Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’” (Mt. 27)
Everything about today is a contradiction. The Jesus whom we greeted with cries of “Hosanna!”, quickly became the Jesus whom we also condemn with cries of “Crucify!”
Jesus, the prince of peace, is made the victim of violence.
Jesus, the lover of souls, is made the object of hate.
Jesus, the giver of life, is put to death.
These contradictions should not, however, astonish us. For they are not unique to the drama of Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion—but we encounter them every time we come into church.
Think of the visual dialogue that is set up for us right here in the front of us in the sanctuary. On the wall hangs a cross, a vivid reminder of all the pain and violence which human sin has wrought. On it hangs all the pain of Auschwitz. Guernica. Hiroshima. Aleppo. Selma. Juarez. Albuquerque.
Beneath the cross, a table. A table around which Jesus gathered with his disciples—his friends—inviting them to live as a community not of violence, but of love. It is a table upon which bread and wine are both given and received as signs of that community, which stands as the antithesis of the very violence evoked by the cross that hangs above.
As a rule, we human beings are not good at dealing with such contradictions. We tend either simply to ignore them, denying their very existence in our mind; or we resolve them artificially in favor of one direction or another. We have an extraordinary capacity, in other words, for self-deception—for looking reality square in the face, and then denying it. In fact, the current political climate relies upon our willingness and ability to do just that: to render the egregious as normal, to accept the unacceptable.
The volatile drama of the Palm Sunday liturgy, however, suggests that to follow Jesus, we must go deeper. Faith is not a method of papering over the contradictions and complexities of life, but a mode of entering into them, confident that they ultimately lead us deeper into the mystery of ourselves and of God. That’s why the church focuses so intently each Holy Week on the inherently contradictory story of Jesus’ Passion: it’s about coming to terms with the reality of the human condition.
We have to learn over and over that it is not enough either to think naively that when Jesus comes, all is well (“Hosanna!”), nor is it enough to lapse into the cynicism that lies behind violence (“Crucify!”). The contradiction, the tension, have to be maintained—and that forces us to go deeply into who we truly are.
Our culture, however, resists depth. Ideas are reduced to 140 characters. Relationships succumb to posts. And in the midst of such shallowness, we are encouraged to believe in a rather simplistic picture of ourselves: our culture tells us that we are essentially free and autonomous individuals, encouraged to self-actualize ourselves as we see fit, unbounded by any substantive restraints of personal obligation or serious expectations of self-sacrifice.
Yet the biblical view of humanity is much more complex. We are, as Psalm 8 puts it, made but only a little lower than the angels, adorned with glory and honor. And yet, only a bit later in Psalm 22, the psalmist laments that he is a worm and no man. We are the saints of God, yet sinners in God’s sight.
So one way of entering in to the Holy Week drama, upon which we embark today, is to let yourself be drawn into this fundamental contradiction within human nature. Hold within yourself the tension between that cross, and that table. Wrestle with why it is (as St. Paul says), that the good you would do, you do not; but the evil which you would not, you do (Rom. 7:19). This is the confrontation that Peter has to have with himself, when he realizes how he has betrayed Jesus, and so weeps bitterly. Let yourself go deeply, to the very core of your being. Find the contradictions within yourself.
What you might discover, is that beneath the contradiction between both the dignity and corruption of human nature, lies an even greater mystery hid within you, which is that death and life are likewise present both at once within us. In the burial office, we sing that “in the midst of life we are in death,” reminding us that physical death is the inevitable conclusion of being alive. Yet in God, the reverse is also true: in the midst of death, that part of us which is love itself is given life. So this is the mystery of faith:
Both life and death.
Both dignity and corruption.
Both table and cross.
Both hosanna and crucify.
Yes, today is a contradiction, a contradiction that calls us into depth. Depth of soul; depth of character; depth of honesty with ourselves.
So let me leave you with an image upon which you might meditate during this coming week. We here in New Mexico are very attuned to the rising and setting of the sun: we relish the soft dawn breaking over the Sandia Mountains, or the dramatic red glows of the sunsets in the western sky. The imposing presence of such spectacles might cause us to reflect that within each dawn, there is the anticipation that in due time the night will return. But likewise in each sunset, the promise of a new day is also given. That’s why a Navajo greets the new day in the dawn, while a Jew give thanks for the new day at sunset the night before: one day greets another in an unbroken sequence, and rhythm of which we can be very much aware in this land where “sky determines.”
Could it be, in the contradiction between that cross and table, that there is a similar continuity? In Jesus, who brings the two together in himself, peace is interrupted by violence, but violence is met with peace. The communion he shares is disrupted by betrayal, but that betrayal leads to resurrection. Life recedes toward death, but death also flows into life. That is the trajectory along which this Holy Week leads and invites us.
Faith, then, at its most basic level, is simply that authenticity which allows us to be drawn into, and then to be held, in the mysterious depth of these holy contradictions. Amen.