Thoughts on Palm Sunday

This photo shows the palm fronds we received when we went to church for Palm Sunday this morning (the two braided ones didn’t come to us that way — they represent my husband’s creativity). When we arrived at Mass, I thought I came prepared for the emotional haul of the reading of Jesus’ suffering and death, from the Gospel of Matthew. But when the reader began and the Palm Sunday drummer commenced his soft, steady drumbeat in the background, it seemed to me that perhaps no one who takes these events seriously can ever be completely prepared for their emotional impact. They are too shocking, too terrible, for complacency.

Our palm fronds

Our palm fronds

As the cast of readers made their way through word after painful word of the narrative, a few things surfaced in my mind as I listened and read along. The first thing that surfaced was a rueful thought along the lines of: “Well isn’t this just like the human species? God sends a part of Godself to become God’s divine Son, to teach us what the kingdom of God is like, and to provide for us the perfect model of how to be holy and to realize that kingdom within and amongst ourselves, and what do we do? We murder him.” And is that any surprise? The human species is often violent, short-sighted, and susceptible to mob mentality. At any given time there is a war going on somewhere, and the 20th century was the most horrifically violent century in the history of our species (think two World Wars, scores of other wars, and multiple genocides, all carried out with unprecedented destruction due to new technology).

The next thought surfaced for me at the point in the narrative when Jesus goes outside to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, when he knew that his betrayer was about to arrive with the authorities and an angry mob to haul him away to torture and a gruesome death. As I listened to and read the account of Jesus in the Garden, I thought about how clear the Gospels are about the fact that Jesus had ample time to flee if he had chosen to do so. The Gospels describe an agonizing scene that drags on for hours on that night that we would come to venerate for the next 2,000 years (and counting) as Holy Thursday. Half the night goes by while Jesus prays in the Garden, and waits, and waits, and waits. The Gospels are clear: he knew what was coming, and he asked his disciples to wait and pray with him. He was anguished, yet he did not flee. In those days, all a successful escape would have entailed would be a quick dash out of the city and a few days of walking, and voilà — a new life in safety. But instead, he waited for them to come; and when a disciple tried to prevent the arrest by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers, Jesus himself stopped the disciple and told him to put away his sword.

No, this was a sacrificial death to which Jesus went without defending himself, a divine act born from divine sacrificial love. As he said of the broken bread at the Last Supper: “Take and eat; this is my body.” And as he said of the wine in the cup: “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). As he hung dying on the cross, malicious observers mocked that he saved others but does not save himself. Saving himself was not part of the plan. Indeed, that’s what’s so astonishing, because neither the disciples nor anyone else were expecting a suffering and dying Messiah, and certainly not one who would die the most disgraceful and ghastly death of the Roman cross. If you want a prime example of “you can’t make this up,” this is it. Nobody wanted to make this one up.

The good news, of course, is that Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. Nobody was expecting the Resurrection either, even though the Gospels have Jesus hinting at it while he was still alive, trying to prepare the disciples for it. But nobody understood it. It was not yet in anyone’s vocabulary. And when he died, the disciples were utterly destroyed emotionally. The Gospels paint the bleak picture of it: their hope was snuffed out. They believed it was over, as anyone would. They didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected. So on the third day, Easter Sunday, nobody was more surprised than the disciples when the man they thought dead and lost forever was no longer a dead body, but rather started appearing to them in a kind of transfigured but definite physical state. First in ones and twos (and first among these were the women who had come to the tomb), then to large and disparate groups of his followers. Reading the Gospels’ account of it, you can feel their amazement lifting off the page and coming right at you. And later when they would face rejection, and even arrest, torture, and execution unless they recanted this story, they would not recant. Many of them (the most famous being Peter and Paul) went straight to their early deaths proclaiming this Resurrection.

But Easter Sunday is still a week away. We are just now entering Holy Week, and this week holds much to reflect on before we get to the joy of Easter and the fifty days of the Easter season. Today after the reading of Jesus’ suffering and death, our priest said that Jesus wants our union with him more than he wants our sympathy. Just so. As the pastor wrote in the church bulletin for this week, Holy Week is the time when Jesus’ followers “celebrate these sacred and ancient liturgies of the church. Easter Sunday and the fifty days of Easter will have so much more meaning for us if we take the time to remember the love that Jesus poured out for us on the cross.”

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

The Cosmic Breach

Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”

Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?

Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.

There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”

There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011