This is the day that the Lord has made. This is the day the solemnity of Lent gives way to shouts of Hosanna. This is the day that Jesus enters Jerusalem through a gate of jubilant worshippers, crouching on his donkey beneath a canopy of tender palm branches.
And this is the day that we can neither deny nor ignore that the man celebrated as King of Israel is processing to his death. Today is Palm Sunday, but it is also Passion Sunday. The hosannas we proclaim today cannot be separated from the tears of mourning we will shed in the coming week.
We do not share the perspective of the crowd in this text. We do not hope against hope that this triumphant entry means that God has finally sent a King to shoo out the Romans and reestablish an Israelite Kingdom. We remember this joyful entry from the weathered perspective of the Disciples, who themselves only understood these events after the death and resurrection of Christ. Which is to say that we know where this is going.
We know that the good favor of this crowd will abruptly shift direction, and that within the week, the Son of God incarnate will be beaten and nailed to a cross.
One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, made a confession a few years ago. “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside an open tomb: everlasting life and a box of chocolates.” I think Lamott speaks here for a lot of mainline Protestants. We don’t do well with bloodied crucifixes. We gather on Maundy Thursday, for sure, to commemorate the meal that is the marrow of our spiritual journey. But Good Friday— we’d rather stay home. Many years I’ve let Holy Week come and go without actually reading the texts that recount Jesus’ suffering and death.
I still haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s movie about the Passion of the Christ—in part because I disagree with his decision to explore Jesus’ death outside of the context of his life, but in part because I just plain can’t bear to see a man torn to shreds, even if the wounds are cinematic. Last week when the Los Angeles Times featured photographs of injured soldiers in an article about military medical care, I had to bury the front page under the classified section just so I could eat my breakfast. I don’t like blood, I don’t like violence, I don’t like death.
And yet, as the esteemed theologian Jurgen Moltmann proclaims, “Good Friday is the center of the world.” I don’t want to believe this. I don’t want to believe that the crucifixion of an innocent man is the nucleus of human life, that pain and more pain is at the core of existence.
But if we’re going to be honest, we cannot deny that suffering is persistent. We cannot pretend that every heart that beats will not eventually decelerate to one final cadence. We cannot make believe that people don’t abuse and exploit one another. We cannot pretend that life is all Hosannas when there is so much evidence to the contrary.
Last week, my sister’s friends lost their 9-month old son to a rare genetic disease. He became sick about a month ago, and despite all the best medical care, there simply wasn’t anything that could be done to save his life. In the midst of little Ethan’s brief and tragic bout with the illness, his two-year-old brother Andy fell ill with the same symptoms and diagnosis. The parents cannot simply return home in grief; they must stay on at the hospital to sit vigil with another sick child. What they have discovered, though, is that Ethan’s struggle with the disease taught the doctors a great deal about how to treat Andy.
In a message to concerned family and friends, the boys’ father wrote that they “have started to wonder if Ethan's purpose in his short life was to give us joy and Andy the gift of life.”
My heart has been heavy for this family. I cannot fathom the intensity of their grief. And yet I know who can. We know that Jesus suffered and died at Calvary. We know that his mother wept for his pain and sorrow. And I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the One who released Christ into this world wept alongside her. The One who created the moon and stars lamented the death of his beloved Son with the same heart-wrenching and powerless grief that every parent who loses a child experiences.
But currents of hope are coursing beneath the surface of even the most senseless tragedies. The promise of a newly sung Hosanna survives even the darkest hour of Good Friday. The agonizing question of “Why did this happen” finally comes to rest on one muscular word: love.
Just as Ethan lived and died to give joy and the gift of life to his family, Jesus Christ lived and died to give joy and the gift of life to the whole world.
The paradox of this Holy Week is that the depth of God’s sorrow revealed the depth of God’s love. Suffering and death were at the center of the world long before that Roman cross was planted at Golgatha for our Savior to die. What changed on Good Friday is that God entered the heart of pain and infused it with pure and holy love.
I am afraid that this appeal to love has all the effect of a Hallmark greeting card. I am afraid that this word has been bankrupted once and for all. I am afraid that we are so jaded that we might dare roll our eyes at the wondrous love of Christ.
But if a grieving father can locate his dead son’s purpose in the gift of life he bestowed upon his brother – if God himself can stand in solidarity with humans by bearing the cross of ultimate pain and humiliation – perhaps we can trust that a profound and transformative love is darting around the periphery of even the most unbearable circumstances.
We cannot erase the cross from Holy Week. We cannot ride the sea of Hosannas to the shores of Easter morning. We cannot avert our eyes from the crown of thorns. The Palms become Passion, and there isn’t a thing we can do to stop it.
But in light of this wrecked humankind, I don’t know if we would give up the cross after all. What good is a God who stays on his heavenly throne when the world he created is overrun with evil? What good is a God who keeps a safe distance from death? What good is a God who doesn’t love us enough to share the burden?
Hosannas alone are not enough to redeem humankind. And in Christ Jesus, we have a King who will ride a donkey to his death to save even the ones who will betray him. We have a God who exchanges hospitality and Hosannas for suffering, sacrifice, and solidarity.
I pray that this week we will have the courage to face the cross. No one has a Good Friday personality. No one longs to sit vigil as death suffocates life. But the vigil we keep this week will not end in the grave. Easter is just around the corner. The resurrection is on the horizon, carrying with it the promise of new life for all Creation. So face the cross, sisters and brothers. Face it and witness God’s love.