph into which Jesus is riding is not the triumph of success, riches, and control over others. Kings are not expected to ride into the capitol gladly facing rejection, pain, suffering, and death. And yet, this is exactly what Jesus did. It is the triumph of the Cross, the triumph of the Resurrection. It is the triumph of vulnerability and Love.
Now it is certainly not apparent that everyone understood what was about to unfold. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark it is fairly evident the disciples were having a hard time getting their heads around the idea that Jesus was the messiah who would be rejected, and suffer, and die, and on the third day be raised again. Although Jesus made this clear to his disciples on no fewer than three occasions and even took Peter and James and John up the mountain to show them what this was going to look like, the disciples didn't get it. But we, we who know the whole story understand where this is heading. We are in on it. We know what Jesus is doing and although those first parade goers may not have realised that the palm branches and flowers they were carrying and laying before Jesus were to honour the king like no other king who would suffer and die and on the third day be raised again, we know whom we are honouring. We knew when we made our procession around the block and up to Broadway that we were showing forth into our City the power of that particular, unexpected, subversive kingship.
The triumph we experience with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem as the community that knows the whole story is not undermined as we reach the end of the Passion Gospel we just chanted. Perhaps those who did not understand what kind of king Jesus really was somehow felt betrayed and let down. From the other side of Easter, however, we know exactly what Jesus was doing. We know our king entered into human life as we all do and, even, in a more perilous circumstance than most of us. We know our king took time to meet and know his people, to heal them. We know our king suffered pain, rejection, humiliation, and death. We know our king understands exactly what it is like to live in our flesh. And we know that this was no game to him. We know that at the last minute he did not decide to reveal himself, fairy-tale style, as the king in disguise among his peasants and save himself. He did not merely pretend to be one of us, he was one of us.
The triumph of today—Palm Sunday, when for a number of reasons we preview the all of what lies ahead this week—the triumph of his entrance and the triumph in the desolation of the cross is the great reversal that Jesus inaugurates and that we will see played out in detail in the days to come. Tomorrow we will hear of Jesus' anointing by the unnamed woman at Bethany, a person accounted of no importance by her society but of whom Jesus says, “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” She—like the unnamed woman with the flow of blood who touches the hem of Jesus garment—knows who Jesus is, what he is, what he will do and with whom he stands. She acts in love, spends something precious, and even gets criticised for it, and that offering is met with the very Love of God. Holy Week, more than at any other time, allows us to fully understand the subversive nature of the Gospel, of the good news that God entered into our time and into our space not to reassure the powers of the world that they were on the right track, but to offer an alternate path. This path is not an easy one to walk, it is not always (or even often) strewn with palm branches and flowers. It is the path that is open to all, that requires us to be open and vulnerable with each other, to care of each other. It is a path that offers love to the world with no expectation that it will be returned. It offers love. It does not demand it. And we shall see, as this Holy Week unfolds, the real power of treading this path. We shall see where and what it brings us. We shall see that although it brings us to the foot of the Cross, that in the end, it also brings us to the triumph of Easter Day, to the very heart of divine Love and deep and abiding relationship with God and with each other.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Patrick of Ireland, 17 March 2015
© 2015 Andrew Charles Blume