Palm Sunday, March 20
Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. He rides upon a colt and is revered by cheering crowds. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38). The details fall in place “because the Lord has need of it” (Luke 19:31). Providence provides the way up, the colt, the praise, and yet something feels wrong. Jesus weeps over the city and some who follow fall back in fear (Luke 19:41; Mark 10:32). Topography compels him to ascend, but the theological thrust of the story, felt as a heartsick ache, reveals that in truth he is descending, emptying himself. He listens to everything human. He hears and feels his back exposed to the abuser, his cheeks struck and his beard pulled, insulted and spit upon. His face is a flint — hard, expressionless, dark, and enduring — and yet his light does not go out, nor his love abate (Isa. 50:4-9a). Jesus knows that “he who vindicates me is near” (Isa. 50:8). He senses this as he sits safely on the colt, as the crowds joyfully praise God.
Jesus walks into and, in a sense, provokes a violent response. Why does the crowd turn against him? Why does he suffer? Why does he suffer like this? What kind of religion is this? Theologians are doctors of the soul. They should be worth something; they should do something, answer maybe a question or two. “Seeing patients with one of the surgery professors in his clinic one afternoon, I was struck by how often he had to answer his patients’ questions, ‘I do not know.’ … [T]here was not a single person he did not have to say those four little words to that day” (Atul Gawande, Complications, p. 228). We have theories and metaphors, of course. He paid a debt to the devil, paid a debt on our behalf, tricked the devil, conquered the devil, broke open the gates of hell, was an example, and more. But, in truth, no one knows why Jesus died as he did and suffered as he did, though we feel the immense power of the story.
Imagine a very old Jesus, a long and good life embracing happy fortune and some hurt: a normal human life, birth and growth, learning and profession, aging and then the approach of death, all in such a way that the loss, the end, is, if sad, also remarkably beautiful and peaceful. No doubt, such an old man having lived a good life knows what it is to be human. Still, what he cannot know is what it means to be every human everywhere at all times. The real Jesus did precisely because he suffered. And his suffering was saving because he drew everything human, even evil, into himself, not merely to stay in the horror of what we humans do to each other, but to offer his transforming and forgiving love. He bears what humans do to him in order to transform humanity, to touch every part of it, even the worst, and then to forgive and to love and to raise us up with him to newness of life. That’s not a perfect answer. There isn’t one. And we hardly do justice to the pain if we do not end the Passion account with a long, palpable, and devout silence, for his suffering was great.
Jesus reaches to the depths, to the hurt, to the hell of human life. He does it for love. What will we do? Take his body. Wrap him in our affection. Place him in our cleft heart. It’s Sabbath. Wait.
Look It Up: Read Psalm 118:1. His mercy endures forever.
Think About It: The least of these and all of these are Jesus.