Most of us try and steer clear of violent emotional swings. Elation is wonderful as long as it isn’t shattered by the cold slap in the face of disaster. Driving along a mountain road, taking in the scenery, alive with a sense of joy and wonder is one thing, but to be hit head on by a speeding SUV coming in the other direction is something else. I wonder if that’s how we feel now that the Elections in Australia have started with all sides partaking in falsehoods and nastiness from the get go. Well, in this week’s readings from scripture for Palm Sunday St. Paul writes to the Philippians and the scripture set comes from chapter 2. St Paul can write lyrically about the events that begin with Palm Sunday and end on Easter Day without having experienced, first hand, the highs and lows of the Passion.
That is not to say that Paul isn’t moved. The passage contains some of the most beautiful language the apostle Paul penned, and perhaps fragments from a very early Christian Hymn. Paul proclaims that Jesus is “in the form of God,” is “equal with God.” That’s a hard subject for a first century Jew to contemplate let alone write about. St Paul believed passionately that there is one God and one God alone. Yet here he is in this passage, through belief and experience, stating that Jesus is God: But what sort of God? And with some of the recent claims by various prominent figures in our society and our politicians or would be politicians this question is extremely valid.
Here’s the scandal. Jesus, who is God, willingly empties himself to become a slave. It’s nearly 150 years since slavery was abolished .in the United States. None of us in Australia or New Zealand have any living memory of that vile institution. However, in Australia our history of treatment of our first peoples and our historical involvement in blackbirding in the Pacific Islands late in the nineteenth century could be classed as forms of not only racism but slavery. A slave was or still can be the lowest form of humanity, with no rights. He or she was owned as if a cow or a horse.
Imagine God as a slave. Here, God is placed in a position of utter vulnerability, with no defence. The God who is utterly human humbles himself to death. Almost without a pause, in Philippians 2, St. Paul then jumps to the resurrection. Perhaps some of you who are Christian have sung that great hymn, “At the Name of Jesus” recently? Yet St. Paul’s thoughts as we enter Holy Week are so much easier to digest than St. Luke’s story in chapter 19. Now some of us may only hear about the entry to Jerusalem but others will hear Chapter 19 of Luke. Read it and see what brutality Jesus was treated with. There’s been much criticism about the violence portrayed in Mel Gibson’s movie of “The Passion”. But to hear and read the Gospel readings for this coming week, is to find ourselves engulfed in a brutal narrative.
Those crucifixes streaming with blood more accurately portray the Passion than our chastely engraved crosses of gold or silver. Nor is St. Luke’s story in the least bit anti-Semitic although it may be used in such a way by hateful people. The rogues of the story are not Jews, but some people who happen to be Jewish and some people who happen to be Roman and of course the mob. Mobs can appear in any country. One can look around our world and see the violence of a mob.
Yet we can say, how wonderful it was for the disciples to enter Jerusalem with their King. They made such a noise that the religious elite, the Pharisees, asked Jesus to shut them up. The disciples were elated. Most of us have experienced moments of religious elation when heaven and earth seem to come together and nothing possible can ever be wrong again. But then the story takes us swiftly down the steep slope of reality.
In the garden Jesus kneels in anguish and terror as he takes in all that now will happen. He is betrayed by a disciple, arrested and dragged before the cynical and the important who will do anything to keep their jobs, preserve the status quo, and get rid of a trouble maker. Then comes a trial before that bloody-thirsty wretch Pilate, the henchman of a disgusting paranoid Emperor. Then troops beat Jesus half to death and burden him with the cross, made to stumble along to the hill of execution, and there executed brutally. St. Luke then writes: “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”
It’s the distance that is the problem for me because I think the action of many of us is to put distance between ourselves and violence when we see it. We are so used to looking at violence from a distance. We see innocent people killed and mutilated almost daily as we watch TV and chew a hamburger. Perhaps during this Holy Week we will be so far apart that we won’t even give time to be in church to keep watch as the drama of our redemption unfolds in the liturgy. We are called by God to get closer, to imagine the mystery of a God whose love is so great that he shares the worst that can happen to us in order to bring us to the best that can be.
Those of us who work hard to avoid suffering, who have no earthly idea how to deal with tragedy, loss, death itself, those of us who may skip Good Friday, preferring the joy of Easter Day, are challenged by these readings to come closer. We are called to stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary the Mother and St. John. We are asked to reach out and touch that Body and that Blood “given for us.” For in a way we cannot explain, the Cross changes everything for us and for the world. Our loving God forgives us, and would make us new. To return to St. Paul, we are all to bow our knees, at the Name of Jesus, and proclaim in our hearts and lives that Jesus is Lord, to the Glory of God. Maybe it’s something worth doing right now.