April 9, 2017
“Hosanna.” Is it a cheer or is it a prayer? Is it a proclamation or a plea?
I had a strange experience some years ago when I walked into a store the week before Palm Sunday. I was in clerical garb. The clerk at the register said hello. We had met before and in fact had had several conversations. Then, all of a sudden, as if my priestly dress triggered something in him, he exclaimed, “Oh no, we have that long service this Sunday. That whole dang Passion Gospel gets read.” “Dang” was not the word he used.
All kinds of thoughts and feelings whirled around inside of me. Many were rather judgmental of him and I was working real hard not to come off that way in my response. But I was so surprised and caught off guard I wasn’t sure of what to say. So all that came out was, “Robert! (not his name) What is all of that about?” To which he replied, “I’ve heard that thing 50 or more times in my life. I know what it says.” Still taken aback, all I could reply was, “Think how many times I have heard it and read it. I always feel like I need to hear it again.” The response from him this time was, “Maybe that’s why you do what you do and I do what I do.” At those words some others walked into the store and our conversation ended.
Yet the conversation continues in my head and heart and I am full of questions. Where is Robert in his life of faith? After all, I am glad he even goes to church. How might I have responded differently or more helpfully? Where was God in that exchange? What does God expect me to do with it? Was God trying to teach me something? Am I to have another conversation with Robert that follows up on this one? One of my imaginary tapes plays it back in my head with the response, “Robert, maybe the reason the reading of the Passion feels like drudgery to you, an unnecessary lengthening of the service, is that even though you say you’ve heard it 50 times before, in fact you’ve never really heard it, at least not deeply.”
Would that be too confrontational? Perhaps I’d be wrong. I do remember, however, a time in a nursing home celebrating the Eucharist. When it came time to administer communion I came to an elderly woman in a wheel chair as tears were quietly running down her cheeks. As she sat there, hands extended, I asked, “Are you okay?” She said, “Yes, I am fine. It’s just that after all these years, I think I just heard the words for the first time.”
So I know – that’s one reason why we need to rehearse the events of this most holy of weeks over and over again. It is not that it is merely a story that we hear year after year and have all the facts and events clear in our brain. It is so that we would hear the invitation to enter the story ourselves and know, perhaps anew, that it is OUR story, and God’s story in us. Because we are different each year and bring different realities of our own life to God’s table, the story changes every time we encounter it. We can discover with Andrew of Crete, writing in the 8th century: “It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not our coats or lifeless branches of palm, matter which wastes away. But we have been clothed with Christ’s grace. He rides into Jerusalem for us, so let us spread ourselves under his feet.”
Thus we shout, “Hosanna,” which means by the way, “Save us, we beg of you!” We do so stating our own willingness to follow Jesus through the suffering and death of his Passion. It is the very meaning of our baptism into Christ: To be united with him in a death like his in order to be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6). Is there any one of us who cannot appreciate the whole scene played out before Jesus as he moves toward execution: the buzz of the crowd; the excitement of the people who hope beyond hope that he would save them from the oppression of the Roman political system; the violent methods of control and economic poverty that worked to keep people captive? And after the shouts of “Hosanna” have stopped, perhaps the last human voices on earth he would hear to express their hope in him and his way of love and mercy, it all gives way not long after to the starkly different shout of “Crucify him, crucify him.” Get rid of him by the method of the government’s cruelest means of torture to dissuade any others to dare and raise their voice in opposition.
We dare to gaze at him on the Cross, which is part of our Holy Week invitation, to be confronted by his loneliness, to recognize deeply his suffering, because there we witness our own suffering and pain: the loss of a stricken family member or a broken relationship; the horrors of Syria and her children; the ravages of poverty and hopelessness in our cities; the wanton disregard of all those who we as a culture sometimes choose not to see or cast aside even as we try and better our own plot in life; the patterns of racism that remain imbedded in every part of our society; and dare I say it – words of violence cavalierly thrown about in our political arena. And what does Christ do in return? From the Cross he offers nothing but love and makes it the means of new life for all.
This week we make the journey from self-absorption to surrender and in so doing become a passionate people in love with a passionate God. If we dare to face life with the One who hangs on that Cross, we face it, in the end, with hope. Lent, you see, even this day of Christ’s Passion, is not about feeling bad. It is about rejoicing in the gift that the cross of death has become the tree of life. Thus we shout, “Hosanna,” appealing to the One who is hope.
Of course I know now, at least in part, what was going on in that store. Oh yes, it was God all right. But God wasn’t calling on me to be concerned about Robert. God’s invitation was to Skip and likewise all of you. Will you merely read my Passion one more time, one of many gone by, one of many yet to come? Or will you today, one more time let me give you my life, and ask you to give me your life? Today, it is also God’s invitation to you. “Hosanna!” Save us O God, we beg of you.