by Daniel Harrell
The Palm Sunday road is a straight downhill run into the Holy City. This being Holy Week, Jesus was definitely headed downhill. For the last leg of his journey to Jerusalem, he assigned two disciples to round up a donkey colt—like the one Marie marched through the Meetinghouse (though probably not one named Peaches). Jesus did it like you’d expect a Son of God to do it, all wrapped in mystery and prophetic foreshadow: “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. Say the Lord needs it.” The prophetic reason is tied to Zechariah 9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Jerusalem, for your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on the colt of a donkey.” Marie explained why a donkey. Victory can be won without brute force. More than that, you can be miserably beaten dead by brute force and still somehow win.
Like in many churches with Palm Sunday parades on this day, there was great rejoicing when Jesus made his grand entrance. People saw the donkey and did the math. Having learned about Zechariah in Sunday School, and having heard of Jesus’ good deeds of power, they rightly sang, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Unlike the other gospels, however; Luke has no palm branches. Instead, the crowds took off their cloaks and spread them in Jesus’ path. This was how people paid homage to kings; a gesture akin to taking off your hat for the national anthem. But since this is Minnesota in March, we’re using the palms. They remind us of Florida.
I should also add that, technically speaking, we didn’t walk down the real Palm Sunday road in Jerusalem. Nor did we visit the village where Jesus procured his ride. Nobody really knows where Bethany or Bethpage were located. They’re villages long since buried by successive civilizations. That’s the thing about walking in the footsteps of Jesus: you have to dig down deep to do it. But as with the donkey colt, Jesus predicted this would happen too. Of Jerusalem he said, “your enemies will surround you, and will crush you to the ground; not one stone within you will be left on top of another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Visitation is a classic Bible word denoting both deliverance and justice—think of the Lord’s Prayer thy kingdom come or the Second Coming of Christ. These are classic visitations too, both promising a setting of all things to right. Many longed for God to visit Jerusalem with justice. We read the news in our own day and empathize: brokenness everywhere, kids killing kids in schools, atrocities in Austin and Aleppo, all the saber rattling and posturing by governments with nuclear missiles and massive armies, violence committed by supposed protectors of the peace, and this week more evidence from scientists about our planetary survival at risk. We should all march for our lives. Come, Lord Jesus, please come.
Jesus rode in on cue and was hailed as king, but his visit to Jerusalem was short. By week’s end he’s been ridden out of town on a rail, crowned with thorns and crucified. Jesus knew this would happen as well. It’s why he wept over Jerusalem. Embedded in Jerusalem’s name is the Hebrew shalom, a kind of peace that goes beyond the mere absence of enmity to include righteousness and goodness and beauty and tranquility. The city was supposed to be heaven on earth, but now it was too late.
There’s a church for just about everything Jesus did in the Holy Land. Walk down the supposed Palm Sunday road, and just off to your right, you’ll see Dominus Flevit, The Church of Jesus Weeping. As you would expect, it dramatically overlooks Jerusalem. And as you might not expect, it’s shaped to resemble a teardrop (though it takes a little imagination to see it).
This is one of two times Jesus cried in the Bible, the other time over the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus wiped away his tears over Lazarus by raising Lazarus from the dead. But Jerusalem gets razed to the ground. First by the Romans, but then later by the Persians who destroyed the Romans, followed by the stronger Byzantines who pounded the Persians. A few decades after that, Islam emerged and Arab armies took control of the city, and were in turn beaten by the Turks, who massacred all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants during their turn. Christians, under Pope Urban II, took offense and the Crusades commenced, leading to further slaughter. More Crusaders followed and made Jerusalem a Roman Catholic stronghold until the tougher Ottoman Turks invaded and reduced the city to ruins once more. The Ottomans ruled for 400 years, and then the Egyptians moved in, and then the Russians and the French and finally the British who pressed Jerusalem into a colony called Palestine, named for the Philistines, Israel’s ancient enemy and a subtle reminder that Israel will always have its enemies. Jerusalem became the capital of a fortified Jewish state after World War II and the Holocaust. But there is still no shalom.
Some religious groups believe if you rebuild God’s House, the Jewish Temple, then God will come. But the Temple mount is under Islamic ownership—that big golden Dome of the Rock. Try and build a Jewish Temple there and you ignite World War III. Not even Israel will allow that. The Roman Emperor Julian tried to rebuild the Temple in fourth century, but an earthquake halted construction. Apparently God wouldn’t allow it either. Jesus said Temples were unnecessary anyway. In Christ the Lord had come to visit in flesh and blood. But they couldn’t see it. And so Jesus wept. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.”
Jesus’ lament sounds like Psalm 30 which we’ve worked through this Lent. The Psalmist laments God’s hidden face and the resulting dismay. In Luke, Jesus blamed the hiddenness on the failure, and even refusal, to see what God was doing right there in their midst. Luke has “the whole crowd of disciples” praising God for Jesus. The Pharisees, representing the religious establishment, took offense. Praise was reserved for Israel’s legitimate king, not some ride-by rube on a burro. They told Jesus to order his disciples to knock off the worship. Jesus replied how that wouldn’t do any good. If his disciples kept quiet the very rocks would, you know, rock. By this, Jesus could have meant the stones along the road. But some wonder whether he meant the rubble from the soon-to-be-destroyed city. The Psalmist prayed against his own destruction, asking the Lord whether “the dust can praise you and tell of your faithfulness.” The question is rhetorical and the answer is no. But in the gospels, the opposite seems true. Bury the human praise and the stones will still sing. It’s out of dust and dirt that God does his best work.
