The first Palm Sunday featured not one but two processionals into Jerusalem. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, and poor peasants cheered. From the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry, and the people trembled. Jesus’ procession hinted that the kingdom of God was dawning; Pilate’s insisted the power of the empire would silence all foes.
Pilate broughttroops from his base in Caesarea to quell any chance of revolution, since 2 million pilgrims who chafed under Roman oppression thronged the city’s streets. He had reason to be nervous. To the masses, Jesus stirred up patriotic memories among the Jews: 200 years earlier, the courageous Maccabeans had thrown off the pagans who had ruled over them. Would Jesus lead a new cadre of freedom fighters and expel the Romans?
But Jesus began to disappoint, even before the cries of “Hosanna!” settled down. On a donkey, not a war stallion, he didn’t even have a sword hidden under his tunic; and he spoke not of insurrection but of peace and love. Jesus seemed more likely to be killed than to kill. He came into Jerusalem, not avoiding those who feared him or misunderstood him. He engaged, he demanded a decision – and across the centuries, he still confronts all of us with God’s humble compassion, ready to bear all injustice in order to redeem it, prepared to be ridiculed to rescue our ridiculous lives, relentless in his mission of saving grace.
So we are a long way from our prettified Church images of children in pastel outfits singing the hymn: “Tell me the stories of Jesus… Into the city I’d follow, waving a branch of the palm tree high in my hand.” Interestingly, the mounting tension of Palm Sunday was captured pretty well in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar’s catchy song, “Hosanna, Heysanna.”
When Jesus traveled to Jerusalem for the high festival days, like Passover, he stayed with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. To people like us who drive everywhere, the two mile walk from Bethany to the temple precincts in Jerusalem is daunting: steep, rocky, up to Bethpage, down the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley, up into the city.
On Monday of Holy Week, Jesus made this walk, climbed the south steps (which have been excavated in recent years) to the temple, and in a rage that startled onlookers, drove the moneychangers out of the temple. Was he issuing a dramatic memo against Church fundraisers? Hardly. He was acting out, symbolically, God’s judgment on the temple. The well-heeled priests, Annas and Caiaphas, had sold out to the Romans. Herod had expanded the temple into one of the wonders of the world – but he pledged his allegiance to Rome by placing a large golden eagle, symbol of Roman power, over its gate. The people were no better: a superficial religiosity masqueraded as the real thing.
Jesus was not the first to denounce the showy façade of a faked religiosity of God’s people. Through the centuries, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and John the Baptist had spoken God’s words of warning to people whose spiritual lives were nothing more than going through the motions, assuming God would bless and protect them even though their lives did not exhibit the deep commitment God desired. God’s prophets who spoke this way were not honored, but mocked, arrested, imprisoned, and even executed. Jesus was courting disaster.
On that Monday of the first Holy Week, Jesus shut down operations in the temple and – quite correctly! – forecast its destruction. Just forty years later, the grand building the people thought was indestructible was no more. No wonder the authorities wanted to kill Jesus! In a way, Jesus himself became the temple. The temple was the place, the focal point of humanity’s access to God. Jesus, like the temple itself, was destroyed, killed – and his death, and then his resurrection on Easter Sunday, became our access to God.
After the drama of Palm Sunday and the ruckus of Jesus’ Monday morning rampage through the temple, Jesus probably should have stayed home in Bethany, or fled during the night to safety in the north where he’d come from.
But instead, Jesus walked right back into the temple where he certainly had shocked and mortified clergy and laity alike, and began talking – at length. The disciples were awestruck, as are tourists today, by Herod’s temple: “Look, Teacher, what large stones!” Herod’s masons were brilliant, and the largest smoothly cut stone excavated so far measures 44 feet long, 10 feet high, 16 feet wide, weighing 570 tons. How indestructible! And yet Jesus foretold a day when not one stone would be left upon another.
That was just the beginning of much he had to say on Tuesday. Matthew shares 212 verses of Jesus talking (chapters 22-25), including some of his most famous teachings. And don’t his words carry a much heavier freight since we know he was in the final couple of days before his death? That Tuesday, he exposed the faked religiosity of the pious Pharisees, he wept over the Holy City which had lost its way, he warned the disciples of the perils of living into the Truth. Jesus clarified that our salvation depends on whether we feed the hungry and welcome the unwanted. Devious men tried to trick Jesus with a question about a woman with several husbands: to whom would she be married in heaven? For Jesus, the glory of hope is too large, too wonderful to be shrunk to earthly proportions, or limited by the way we do business down here.
