Staging Failure - Palm Sunday 2013
I went to see the film version of Les Miserables earlier this year, after being very familiar with the stage show and the music. One of the things that's always struck me about the storyline is that the revolution that the young men are planning is not 'the' French revolution, but a scrubby little doomed protest that's immediately put down by the military. It's not immediately obvious that this is the way things are going to go, though. Marius and his friends cry out 'do you hear the people sing?' and we are all moved and uplifted. There is idealism, hope and the desire for justice. There is the sense that the time is right for a popular revolt against the powers that keep the poor in slavery. We and they are convinced that they have the whole town on their side, ready for an uprising that has found its moment. Instead, in the darkness, on the barricade, none of the local people emerge from their homes to join the crusade, and the young hopeful revolutionaries are easily and swiftly killed. It's a story of disillusionment and failure. Not the stuff that modern day stories are made of. Who now would write a film based on a group of young men who thought they were heroes but were instead slaughtered in the street?
This is a similar situation to what we encounter on Palm Sunday, when we read today's reading from Luke in the context of what we know happens in the coming week.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
The first thing we can notice about this passage, the way Luke tells it, is the deliberateness of Jesus in setting up the entry into Jerusalem. He sends the disciples ahead to find a colt that it seems he knows will be there, and gets on it. There is nothing accidental about the decision to do this. It is staged. It is a moment designed to raise hopes and emotions. It's the 'do you hear the people sing' part of the story. It's intended to frame Jesus as the 'King' coming to lay claim to his city, the one he has wept over, and we know this because in Zechariah 9, and the rabbinical writings that followed, it is prophesied that the future king would enter humbly into his city, riding on a colt (which is the foal of a donkey.) The disciples join their voices to the symbolism of the event and call out praises, drawing on language from Psalm 118 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.' Luke deliberately harks back to the birth of Jesus with the reference to 'Peace' that Luke's angels proclaimed at that event. The Pharisees add dramatic tension by their objection to the scene, and Jesus ramps up the significance of the moment by saying that “if these were silent, the stones would shout out,” as though this praise and joyful acclamation are the only right and true response that could be made to the coming of the true king into Jerusalem.
What is going on? We know that Jesus has up until now resisted this kind of display. He has done his teaching and healing and casting out of evil, all the while avoiding big claims about himself and even running away when it seems the crowd wanted to make him king by force. And as we reflected just a few weeks ago, Jesus knows that going to Jerusalem would mean death for him, not a crown. Jerusalem, the city that stones the prophets...And just last week we heard a text where Jesus acknowledges Mary 'anointing him for his burial.' Why then, is he setting up these expectations and hopes with the imagery of entering Jerusalem as the foretold king?
There are two main moments in Luke's gospel where we are shown Jesus 'managing' events with intent and precision. One is this entry into Jerusalem when he sends two disciples to get the colt and predicts what they will find. The other is when he organises the room for the passover where he institutes the last supper – a more private event, where likewise Jesus sends a couple of disciples to go and ask for what is needed and tells them what to expect and what to say in return. There are many parallels between these 'managed' situations that I won't go into now except to say that I think we're meant to notice them and therefore hold the two situations together in our minds. And these two situations set up two contrasting stories that Jesus is inviting the disciples into.
The first story is the story of Jesus' kingship, of Glory in Heaven, and a city reclaimed. The second story, the last supper, where Jesus gives his friends his broken body to eat and his poured out blood to drink and remember, this is the story of participation in death, of identifying with loss and failure. If we were to take the Les Miserable parallel into this moment it would be the 'Drink with me' song. That doesn't completely work because where 'Drink with me' is a song of nostalgia and memory, what Jesus is doing with the Last Supper is setting up a ritual paradigm for understanding what is about to happen next. But certainly in terms of tone and mood, we have a very different moment in the narrative – sombre, reflective, private, and relational.
It's as if Jesus, (or Luke) by creating two staged, heightened moments is asking us to enter into, and get inside the feeling and experience of these two alternative stories, these two ways of participating in the meaning of Jesus' life – and death. Up until now he has been content to ask his followers 'who do you say that I am?' Now it seems he's saying 'I'll tell you something of who I am, but there are two sides to this story, and you can't have one without the other.' Yes, he is the Messiah, the one who will redeem and save his people, the cornerstone of the new living temple. But the only way to get there, is to go by way of dismemberment, brokenness, death. In order to be the King, Jesus must first be the convict. And so we slam into Holy Week, where the shouts of acclamation become the cries of 'Crucify!' The barricade is overcome, the brave young men are scattered and killed.
In some ways, I think Jesus is setting up strong expectations in order to dash them. Two staged events, two emotionally charged scenes – but only one has enduring goodness, and only by being part of both and having the taste of both can his disciples learn the difference. He's inviting his friends to decide whether they will be seduced by the public acclamation, the dizzying glimpse of success and glory and power, or whether they will be faithful to a path that leads by way of failure and death, to a living eternal reality.
Remember the beatitudes? Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourners, those who are denounced and persecuted? Luke is writing his gospel for people who are experiencing some of these things, and living lives of service in the world on behalf of those whom the beatitudes describe as blessed. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem reminds us that while we might praise and celebrate and give thanks for the signs of God's power and presence in the world, we are even more deeply engaged with the Christ when we share in his body and blood and identify with all that is broken and poured out in loss and sorrow.
Often in life, people are looking for a king and a saviour, someone who will fix things, put things right and get rid of the things that harm and hurt. As Christians we can look to Jesus to be this and do this for us, and the church sometimes offers Jesus to others in that paradigm. Jesus will make the pain go away. Jesus will take over this situation and change it. Jesus please use your power to defeat these people who want to hurt me. Jesus the heroic king, riding into Jerusalem. And sometimes, just sometimes, things are transformed for us or others and we lay down our cloaks and praise God and then move on to the next situation that we want Jesus to be king over. Or, we succumb to disillusionment, the story that says that God doesn't care, is not real, or has abandoned us, because things don't work out as we were led to believe. I think many who find their way to this Cityside community are in a process of trying to find a way out from under that loop of triumph and disillusionment.
When we are tempted to think in this way, or we have a taste for the special situation, the moment of power or resolution, the gospel of Luke asks us to remember how fleeting, and ultimately unreal, and unsatisfying these events are. We might long for the ecstasy of the entry to Jerusalem. But more enduring is the story of Jesus the passover lamb, the one who invites us to share in his death and so share his risen life. It's our task as disciples to learn the taste and rhythm and feel of this other story, the connection of it, the depth of it, the signs of its playing out in the world in which we live.
Which is not to say that there is no joy, no wonder, delight and praise in this other story, this story of a willing yes to the breaking and sharing of the death and life of Christ in community. To return to our Les Mis analogy, we're not sitting around endlessly singing 'empty chairs at empty tables.' The Les Miserables story ends with biblical images of a marriage and a homecoming, and the sense of having moved through grief to what James K Baxter calls a 'difficult joy'. Likewise, the Passion story doesn't end with the death of Jesus, and neither do our personal stories of pain have to end in despair and hopelessness. To move through our challenges, though, requires us to face up to the story we are living within – the story that expects the kingly messiah to ride into our suffering and reclaim us for a life of happiness, or the story that teaches us to discern the meaning of suffering, and to receive a deeper joy, in the company of those who share in the risen life of the Christ.
Response activity, folding palm crosses.