Palm Sunday 2022
Luke 19:28-40; Phil 2:5-11 Psalm 31:9-16; Luke 22:14-23:56
Each year, it gets harder for me to hear the Passion read. When I was younger, I was able to situate it historically: as something that had happened at the time of Jesus, as something which happened from time to time thereafter. Now, that sense of distance has collapsed. Each day, we are almost overwhelmed by the very voices which we hear baying around Jesus like a pack of demented hounds: voices of anger, voices of fear, voices seeking power, voices seeking someone to hurt so that they may feel better about themselves. Voices whipped up to frenzy by the 24-hour news cycle, by malignant influencers on social media, by shadowy agents working behind the scenes to undermine democracy, to destroy a sense of mutual responsibility, to coalesce a power-base by demonizing someone — anyone — even if that results in harm. And, around them, the larger chorus of voices seeking to draw our attention, not to what is harmful, but to what is trivial: the love lives and behavior of celebrities, the blandishments of advertisers, all the thousand things that cry out to us, distract us, wear us down until we are so spent that it is hard even to name what is good, what is important, what is true. Where, amid all these voices, can we find one worth heeding? How, amid the overwhelmingness of our daily lives, can we find an anchor in the flood?
Not in the crowd: that is clear enough. The very crowd which acclaims Christ with hosannas today will call for him to be crucified in less than a week. The theologian James Alison points out that every time Jesus is exposed to the adulation of the crowd, he pulls away to seek some time in prayer. In the gaze of the crowd, Jesus saw a hundred versions of who and what he was supposed to be, all the hopes and desires and fears that others pinned onto him. But in the gaze of God, he was renewed in who he actually was: a son, a beloved, a creature of blood and dust.
This should give us pause, we who carry the voice of the crowd in our pockets, accessible with the touch of a button; we who turn to that voice in waiting rooms and on subway platforms, as if a few minutes with our own thoughts might be unbearable — when, perhaps, that very time of waiting in silence might be what we need to be bent back into shape again.
Certainly, it was for Bartimaeus, the blind man in Jericho with whom Christ had his last encounter before he entered Jerusalem. You remember the story; it would have happened about eight hours before the palm parade — that’s how long it takes to walk from Jericho to Jerusalem. Jesus was passing through yet another crowd, when a blind beggar cried out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And when the crowd try to silence him, Bartimaeus cries out the more: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus turns and heals him.
It may seem perverse, on a day when we have heard so much scripture, to bring in one story more, but Bartimaeus’ cry reminds us of the voice we do not hear today. For three years, wherever he has gone, people have cried out to Jesus to be healed, to be fed, to be acknowledged — to be shown mercy. On Palm Sunday, those voices go silent. The only echo we hear comes from a man who is dying on the cross next to Jesus. Everyone else is so busy making Jesus into what they want him to be that they are unable to see him as he really is: the mercy of God, living and walking among us.
I find it haunting that the crowd tried to silence the blind man. I wonder why. Did they think of Jesus as too important to care about one person who needed help? Were they embarrassed by the presence of one who was visibly imperfect? Or, just perhaps, did they fear that the vulnerability of Bartimaeus might reveal their own, that his cries might evoke the cries of their own hearts, the ones they busied themselves not to hear?
Those cries — the ones which keep us up at night — are the path to Jesus. It is in our weariness, in our sorrow, in our times of suffering, that we learn to lay down our pretense that we can do it all ourselves, that we learn to seek for mercy. And it is in radical vulnerability that Jesus comes to meet us. That’s what this week is all about: Jesus offers us himself, his body and his blood, saying, “with desire have I desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:14, KJV) He comes to us in his suffering flesh to meet our own.
If Jesus had taught, simply, that we serve God by rendering our spirits holy, no one would have been scandalized. The Jews and the Greeks alike would have welcomed that teaching; it fit right in with where they were. But what God offered in Jesus was the consecration of the flesh: the wriggling flesh of a baby, wet with the water of baptism; the eager flesh of partners who come to be joined in marriage; the hungry flesh of the poor; the aching, sagging flesh of those who suffer; and, yes: the failing flesh of those who die. That was the scandal: that God took on our own flesh and took it on full weight — not just the firm youthful flesh of Zeus seducing a woman, but the tormented flesh of the prisoner, the torture victim, the condemned. And flesh is how we respond: “our bodies ritually re-offered, re-presented to God in union with the offering of Christ.” (The words are borrowed from Martin Smith.) Ritually re-offered, not only as eager vessels of mission, but as empty vessels which need to be filled, to be redeemed, to be graced anew.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus’ words have come to be known as the Jesus Prayer, one of the most ancient and powerful mantras in our tradition. They show us the royal road to the cross: not to come bearing our gifts, but acknowledging our need. This is the way of humility. So often, when seeking an anchor, we turn away from the very things which ground us: the silence of our own spirit, the frailty of our flesh, the very vulnerability which we fear will sweep us away. In this last week of his life, Jesus negates those fears and shows us what is most true: that the path which leads to Jesus is a descending path which leads us away from all that would separate us from one another, or even from ourselves. The God who gave us his own flesh and blood will hold back nothing from those who ask. But we, will we dare to offer all in return?