We picture him moving about within the temple precincts (scroll down and click on these virtual images!), standing under porticoes, moving then toward the large stone staircase, standing for a while near the gate, probing, questioning, listening and yet ruminating at length. Take some time on this Holy Tuesday to read Jesus words from his Holy Tuesday: Matthew 21:23-25:40.
After three days of intense activity, Wednesday dawned – and we frankly have no idea what happened that day. The chronology isn’t entirely clear, and the little hints we find in each Gospel about what day it was when various events transpired are insufficient for us to be sure.
But I like the idea that, during those days when so much happened (about one-fourth of the entire Gospel story is devoted to a single week of Jesus’ 30 year life!), we come up empty on one of the days. Did Jesus simply chill with his friends in Bethany? Did he teach someplace, or heal someone, but nobody wrote it down? Did he visit two or three people privately? Surely a public person like Jesus had private relationships, perhaps with someone like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea – or maybe he took a long walk with Peter or John. Could it be he simply withdrew from people and activity and prayed? Quite often the Gospels tell us “Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to pray” (Luke 5:16, Matthew 14:23); if this was his habit, his sustenance, his greatest delight, wouldn’t he have done so during Holy Week?
I also like the idea that Jesus is bigger than what we know. John’s Gospel ends by saying “There are many other things which Jesus did.” We hope so, and we even experience this ourselves, for the fruit of Holy week is a crucified and risen Savior, who is active today, not only continuing his ancient work, but doing new things.
The word “maundy" derives from the same ancient root as our word “mandate.” Jesus issued a mandate: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Today, we do.
All of Jesus’ meals evidently were memorable. He “ate with sinners” (Luke 15:2) and thereby offended the super pious. He let a woman wash his feet (Luke 7:36) and another anoint him with oil (Mark 14:1). He suggested that when you have a dinner party, don’t invite those who can invite you back, but urge the poor, blind, maimed and lame to eat with you (Luke 14:14).
But no meal was more startling than his last. The theological timing was extraordinary. Thursday at sundown was the beginning of Passover, that sacred moment when Jews celebrated God’s salvation of Israel from Egypt, remembered by eating lamb, unleavened bread, and drinking wine. Jesus set a somber tone, first by washing his disciples’ feet, and then by talking gloomily about his own suffering. As he broke a piece of bread, he saw in it a palpable symbol of what would happen to his own body soon; staring into the cup of red wine, he caught a glimpse of his own blood being shed. We still use the words Jesus spoke on that Thursday when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper now.
Just as God liberated Israel from Egyptian slavery, so Jesus set his friends (and us) free from our bondage to sin, pointlessness, and death. After an awkward, poignant conversation with his friends, Jesus walked out of the walled city of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives to pray in the garden called Gethsemane. Kneeling in anguish, Jesus prayed “Not my will, but Your will be done.” Was he being fatalistic? Don’t we in resignation believe our fate is something we must just bear? But Jesus’ mood was not resignation. He actively sought and embraced God’s will, which isn’t some dark luck, but is when we with trusting faith go where God leads us, no matter the cost.
Jesus was arrested, the charges were trumped up, witnesses were compelled to lie, the proceedings were highly irregular… Who was responsible for Jesus’ death? The Jews? The Romans? You and me? The Jews handed him over to the Romans, the Romans handed him back to the Jews, the disciples handed him over. No one wanted to be responsible, and so they (and we!) are all guilty.
Through that dark Thursday night in detention, Jesus was abused, mistreated, his fate sealed. Holy Thursday waited all night for the dawn of the day with the paradoxical name: Good Friday.
The paradox that is Christianity is elegantly expressed in today’s unexpected name: Good Friday. Seems like it should be called Dark Friday, or Tragic Friday, or The Worst Friday Ever. But, God’s power “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
Between 6 and 9am, Jesus was tried by Pilate in a contest between the powerful and the powerless, between searching questions and silent submission. Jesus was mocked, whipped, made a laughing-stock: “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Surely he has borne our grief, and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, with his stripes we are healed. He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter; they made his grave with the wicked, although he had done no violence” (Isaiah 53).
