A Day of Discordance
Did you feel it? The dissonance, the discordance of the morning? Something that doesn’t quite fit, or make sense? Did you feel the tension, the discomfort that’s built into this day, the Sunday of the Passion with the Liturgy of the Palms, a day that involves both triumph and torture?
A few minutes ago we were with the crowd shouting out “Hosanna!” and rejoicing in Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And just moments ago, we were with the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” and condemning him to death. In this one service, it took us only a few minutes to flip from one to the other in chilling juxtaposition. Hosanna! Hosanna! Crucify him! Crucify him!
If you’re feeling unsettled, you’re meant to. It means you’ve been paying attention.
A Fizzled Parade
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
The crowd was excited: this could be the big entry of God’s anointed one. They weren’t sure, but this could very well be the one who would overthrow the Romans, the Messiah that they had been waiting for. It was a good moment for a Messiah to declare himself, as pilgrims are streaming into Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover, the highest point in the Jewish calendar year. And the crowd has heard of this Jesus, who has supposedly not only healed people but has even raised some from the dead – supposedly even his friend Lazarus, in this very town of Bethany, not so long ago! Why, with them in this crowd is a man named “Seeing Bartimaeus” who just a few days ago was known as “Blind Bartimaeus”!
So the crowd shouts out “Hosanna!!”
Hosanna – this strange word that we say so often in church circles, even singing it in the middle of our Eucharistic prayer each week – Hosanna in the highest! What are we saying?? What were they saying, as Jesus rode towards Jerusalem, this word that is so important that we still include it in our services and our songs, two thousand years later?
Simply… ‘save us’. It literally comes from the Hebrew root meaning ‘to save’. But what used to be an appeal for help in Hebrew had over the years turned into a joyful cry of praise – more like “Saviour!”
Hosanna! Saviour! Hosanna! Save us!
So the crowd was shouting praise at Jesus, shouting Save! Saviour!, clamouring with joy at the thought that this man could be the one sent to rescue them from oppression. And when Jesus starts the traditional entrance of a conquering hero into a city, they gladly give him the traditional greeting of a ruler, despite the fact that things don’t quite seem to fit: for one thing, he’s riding on a donkey: a creature of peace, rather than a war-horse. For another, rather than continuing the conquering-hero routine of sacrificing in the temple, Jesus simply looks around quietly, and then leaves again, leaving a very anticlimactic note in the listeners’ ears. All of the hype and glory just… fizzled. You can imagine the crowd saying, “Well, I guess that’s it, then,” and going to their hostels and B&Bs, maybe hoping for something exciting to happen in the morning.
In fact, it’s a triumphal entry that’s also discordant – not quite right, not quite what was expected. The triumph of the so called triumphal entry doesn’t actually lead anywhere, not this time. The cries of “Saviour!” have died away, and the Romans are still in charge.
But the scene has been set, and Jesus has listened to these cries.
We Cry Hosanna/Crucify!
Christians have a tradition of having the congregation – all present – sing or shout or cry out Hosanna on Palm Sunday, and wave palm branches or crosses like we have today. And Christians equally have a tradition of having everyone cry “Crucify him” when it comes to that point in the passion narrative, and both of these are intentional. We need to be involved in this story, personally, to have each of our voices raised and added to the crowd’s, because this isn’t just another myth or story that we are hearing. This is reality – what happened outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago not only affects us now, but is also because of us now – we are complicit. Simply hearing the words, and pretending that they were just another time and another place – it doesn’t involve us enough. We need to hear our own voices raised.
When we are invited to join in the crowd on the outskirts of Jerusalem shouting Hosanna almost 2000 years ago, it’s because we know that they were like us and that we are like them: excited to see the arrival of God’s anointed one, looking for a saviour from all our problems; all oppression, war, injustice. Looking for someone to take charge and to right the wrongs once and for all. To bring healing to torn nations and torn families. And so we celebrate Jesus’ coming with the crowd that day, and we shout “Hosanna! Saviour! Save us!”
And, as much as we often don’t want to admit it, we know that we all too often can be found with the crowd crying out in fear and anger “Crucify him!” we don’t like to think that. But the truth is, when we read these words from so long ago, we can’t just point to them – the Jews of Jesus’ day – and say they killed Jesus. We shout those words right along with them, because we know that we are complicit. We know that he went to the cross just as much for us as for those people who actually voiced those words. We are sinful humanity. We are the ones who are lost, and angry, and afraid, and we know all too well the feeling that drove Peter to deny Jesus that day. I dare say we even know the disappointment and disillusionment and frustration that led Judas to give up on Jesus. From the time as toddlers that we knew how to choose the good, we have consistently fallen short. All have sinned, and our lives, and the life of the world, are broken by our sin.
And so we cry “Hosanna”, and we cry “Crucify him!” with barely a pause for breath in between, and we mean it.
We need that Saviour so, so badly.
And he hears our cries for help, and comes, and saves us. Not in the way that the crowd expected on that day so long ago, and not in the quick and easy way that we would sometimes like – this way of salvation involves a cross, and a crown of thorns. But it doesn’t end there. The triumph that the Jews longed for, and the salvation that each of us needs so badly – it happens. It comes. And the more we are able to acknowledge our need for this Saviour, the more we will rejoice over his actual triumph over sin and death in just a few days.
Enter the Story
So we need this day, with all its discordance, with all of its troubling and unsettling overtones. We need it to help us enter Holy Week shaken from our habitual complacency, uncertain of what God is going to do, and aware – deeply aware – of our own sinfulness and ambivalence towards God. We need this day to pave the way in our hearts for the puzzling, counterintuitive, saving work that the Messiah is intending to do.
Because that same Messiah is here, in our midst, ready to continue his work of salvation in each of us this Holy Week. So I invite you to stay. To enter into the story, each part of it, and see what God is going to do in our midst, in your own heart and mind and soul this week, because there will be miracles and God will act.
Don’t skip out on this story, because it’s not just a story. It’s reality. Come, if you can, for every single service. Dare to step into it, all of it. Dare to acknowledge your presence in the crowd on that first Triumphal Entry, to hear your own voice calling out with loud Hosannas, and just as loudly Crucify him! Dare to feel the sorrow and the shame of your sins, your brokenness, your ambivalence towards God. Dare to feel Jesus loving you and washing your feet through the hands of one of your fellow brothers or sisters here on Maundy Thursday. Dare to sit on Good Friday through the most horrific event the world has ever known, to feel the weight of the cross, to approach it and touch it and venerate it, and to feel the burden of your sins rolled off your back and onto it. Dare to face the emptiness after the sorrow gives way to silence.
And then come back, on Holy Saturday, and keep vigil as the darkness splits, and death works backwards, and sorrow turns to joy, and we are saved.
Come, enter this most holy of weeks. Come, and live.