Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
Christ’s first recorded words are those spoken to his mother. He was only twelve, when on their way home from Passover celebrations in Jerusalem, he went missing. After searching for him frantically for three days, Mary and Joseph found him in the Temple discussing scripture with the rabbis. When asked, “Son, why did you treat us so? Your father and I have been anxiously looking for you,” the youngster replied irenically, “Why were you worried; did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house, doing my Father’s business?” (Lk.2.49).
Luke tells us that after that incident, “he returned to Nazareth and was obedient unto them”(Lk.2.51), living quietly at home until age thirty, when suddenly he burst onto the scene with dramatic power, quickly capturing the attention of the nation. He came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, and when he came up out of the waters a voice from heaven did proclaim:“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. (Mt.3.17)” From that moment on, it was plain to see that Jesus of Nazareth was something much more than a quiet momma’s boy from a rural village. Some doubted, but many in Israel believed that the Son of God was on earth doing his Father’s business. And what a business it was: healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, raising the dead throughout Galilee and Judea (Mt.11.4-6; Is.35.5-6; 61.1). Doing it all by the power of his word alone. His was a stunning performance, to say the least. In the town of Bethany, he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11.38-44). A week later, as he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of, “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David!” it appeared that Israel was ready to receive him as their king (John 12.13).
But then, almost as suddenly as it began, the drama of God’s Son came to a screeching, gruesome, blood-soaked end. There he was less than three years after his prophetic baptism, hanging helplessly on a cross between two thieves, condemned as a blasphemer by his own people and as a traitor by the governor of the province. It wasn’t enough that the Roman guards had whipped and beaten him nearly to death. They also mocked him by jamming a crown of thorns on his head. They then poured salt in the wounds by making him carry the very instrument of his death up a hill. The Jewish scriptures that he knew so well even in his youth prophesied that “the one whom you see hanging on a tree is cursed by God” (Dt.21.23; Gal. 3.13). And there his life ended, hanging on a "tree"; condemned by men and cursed by God. Saint John tells us his last words were but one in Hebrew, “It is accomplished” (John 19.30). The business he was about in the temple at age twelve he completed at age 33, on a cross outside the city.
But what, exactly, had he accomplished? The world looking on Jesus crucified saw not a great accomplishment but an abject failure. Some of his opponents scoffed at him saying, “If you are the Christ come down from the cross, save yourself” (Mt.27.40). Surely, he who raised Lazarus from the dead the previous week could pull himself free from the nails that held his wrists and feet to a cross. That he did not do this, they took as evidence confirming their suspicions that his messianic mission had been nothing but a magic act by a clever deceiver, a sleight of hand. He was not God’s Son, they thought, and his death on a tree confirmed it. This charlatan was at last getting what he deserved, good riddance (John 8.48-52; 11.45-53).
Or so it seemed to some. Three days later, God would vindicate his Son, raising him from the dead and by so doing reveal what the meaning and purpose of his violent death was. He said he had come to his Father’s business. What exactly was that? Early in the mission, he told his disciples what it was: “The Son of man has come not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”(Mk.10.45). “For many” is a reference to Isaiah.53.11, “My servant, the righteous one, shall make many righteous.” In other words his death, he said, would accomplish the redemption of humankind. Those who were exiled from God because of sin would be reconciled to God because the Son of God paid with his life the price of their redemption. And this was not his doing alone. This was God’s plan from the beginning (Gen.3.15): that the Christ would come to his people and die, “according to the scriptures” (1Cor.15.3).
"In spite of that, we call this Friday good." —T. S. Eliot
This is part of the mystery of Christ that puzzles all who try to understand him. How could his death on a cross be a good thing? His death seems so senseless, so pointless. And yet Christianity makes his death the foundation of the message and even calls it “good news.” How could the brutal death of an innocent man be good news? Again, Jesus told his disciples early in the mission that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the chief priests and the leaders and be killed (Mt.16.21). All other religious leaders come to teach. If Jesus too had come to teach, after giving the Sermon on the Mount he could have sat down satisfied and said, “It is finished.” He then could have written a book, collected the royalties, built a house on a hill outside Jerusalem and lived a long and full life, enjoying his wealth. But Jesus did not come into the world to live well. Jesus alone came to die, to die on a cross, accursed. This was the business which the Father sent his Son to do because he alone being perfect man and perfect God could offer himself up as the perfect offering for sin. And on the cross he did exactly that. He sacrificed himself, shedding his blood, for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.1-2).
This is difficult to understand. Indeed we can only understand it by returning to the beginning of Israel’s long history and remembering what God said to Moses. God told Moses that Israel’s priests could offer up lambs in sacrifice to him and that God would accept the blood of those lambs as atonement for their sins (Lev.17.5-11). As Jesus hung on the cross on the eve of Passover he could hear in the distance the cries of hundreds of the lambs being slaughtered. How ironic that the Jews did not see that that lamb of God, a sacrifice that would end the need for all further sacrifice, was offering himself to God on our behalf on a hill outside the city (Heb.10.1-18). John the Baptist, when he first laid eyes on Jesus, cried out prophetically, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29; 36). This is the mystery of atonement: that Jesus on the cross is both priest and victim. He is the one offering up the sacrificial victim and the victim is Jesus himself (Heb.9.11-14).