Beginning mid-morning, and extending through mid-afternoon, Jesus was crucified, a horrific form of capital punishment, an excruciating public humiliation designed to intimidate the rabble and keep the peace. In the throes of death, Jesus cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Doesn’t this leave us space to cry out in the darkness when we seem forsaken by God? God did not remain safely aloof in heaven, but God entered into human suffering at its darkest. Just as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, so God envelops us in a love that even death could not defeat.
Good Friday is a day to check your watch, at 9 in the morning when Jesus was sentenced, at 3 in the afternoon when he breathed his last, and as it grows dark, and consider the sufferings, death and burial of our Lord. You might contemplate artists’ renderings of Good Friday – Nicolaes Maes of Christ before Pilate, Mattia Preti of Pilate washing his hands, Caravaggio of Christ being crowned with thorns, my favorite crucifixion painting by Matthias von Grünewald; and stop and look at the painting in our Church of Mary sitting next to the crucified Jesus.
What happened on Saturday of that first Holy Week? After the numbing, tragic events of Friday, nothing seemed to go on at all. Perhaps it’s a bit like the day after the funeral for the one you loved, and the mourners and family have drifted away, and you find yourself alone. Jesus’ friends and followers certainly hung their heads, feeling acute grief, trying to stave off dark disillusionment. After all, for Jews, like Jesus, his mother, and the disciples, Saturday was the Sabbath, and they did what God’s people do, even when they have lost everything: they worshipped, they prayed, mourned the human condition, rested and waited.
Alan Lewis called the day “a significant zero, a pregnant emptiness, a silent nothing which says everything.” We live our lives – don’t we? – in-between, like Holy Saturday. Talk to the widow whose husband died of cancer last year. She has seen Good Friday. She may believe the Easter Resurrection is coming – but for now she is in between. Talk to the husband reeling from his wife’s exiting their marriage. We live in-between.
God could have raised Jesus immediately, or levitated him directly from the cross into heaven. Why wasn’t God more urgent? God waited. God did nothing for a time. Perhaps God knew we would experience life, and loss, and love in just this way. We have hope – but the waiting can be a silent nothing. And we have to wait. We live in between.
So was Jesus just dead, lying in the grave all day Saturday? Yes – but the Church has taught through history that Jesus “descended into Hell.” Between his burial and his resurrection, Jesus went down into the underworld to save those awaiting judgment. Such a journey suggests that all people, in this life and even beyond this life, are offered the love of God. Even the grave does not silence God’s call.
This doctrine helps answer questions like “What happens to those who lived before Jesus? or never heard of him?” – and plays out the truth that God is relentless, unfazed by time, space, or death itself. Even the pit of Hell is owned by the unquenchable love of Christ; the abyss is not bottomless, but has an opening to heaven. Or so many thinkers have argued, unable to make sense of the idea that God could love everyone with infinite power and wind up losing even one. Time will tell…
For now, Saturday is a day to wait, to be still, to hope against hope…
On the third day, Sunday, women came to the tomb, but Jesus was not there, and then he appeared to people over the next few weeks. Easter, constantly doubted, forever yearned for, the vortex of our faith.
An empty tomb. Conflicting accounts. Rumors of meetings. Doubts, surprises, but a powerful message – too big, so contradictory to life as we know it that the stories seem crazy, just as Luke characterizes the reaction to the women’s breathless report of the empty tomb: “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:12). Doubt is as old as Easter itself.
When we speak of the resurrection, we do not mean that Jesus’ soul survived the death of his body, and yet we do not mean the mere resuscitation of a corpse. The risen Jesus is not recognized, but then is recognizable. He can be touched, but then he pulls back. He materializes, and then he vanishes. Paul spoke of the resurrection as involving a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15). A body, yes, but spiritual, not merely a spirit, but a body, totally transformed, animated entirely by the Spirit, not liable to disease or death.
But this is important: in the New Testament, when Jesus was raised, nobody said “Oh, so we get eternal life now!” Instead, the reactions were wildly varied, from fear to joy. Clearly the Gospels say Because Jesus was raised, our sins are forgiven, and Jesus is who we dreamed he might be, God’s plan is vindicated – and we have a lot of work to do.
Hopefully you will worship with a big crowd today; and hopefully you will take some time to be quiet and alone, the way Mary found Jesus outside the tomb that first Easter (read John 20:11-18!), and reflect, ponder the wonder of it all, feel your sins being forgiven, praise the Lord, and ask what tasks God might have for you in the wake of it all.