From Praise to Pillory

We can be so inconsistent. Just consider the inconsistency of the crowds in Jerusalem. In less than a week they swing from “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”[1]; to “Crucify him!”[2]

This morning, in this one service of two liturgies, we experience this inconsistency within the span of 15 minutes. We go from triumphal Liturgy of the Palms to the heart-rending Passion. We get this abbreviated version of Holy Week today because of a cultural reality. In many churches, lots of people will not attend Holy Week services before Easter. This is a shame, because the pattern of this Holy Week, especially the Triduum, the three sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, help shape our understanding of the Passion, our understanding of Easter, and our understanding of ourselves.

Traditionally, it is on Good Friday that we hear the Passion Gospel. While the Passion Gospel is heart-breaking, it is absolutely essential to our understanding of Easter. We need to immerse ourselves in the Passion Gospel before we meet our resurrected Savior so that we can adequately appreciate our need for redemption. Thus, because so many miss the Good Friday Liturgy, today we get to hear of both Palms and Passion.

In the Gospel lesson from the Liturgy of the Palms, Jesus, the disciples, and a large crowd of other pilgrims are descending on Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. Imagine yourself surrounded by this crowd, immersed in their enthusiastic energy as we are caught up in the cheerful anticipation of our messiah’s coming.

Now imagine the landscape of all this. Jesus and his disciples are coming to Jerusalem from the east, from Bethany by the dry and dusty Jericho road. As they wind down the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the city of Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley, we and the crowds join them before climbing the up the temple mount to enter the Eastern or Shushan Gate of Jerusalem.

This uneven topography makes it is easy for the Roman garrison at the Antonia Tower next to the Temple to observe the road that winds down the side of the Mount of Olives; in fact one has an unobstructed view. Thus the Roman occupiers have a clear view of us raucous pilgrims, with Jesus and his followers Hosanna-ing our way into town. Of course everyone else near the Temple has a good view of this procession as well; and they are marveling at the scene and our enthusiasm.

However, just below the surface of this enthusiasm, there is a tenseness and anxiety. Because of the potential for unrest among such large crowds during the Passover festival, Pilate has come to Jerusalem with reinforcements from his palace on the coast to make sure the lid doesn’t blow off.

But today will end quietly without incident after Jesus surveys the temple. Tired and hungry he and his friends retrace their steps back up the Mount of Olives to Bethany and the home of Simon the Leper to rest in preparation for the eventful week to come.

Having witnessed a quiet end to the first day, now we find ourselves confronted with the story of Jesus’ Passion. Again, imagine ourselves among the crowd as we watch the heart-breaking reality of Jesus’ “hour,” which is in fact the sacred three days. We were expecting a victorious messiah; instead we are crushed by grief and loss. In our grief, it is convenient to blame Judas; after all we’ve just heard it is he who betrays Jesus. And perhaps we blame Peter too because his resolve fails him in the face of danger. But I think such scapegoating is a convenient way to avoid recognizing ourselves in the crowd.

Yes, Judas makes Jesus’ arrest possible, but as we’ve just heard, it is the “crowd” that turns on Jesus; and Judas, whose motivation appears to be greed, does after all repent before killing himself. In comparison, the crowd is never presented as repentant – as acknowledging its complicity in its manipulation by the temple authorities into making Jesus a scapegoat for the sake of preserving things as they are.

At the end it is only the Roman centurion – not the crowd – that upon witnessing Jesus’ death acknowledges, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”[3] In the end, it is those at the periphery of the crowd – the women, the Roman centurion, and Joseph of Arimathea who have the strength to stand in that awful place and know who Jesus is. Even the disciples, who flee, will not know until his Resurrection.

But the point is not how Jesus is set up by religious authorities, or who is to blame for his murder on a cross. No, the point of this swing from praise to pillory is for us to be transported to a place of self-recognition – the recognition of our inner Judas, the recognition of our inner Peter; to be borne to our place of deepest sorrow, for us to be shocked and saddened to the point of reflection upon our own inconsistency – our simultaneous betrayal of our Savior, and our need for him.

It is in our deepest sorrows – those dark places and low points in our lives – where our most profound and penitential encounters with God occur. It is also in the deepest sorrows of others that we have the opportunity to be Christ-like amid their pain.

Our self-recognition and our encounters with Christ in these dark places begin to unbind us from our inconsistency. Therefore, embrace these dark places and be liberated so that we can consistently keep this life-giving vigil with Jesus during this Holy Week of Passiontide.

[1] Mark 11:9

[2] Mark 15:13

[3] Mark 15:39

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