For a majority of the World’s Christians, this is Holy Week (Eastern churches use a different calendar and will observe Easter a week later on April 15).
This is not only sacred but it helps defines the Christian faith. The New Testament witness focuses our attention on the events that transpired from Palm Sunday to Easter, from the Triumphal Entry, through the cross, and on to the vindication of Jesus by God in the Resurrection. Christians approach these events in many different ways. Some take them literally and others see them as more metaphors for the way that God is present in our midst.
With Palm Sunday – a day that serves to remind us that the intentions of God can easily be misread and misinterpreted – behind us, we focus our attention forward to the cross and the resurrection. We must, of course, look back to Jesus’ entrance into the city of Jerusalem. He came as part of the throng of pilgrims coming to the city to celebrate Passover (the Jewish observance of Passover begins Saturday April 7 and ends on the 13th).
Passover celebrates the emancipation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, and Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God would have resonated with these pilgrims, who lived under imperial Roman rule. Was it possible that Jesus would be the liberator? The answer looking forward is that the nature of Jesus’ kingdom is very different from the one envisioned by many who hailed him that day. It did, however, cause the political and religious establishments to see him as a threat that needed to be eliminated.
Over the next several days, Christians around the world will consider the nature of Christ’s mission, message, and calling. We will be reflecting on the kind of realm Jesus envisioned and the way in which this realm of God would emerge in the world. Although many Christians see the realm of God in “heavenly” terms, that is, it’s simply a matter of going to heaven, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God’s kingdom would make itself present on earth as well as in heaven. So, certainly God has designs on this world, but if this is true, then how will God accomplish this task?
Jesus could have taken up the sword, but he didn’t. Unfortunately, in the course of Christian history, many Christians turned to violence and political coercion to impose on society their vision of God’s realm. Constantine, for instance, claimed to conquer in the name of Christ under the sign of the cross. The crusades and the inquisition, western imperialism and manifest destiny, had in mind the imposition of a Christian order on global society. More recently, we’ve seen in this country attempts to impose Christian “values” on an increasingly diverse society by seeking to control the political process. But is this the desire of Jesus?
On Friday, after gathering the night before to remember the Last Supper, we who are observing Holy Week will focus our attention on the cross. This cross, a brutal instrument the Romans used as a deterrent against rebellion, serves as a central image for the Christian faith. We remember that on this cross Jesus died.
Although we interpret this in various ways, we claim that Jesus has died for us so that we who are estranged from God and from each other might be reconciled. On Friday I’ll be participating in a community Good Friday service that takes as its focus the Seven Last Words of Christ, and my word is this: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is a word that has great meaning at this moment in time, where forgiveness is in short supply. What does this mean, this word of forgiveness? How is it to be expressed in our lives?
On Friday, we confess that Jesus has died and was buried. It is a solemn moment, a time of grief and reflection. But, in the Christian story, it is not the last word. Death is not the final word for humanity, for on Sunday morning we will gather and confess that God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and his message, and in doing so God says no to our violence and our hatred, and sets forth a different vision for life in the realm of God.
It is my prayer and hope that all who name the name of Christ will take the opportunity afforded by Holy Week – whether you observe it this week or next – to consider the kind of world Jesus envisions for us to inhabit and create, so that we might embody the love and the grace that is God.