At the time no one understood this. Not even his mother and Saint John who faithfully stood by him to the end knew fully what was happening. It all looked to the human eye like such a tragedy. Peter, the one Jesus called his “rock” fled in fear and cowardice. None of his disciples as yet had received the Spirit (John 7.37-39). But in due time, Christ would pour out his Spirit upon the church with wisdom and understanding and the coward Peter would be empowered to preach boldly to the church the message of the cross: “You know that you were ransomed from your futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pt. 18-19).
And so to this day Christian preaching is a message to the world about the meaning of the cross and the sacrifice of Christ. And the church proclaims with boldness that Jesus did not die in vain but he suffered and died for us. We owe everything to him. It is by the precious blood of Christ shed on the cross that atonement is made for our sins, his self-sacrifice is fully acceptable to God, and because his sacrifice is perfect, by virtue of his divine nature as the only son of the Father it could be no less than perfect, it need never be repeated. Christ by his death has saved us from our sins. Christ by his death has reconciled us to God (2Cor.5.17-21). And all he asks of us who would be saved is faith. “For God so loved the world” he said, “that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3.16).
In the Garden of Eden there was a man, Adam, a woman, Eve, and a tree. The man and the woman ate the fruit of that tree in disobedience to God who told them not to eat it. For their sin, God punished them. They paid the penalty for sin, which is death—physical death and separation from God. Spiritual death came into the world through sin. On Calvary there too is a man, a woman, and a tree. The man is Jesus, the new Adam. The woman is Mary, the new Eve, and the tree is the cross. The difference is that what the first man and woman lost by their disobedience to God, Jesus and Mary restored by their obedience. Those who ate the fruit of the first tree died. But those who eat the fruit of the second tree have life restored to them in full. The second tree is the cross, and the fruit of that tree is Jesus Christ. By receiving him through faith, in baptism and in the Holy Eucharist, literally, but also in a spiritual manner, inviting him to make a home in our souls, we who were consigned to death because of the first man's (Adam's) sin have life returned to us as a consequence of the second man’s (Christ's) perfection. And we owe our salvation entirely to him who went about his Father’s business; a business that took him all the way to the cross.
But knowing this makes us wonder all the more, what happened between him and God while he was on the cross that he should cry out in haunting anguish words of such awful abandonment that have become the most famous last words of any dying man ever, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps.22.1; Mt.27.46) Surely Jesus who from his youth was an expert in scripture knew the promise of God, “'I will never fail or forsake you,' says the Lord" (Dt.31.6-8; Heb.13.5-6). Had Jesus lost his faith? Would God have abandoned him whom he called at his baptism and again on the mount of Transfiguration, “My beloved Son”? Surely not. So what happened to Jesus that caused him to sink into the depths of despair and for one awful moment feel the horror that Adam felt when the gates to Paradise were closed behind him? This is what happens when you take upon yourself the sins of the whole world. The nails holding him onto a tree were the least of it. He had to suffer. He had to feel not only what a lamb being ritually slaughtered feels, but he had to feel the guilt Adam felt when the death sentence was imposed upon him and upon all his heirs to come. He had to feel what a man feels when everyone, really everyone, blames you.
It’s hard to imagine what Jesus felt in that terrible hour of abandonment. But here’s the thing. And this makes his willingness to endure this torture all the greater and mysterious. Scholars have wondered what scriptures he was discussing with the rabbis when he was with them in the temple as a boy. We’re not told. But I would venture he discussed with them the 22nd Psalm. And he told them that, “This is how it will happen. The Savior, when he comes, will be brutally killed according to the scriptures.” No one of course believed the young lad. “He is bright but he has much to learn” they told his mother afterwards. Do you see my point? Did you listen to that Psalm? Read it again, if you didn’t get it. Written a thousand years before the event, it prophesies in detail the gruesome death of the Savior (Is.53.1-11; Lk.22.37). Jesus, even in his youth, understood exactly what it meant. It was written about him, and his business with God was to submit to His will.
In light of this we see how extraordinary his crucifixion was. He knew what was coming, but he ran not away. On his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed “My soul is sorrowful unto death. Father, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will but thine be done” (Lk.22.42). The plan for mankind’s redemption was laid out in scripture, though none but Christ foresaw it: if the Son cared enough for sinners to die for them on a cross after being tortured, the Father would forgive them. What did we do for him, that he should do this for us? As Saint Paul put it in so many words: nothing, we did nothing to deserve it. “Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom.5.7-8). That’s what makes the crucifixion amazing. He saved us by his grace, thereby revealing the true nature of the divine heart as infinite pity, infinite mercy, infinite peace. God is love (1John 4.7-11). And all he asks of us is that we honor His Son, Jesus Christ, who took the curse of death and the punishment of sin upon himself, for one reason and one reason only: that we who are dead to God because of sin might live and love eternally (John 6.40).