Sunday, April 04, 2004

The Sunday of the Passion, Palm Sunday

I did not preach today, nor did I alter the customary of the parish for the liturgy. The advantage of not preaching is that one is able to hear the lessons in a fresh way, without rejecting "unusable" thoughts so quickly. The advantage of being an interim is that, unless absolutely necessary, you honor the customary of the place, and simply observe what the customary has to say about the people and their understanding of the tradition.

I found myself troubled by this day. Not because of anything that unusual within the parish's customary. Not because anything was left out, or "done wrong." I've always found this day troubling. What was new about this year is that I was able to observe and question a bit more freely than previous years.

I'm not sure I can articulate what troubles me. But I'll suggest a few things, and maybe others can help me flesh it out.

First, the triumphal entry itself seems a bit paradoxical. The people are rejoicing because they expect Jesus to be the One who will free them from the oppression of Rome. The Jesus that they revere was the projection of a hope; a figment of their imagination. They are worshipping a false image.

When we reenact this scene in our liturgies, we know the end of the story, and so, viewing it in its entirety, it becomes for us a triumphal entry. We raise the rooftops with "All glory, laud and honor..." By doing so, do we miss the irony of the story; that it is this parade into Jerusalem, declaring devotion to Christ the King, that may have signed his death warrant? Such devotion to a Jew declared a king is what got him crucified.

We've got it pretty easy in the US. Can we imagine what it's like to be an occupied people? We would live for the day of liberation. All of our hopes, all of our plans and dreams, would be formed around our longing to be free. We had been promised such a day would arrive. We dare to place these hopes, for a time at least, in an itinerant rabbi.

But what happens? He is arrested, tried, and put to death, without a fight. Another imposter. Another failure. All the bitterness of our past failures; all the anger rising from our dashed hopes, is directed towards this sorry excuse of a messiah.

Somehow, the feeling of Jesus being a rejected failure doesn't translate into our liturgy. We can't help but anticipate Easter, it seems. And that troubles me.

It troubles me because sometimes I think the kind of messiah we seek, not so much unlike the one sought by the crowd in Jerusalem, is an imaginary superhero. Robert Capon once suggested that what we really want for a Messiah is Superman...faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive.

I don't see a hero on this day. I don't see a dramatic death. I see an ugly, painful execution, not much different from hundreds of others. The idea that somehow Jesus suffered more is an attempt to sneak in the hero worship motif once again.

In the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, there is a discussion about how the only death an audience will believe is a dramatic stage death. The story is told of a condemned man being hung within an actual play, in an attempt at realism. It was a fiasco. The audience made fun of him and threw things as the poor man stood on stage and wept.

We want the death of Jesus to have dramatic flair. I suspect that this is because his death reminds us of our own mortality; a topic most of us avoid at all costs. If we must consider death, we prefer to clothe it in drama, with the victim being a noble hero.

We just can't keep from anticipating Easter. In so doing, we successfully avoid all the uncomfortable bits. But we also rob ourselves of some of the wonder and awe of the resurrection, I think.

So, this day troubles me. Most likely it will continue to trouble me, until the cycle is completed next Ash Wednesday, when today's palms will be burned to ash, and used to remind us all of our own mortality, and as a mark of penitence, the only response possible when confronted with the depths of God's sacrificial love for each of us, and all of creation. A love that does not falter if we are failures or heroes, in this world or beyond.


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