By Friday, the Palm Sunday crowd will have turned against Jesus once he showed he wouldn’t be the kind of King they wanted; how deadly serious he was about suffering and defeat as a pathway to victory. Loss was no way to win. Next Sunday we’ll read yet again how Jesus’ closest disciples saw him risen and still couldn’t see it. Each Sunday we’ve prayed to discern God’s will among us—the good and acceptable and perfect. But can we recognize it? And if we recognize it, will we do it? What if we don’t like it?
The Via Dolorosa, the Way of Tears, is the parade route of Jesus’ humiliating march to the cross. That Jesus was forced to carry his cross was public shame of the worst kind in his culture—Jews considered it being cursed. Crowned with thorns and mocked as a king, hung up to die slowly, crucifixion was deeply offensive, the extreme in isolation and abandonment. Even God forsakes. We recount its horror every year. Bad enough that Protestants affix crosses to their church walls. Catholic crucifixes leave a bloody Christ still hanging on it.
Why focus on suffering and dying when the gospels have such a happy ending on Easter? If you’re looking for a symbol to encompass Christianity, there is such a wide range of other possibilities from which to choose. There’s the manger, for instance. Or maybe a carpenter’s tool. You could display a boat on the wall and remember all Jesus taught and the storms Jesus tamed. Or how about a towel like he wore to wash the disciples’ feet? There’s the cup and bread of communion, the stone rolled away from the tomb, the throne Christ occupies in heaven, or the dove and the flame of the Spirit. Any of these could work without bothering anybody.
But instead, from at least the second century onward, the church chose the cross, focusing their devotion not on Jesus’ birth nor his earthly work, not on his amazing teaching nor his miracles or acts of humble service for others, not even on his resurrection nor his heavenly reign nor the gift of his Spirit. Christians decided early on that the sign of their faith would be Christ’s death. Like it or not, to suffer and die is the one way we will all be like Jesus.
“But will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” The Easter answer to Psalm 30 is most certainly yes. Jesus died on a cross and we praise the Lord for it and call it good news. “Lift high the cross” we will sing, and proclaim it the very love of Christ. This is the enduring mystery of the gospel. The horror of the cross bears beautiful fruit, a wondrous capacity to rise above violence and hatred and racism, above injustice and evil with true love, pure grace and genuine joy. Christ’s power to redeem and reconcile patiently persists from the margins, loving enemies and welcoming strangers, caring for the poor, shunning privilege and the pursuit of wealth, going a second mile, doing its good in secret and not for applause. Jesus says to follow him means taking up crosses. Scripture views bearing a cross as the supreme love and will of God—the good and acceptable and perfect. Can we recognize it? And if we recognize it, will we do it? What if we don’t like it?
Some churches, not wanting to offend, or dredge up bad childhood memories of church or chance being dismissed as dismal and irrelevant, dispense with their crosses. Why dwell on brokenness, hardship and suffering when you can be happy? Our Puritan congregationalist forebears of colonial New England never hung crosses in their meetinghouses; though no one ever accused them of being happy either. Puritans hated any kind of elaborate imagery or graven symbol; they considered them all idolatrous and obstacles to pure worship. Puritans valued unadorned and unfettered attentiveness to the Word. Jesus cried twice in the Bible, but there’s no mention of him ever laughing once.
Some of you will correct me on this, but they way I’ve heard the legend, Puritan-loving designers of our beautiful Meetinghouse didn’t want a cross hanging on the wall. The problem was that somebody had already affixed this big cross to it. After debating a bit, albeit kindly and with due regard, Puritan-lovers prevailed. Citing authenticity and our Pilgrim legacy, the cross came down. But this made for a new problem. The big cross had hung long enough for the sun to fade the surrounding wood, so its removal left this massive cross-shaped shadow in its place. So we hung it back up. Critics say the church is dying. But we always have been.
Looking over Jerusalem, Jesus wept at their refusal to see what God was doing. “If you could only recognize what makes for peace.” Jesus was talking about himself. We read in Colossians, “Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven,” whether people or planets or parents and children or churches or politics or followers and foes, everything, everywhere “by making peace”—how?—“through the blood of the cross.” The cross makes for shalom.
We have been crucified with Christ, the apostle Paul wrote. It is no longer we who live our lives, but Christ who lives in us. So to always recognize this, the early Church Father Tertullian wrote of the Christians in 200 AD, “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and our shoes, when we bathe, when we sit down to eat, when we light our lamps, and on our beds before we sleep, [in every conversation or concern, in every anxiety and danger, in every comfort and time of gratitude] in every act of daily life, we wear out our foreheads and fingers with the sign of the cross.”
At the risk of looking too Catholic instead of Congregationalist, you might try it yourself this Holy Week. When you wake up in the morning and before you eat breakfast, as you get your kids who are driving you crazy off to school, or are frustrated at your spouse for failing to communicate or clean up, when you go to work and struggle to get though your day, as you have that difficult conversation, or go over your finances, before you write the email or post on social media, as you fume over people you’re mad at or complain over your lot in life; when sitting stuck in traffic, or reading or hearing the news and going crazy over the latest political decision, as you resist change and push back at all you feel is unfair and not right, as you worry for the world and take all your hopes and joys anxieties to bed at night, as you pray for yourself and your church: cross yourself, remember and recognize God has crucified you too and by grace raised you already with Christ. Jesus lives in you. Peace starts with us.