Readings: LITURGY OF THE PALMS MATTHEW 21:1-11; PSALM 118:1-2, 19-29; LITURGY OF THE PASSION ISAIAH 50:4-9A; PSALM 31:9-16; PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11; MATTHEW 26:14-27:66 OR MATTHEW 27:11-54 (SHORT VERSION)
And so we begin – the strangest Holy Week that most of us have ever experienced. You know the old saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder – no doubt we are feeling acutely the absence of being able to celebrate this most important Christian week in our churches this year. Being deprived of this opportunity was previously unimaginable. At the same time I’m full of amazement and gratitude for all the ways of celebrating that creative people are devising as alternatives. My favourite one so far arrived in my inbox on Friday from South Africa where an ACEN leader lives. I’ve shared it elsewhere but here it is again https://youtu.be/Zuzxdq90cDY - a beautiful and powerful 30 minute service including a “spiritual communion” which I’ve never experienced before – so well done! Compared to that I have nothing important to say.
However some less important things might be worth saying. My favourite theology book about Holy Week is called The Last Week by Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan (2006 Harper One), and I’d like to highlight today some of their thoughts about Palm Sunday: Borg & Crossan are looking at Mark’s gospel so there might be some differences to our Matthew readings this year, but their overall perspective is fascinating. I’ll mention up front that these two guys are known for their social justice focus, and they offer strong evidence that much of what Jesus said and did was aimed at helping to liberate those who were oppressed - by the “domination systems” of that time and place. To put Palm Sunday in an important historical context, they point out that while Jesus rode a humble donkey into the east entrance of Jerusalem:
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. … Though unfamiliar to most people today, the imperial procession was well known in the Jewish homeland in the first century. … it was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. (p.2)
And Jesus of course chose to make his ‘grand’ (although humble) entry into Jerusalem on the first day of Passover. Jesus had to have known, and appears to have planned his simultaneous entry on the exact opposite side of the city – inviting a comparison between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of earthly powers. When people first hear the idea that Jesus may have been doing something with political ramifications, they are often shocked, and many tend to dismiss the idea out of hand. In fact it’s clear that great efforts have been made over the centuries to sanitize or neutralize anything in the gospels that looks political. We must keep in mind though that, unlike our favourite fiction writers, the Bible does not let us ‘see’ into the thoughts of the main characters. We’re not told, for example, why Jesus chooses mainly fishermen for his disciples – poor and likely illiterate peasant folks. That’s part of why even the fist gospel of Mark was not written until around 70 AD, and then probably written by students or followers of the original apostles. Crossan’s later research discovers that the local Roman leaders were taking over the Sea of Galilee during Jesus’ time, turning it into a ‘crown corporation’ so to speak. Therefore many local fishermen would be losing their livelihoods as a result. So Jesus calls these poor, exploited fishermen to be his first followers, and although he was masterful about avoiding overt criticism of public leaders and policies of the time, many of his teachings are calls to justice and equality for all. The kingdom of God is nothing if not that – a place of justice and equality for all.
So today as we begin our Holy Week - in exile - from our beloved church building homes of faith, we too are experiencing in some small way what it’s like to have our freedoms curtailed, to be confined (albeit mostly in our comfortable homes), to live in fear of sudden illness or death, to be concerned about our loved ones succumbing to this horribly invasive force, etc. Apparently coronavirus was given that name because of the little proteins that stick out of each cell, like a crown, or like the sun’s corona. In today’s Palm Sunday procession, Jesus comes in like a peasant king, not the type of king that wears or represents a bejewelled crown, as was happening on the other side of town. As Borg and Crossan conclude about the meaning of Palm Sunday: Two processions entered Jerusalem on that day. The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold. (p.30)
Well, dear People of God, I wish we could meet face-to-face but … (see cartoon image below!)