Wednesday, March 20, 2013

There is a Reason Why They Call it Holy Week

It is only a matter of days, less than a week now, until we will take up our palm branches.  What do we call it: Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday?  It is hard to properly name this day of such stark contradictions. 

Luke tells us that as Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem, the crowd of disciples began praising God joyfully with a loud voice.  Matthew tells us that the crowd spread their coats and palm branches on the road before him.  We can envision this noisy parade as Jesus approaches the city for the biggest Jewish festival of the year.  The city would already be jammed with tourists and pilgrims.  The Roman soldiers would be on high alert with such a large crowd. It was like New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the Temple precinct like Bourbon Street.  Palm Sunday is a good name for this day.

But as Jesus reaches the top of the Mount of Olives and for the first time can take in the city, Luke draws the camera in close.  The sound of the crowd breaks off raggedly, and we hear the strangest thing.  As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it (Luke 19:41).  Jesus is crying; the ground beneath his colt is damp with the tears of the Son of God.  We realize that we are standing on holy ground; the sound of the parade around us fades away.  We might want to turn away, act as if we don’t hear him.  But we need to pause here and see what his sobbing can teach us. 

The crowd sees the sun glistening off the golden dome of the Temple, the commerce in the streets, the happy families, and old friends being reunited after a year apart.  Life is good.  It is morning in the land.  But Jesus sees something quite different.  He sees a city that will make a terrible choice in the coming days.  He knows the violence that waits in the wings; he knows this parade will be short-lived.  He knows that those who cry “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” within the week will cry “Crucify him.”  He knows where it all will lead for him and for these people.  He laments:
"If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God." (19:42-44).
Passion Sunday is a good name for this day that introduces a week that races toward betrayal, desertion, and death..

This Sunday opens our eyes to the tragic choice those people will make, how quickly their happy enthusiasm will dissipate in disappointed fearful betrayal.  We become aware of the tragic fearful choices that we, too, are prone to make in our lives.  We, too, are often oblivious to those things that make for peace; our eyes are blind to the visitation of God.

One Sunday, I was standing at the rear of the sanctuary greeting people as they left the service.  A woman paused as I shook her hand and said, “Dr. Kelsey, sometimes when I leave here I’m not happy.  Worship should make me happy.”  I felt disturbed.  I didn’t want worship to depress people.  I wanted worship to encourage and strengthen people.  I thought about what she had said for several days.  I felt I owed her something, perhaps an apology.  After some reflection I came to a realization.  I called her up and told her that I hoped she found encouragement and joy through her participation in worship, but I went on to say that the primary purpose of worship is not to make us happy; the primary purpose of worship is to make us holy.  I wanted us all to be happy, but there was a higher, nobler purpose to what we were doing:  holiness.  The path to holiness sometimes involves challenge and loss; at some pints we are called to make painful changes in our lives.  It is not always a happy holiday at the beach.

Parades are fun, but the Christian life is not primarily a parade; it is a pilgrimage.  The journey demands some things of us along the way; we have to leave some things behind that we should like to retain.  As we travel, the journey changes us; we are being made more into the image of Jesus Christ.

As we journey through Holy Week, we are on a pilgrimage to Easter Sunday.  On the way to resurrection, we pass through some difficult days.  This is no parade, but at the end lays renewed and greater life.

May you be changed in the week ahead. 
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of New York