If you recall, we started out our season of Lent with the experience of Jesus resisting temptation in the desert as the devil tried to instill doubt: “Jesus, you’re hungry - if you are the son of God, you could make bread from these stones; if you are the son of God, prove it: throw yourself down and you would be saved by the angels; if you renounce your son-ship, all the world could be yours.” In the long Passion Gospel of today that culminates with the crucifixion, we hear the devil’s voice come up again in the disbelief of the bystanders: “if you’re the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross!” As they shook their heads, they were essentially acknowledging what a liar, phony, and failure Jesus was. If Jesus was the Son of God, as he said, there would be no way that his enemies would win out here. We were wrong to put our trust in him. As even his followers and disciples came to this conclusion for themselves, it’s not surprising that Jesus was betrayed, denied, and left all alone with even God seemingly abandoning him.
Suspend everything else you know of Jesus. If you were following Jesus’ story for the beginning, and you heard how today’s Gospel ended, you too would think, it’s over, it’s over! The bloody job was done, the tomb was sealed and guarded. There’s no possibility of anything else coming from this dead man. Those bystanders were right, you are not God, you’ve been defeated. If this was the first time you had heard this, and this was all you knew of Jesus to this point, wouldn’t you think the rest of us gathered here today are crazy – that’s your savior!?!?! What’s all the hype about? Such promise and expectation, what a terrible let down. What a sad tale of the Christian God-made-man who is more powerless than we are… And that’s sort of the character of this Palm Sunday celebration. It starts out with rejoicing and hosannas and the promise of salvation and his kingly triumph. And it ends with condemnation, betrayal, suffering, death, and despair as we are left to our own devices. No other Sunday in the liturgical year reflects such dramatic contrast as today. What begins with songs of joy quickly shifts into remembrance of the Lord’s Passion. His royal entrance into the holy city of Jerusalem was an entrance into his suffering and death. This is what we are left with. This is not characteristic of what we would expect from the Son of God at all. There is no all-powerful God taking power at all, which is disappointing on many levels.
Could we ever come to forgive God for disappointing us, for failing us, for allowing sin, suffering and death to have a place in this world still, for leaving us in what seems like such desperate straits? Is there a way through this? Yes. Yes, there is. Only if human suffering is first of all and last of all divine suffering can we begin to connect any dots. Only if we are joining God, and God is joining us, in something greater than the sum of all its parts, can we find a way through all of this. Because God is not a guilty bystander, playing games with our lives on a cosmic scale or observing our plight with pity from a distance. Against all expectations God is empathic, compassionate, who gives completely of himself, leaving behind every trapping of his divinity to be with us, as Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us, so as to join together with us in every part of our experience, to make our plight and our life’s purpose his very own. “Why have you abandoned me?” Jesus asks. God has abandoned himself to be together with us (2x).
We celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas, the mystery of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. But it is from the cross in this great moment of solidarity that he is most like us. Indeed, who cannot look on the image of the crucified Jesus and somehow see himself or herself? Once again, this Lent, we have our wooden cross in the sanctuary here and over in the Chapel. And we have had the opportunity to place wooden blocks into the cross with the intentions of our hearts and unite them together with God. There were many prayers for family members and particular people, parents, children, future children, grandparents, extended relatives and pets; there were prayers for our world for Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the earthquake, and for peace and safety. There were prayers for healing, for someone’s foot, for chronic illnesses, for the elderly, for cancer, for addiction, to overcome impurity and drinking. There were prayers for conversion and the return to the practice of the faith. There were prayers for our Church, for the Road to Renewal, for our priests and staff at St. Mary’s together with our school and our students. There were prayers for learning, to be able to do my chores. There were prayers for our Buffalo Sabres and Bills. There were prayers for needed direction and guidance, for an upcoming retirement, for getting out of debt, for better use of time. There were prayers for a restoration of honesty and trust, for patience, for acceptance, for a relief from anxiety, to let go of pride, judgments, and jealousy, to stop gossiping. There were prayers for those who are grieving and who have died, including the Buffalo Firefighter. And there are many more, named and unnamed sufferings and intentions on our hearts and souls. These are our crosses. These are his cross. The cross of Jesus to which we are united is the great intersection of the human and the divine. “The crucified Jesus is no stranger.” Jesus is no stranger to history, no stranger to the soul, no stranger to any who have suffered. We thus find our true selves in God’s own being, inside his very heart. God is joining us and we are joining God and we are participating in all these experiences together.
We see how the tempter has tried to mislead us in our expectations. Because in this, Jesus’ greatest vulnerability accepting even death on a cross, is not a weakness but is the epitome of power, the great power of love itself. He’s going to save us or die trying. It is not tragic but heroic. It is the truest level of love, as each and every thing offers itself for the sake of another. In the cross, God’s love and power is being revealed, is accessible to us and remains powerful to us even until today, and we know in all of this that we’re just getting started. This is not the end here as we led to believe but only the beginning of the new life that is in store for us all. Stay tuned, and see what happens next week.
In the meantime, as we enter this holiest of weeks joined together with Christ, may our participation in each solemn liturgy draw us into deeper union with him and with one another.