Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Twisted Symbol (Apr 1 2012, Palm Sunday)

Homily.  Year B, Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday, April 1th 2012
Readings:  Mk11:1-11; Is 50:4-9a; Ps 31:9-16; Phil 2:5-11; Mt 11:1-15:47

Each of us received a palm cross as we came in this morning.  The palm cross is, if you think about it a rather curious symbol.  As a palm branch, it is the symbol of a king who wins great victories in battle, defeating the enemies of his people.  That’s how we used it in our opening procession, as we waved our palm branches and sang hymns of praise to Jesus the king, shouting Hosanna which means “Save us”.

But that’s not all there is to the palm branch your holding.  There’s a twist.  Quite literally!  In order to turn a palm branch into a cross you have to twist it.  And the cross as a symbol has a meaning which is almost exactly the opposite of the palm branch that acclaimed the king.  It is instead a symbol of what Caesar did to anyone who messed with the Roman Empire.  That person, the rebel, the criminal or the runaway slave, was executed in a painful, public death on the cross.  That is the reality that we encountered in our dramatic reading of the passion gospel.

And so the palm crosses that we hold in our hands are a contradictory symbol, a symbol full of tension.  Our liturgy this morning is also full of tension.  On the one hand we have the Palm Sunday liturgy, with its joyful procession that feels like a celebration.  Then we follow that immediately with the liturgy of the passion.  The word passion is derived from the Latin word for suffering.  In our readings we hear first Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant, and then the gospel account of the trial, torture, and death of Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but putting the two together makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable.  Did you notice how we all played two roles in the dual drama that we acted out this morning?  First we were the crowd who praised Jesus, who sang and waved palm branches in his honour.  But then, only a short time later, we were again the crowd but now we called out “Crucify Him, Crucify Him”.  We stood by while Jesus was falsely accused, we participated in the mocking, we spat upon him.

How could we turn so quickly?  How did that crowd in Jerusalem turn so quickly?  How did our palm branches get twisted into crosses?

At least part of the answer seems to revolve around our assumptions, around the question of expectations.  The crowd on Palm Sunday had expectations of Jesus, high expectations.  They expected him to become king.  They expected him to overthrow the Romans.  But Jesus defied their expectations.  He refused to engage in the violence of military struggle.  He understood that what was ailing his people was much more profound than political oppression.

The crowds expected Jesus to reveal the glory of God by becoming king.  Instead, Jesus revealed the glory of God by becoming vulnerable, allowing himself to be put to death.  The crowds expected Jesus to save the people of Israel by overthrowing the Romans.  Instead he saved all people, Israelites and Romans included, by reconciling us to God through the cross.

Each of us comes here with our own understanding of who Jesus is.  You might think of Jesus as a teacher, or as a healer, or as King, or as Son of God.  But whatever your understanding of Jesus is, whatever expectations you have of Jesus, whatever are your assumptions, you need to prepared to bring those understandings and expectations and assumptions before the cross.  There, they will be deepened, expanded, re-shaped and perhaps overturned.

What might this look like?  You might think of Jesus as a great teacher, and he is a great teacher.  But what happens to that understanding of Jesus as teacher when you bring it before the cross, what happens when the teacher is put on trial, when he suffers, when he dies.  Maybe you get a deeper understanding of what Jesus was trying to teach.  Maybe you get a sense of how scandalous that teaching was.  Maybe you start to realize that there is more going on here than just teaching.

Each of us has our own expectations of Jesus.  We may expect him to be on our side, or to help us to prosper, or to provide moral insights, or to comfort us in times of trouble or to just leave us alone.  But whatever our particular expectations are, when we bring them before the cross, Jesus has a way of overturning them, of going against the conventional wisdom, of nudging us into new and sometimes uncomfortable ways of looking at things.  Jesus is the one who turns our reality upside down, opening up for us a new and bigger reality, a reality which he calls the Kingdom of God.

So hang onto your palm cross.  It’s the twisted symbol of the one who was expected to be king, but was nailed to a cross.  It’s the symbol of the one who was expected to save his people from their enemies, but instead saved his people and their enemies through his death on the cross, reconciling all people to God and showing us what it truly means to love and forgive.


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