Before I fell ill two weeks ago, I visited the Susquehanna Art Museum, to take in their current exhibit, the Souls Shot Portrait Project. It was wonderful and harrowing and deeply moving. The clear beautiful colors of the images and the loving statements by family members added depth to the poignant message of the inevitably destructive consequences of gun violence. The exhibit offers a very powerful testament to the need to embrace suffering in order to transform it. That is the enduring power of love in our world.
Today, we hear two chapters of the gospel story of the holy power of Love versus the unjust power of violence. The juxtaposition of the Palm Sunday Gospel and the Passion Gospel lead us to some inherent tension in messaging. Jesus the Holy One, is acclaimed by the people of Jerusalem as the triumphant Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the King: Hosanna in the highest! Save us, we pray thee! Then, Jesus the Holy One, is condemned and killed in a particularly brutal manner. Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani. (Literally Oh My God, why have you abandoned me?) Our reflection on Holy Week has begun, and we are left with a disturbingly incongruous image of the Savior of the world. Is our Savior a triumphant king or a suffering servant? We can very clearly see both the joyous sanctity of the presence of God and the banal brutality of human violence.
Usually I preach about the Gospel, but this year I sense that I need to preach about the epistle. St Paul’s pastoral direction in his letter to the people of the city of Phillipi in Macedonia is that they should think about this: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ . . . who emptied himself. Paul is probably incorporating a hymn about Jesus. Clearly the Phillipians already know the entire story, just as we do. Yet Paul instructs them to linger in reflection on the self-emptying. What does it mean to Christians that the Anointed One enters voluntarily into a place that will cause his death? What does this epistle teach us about how to live now? It is less about imitating this quality of Jesus than it is about living into our identity as followers. This is about understanding the nature of the God we worship.
The reason the lectionary comingles the Palm Processions and the Passion Gospel is that we tend to want to linger with the triumph, avoiding the suffering and skipping to to the Easter part. Heaven knows how many times this week I will hear people tell me I don’t do Good Friday, it is too depressing. We prefer to keep the memory of the palms and skip right to the resurrection. The rest of the story – the betrayals, the trial, the cross – is frightening and painful. We want to protect our hearts from the suffering.
On one hand, this emotional self-defense is entirely understandable. Isn’t our life difficult and complicated enough? In the shadows of a pandemic, violence, economic instability, and the day-by-day fragility of human existence, one may ask whether there is value added by reflecting on the pain of this holy week.
On the other hand, the mingling reflects our human life and the life of God. It is precisely in the days when we feel the most vulnerable and powerless that we are most open to the power that comes only from a Christ who has suffered. When we choose to live our lives with unarmored and vulnerable hearts, we can be in the most profound connection with God and our most genuine and holy selves.
The Letter to the Phillipians offers us a remarkably rich and high theological understanding of the meaning of the divine kingship and power of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who is equal to the Almighty. Jesus is exalted and has a Name above every other name. In theological terms, the earthly work of Jesus is called kenosis, which means “a pouring out” or “an emptying.” This hymn makes the astonishing claim that the one we call God and Lord is most fully revealed by the crucified One on Golgotha. Paul reframes the teaching of Ecclesiastes 7.13-14: Do not try make straight what God has made crooked. The whole point of the Messiah is that God is embracing and sanctifying the painfully crooked human experience.
It is easy to theologize and to reduce the scripture to an intellectual reflection that means nothing. I think this kenosis has meaning for us now in real time.
If we really want to know God, we must recognize that the nature of divine kingship is in the renunciation of all power, ego, agency, desire. Jesus’ true equality with God is rooted in his denial of self-interest and his rejection of the use of exploitation and manipulation.
If we really want to know God, we must expand our understanding of sanctity to include suffering.
If we really want to know God, this week offers a fairly direct path, through the Love that engages suffering.
If we really want to know God, we must drop the defenses and trust the process of Love.
Think about this. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ . . . who emptied himself.