Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Poet thinks about the donkey
On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
Mary Oliver from her book Thirst.
“Love so amazing, so divine, demands our souls, our lives, our all.”
Palm Sunday is a rich, powerful, conflicted day in the life of the church. We begin with hosannas, palms, and praise, and end with silence and the cross. Each year, our hearts churn with emotion as we hear again the story of the last week of Jesus’ life and begin the journey that will pass through Maundy Thursday, lead to Good Friday, and the silence of Holy Saturday. We enter into the drama, participate as we wave our branches and shout, “Hosanna!” and a few minutes later, shout, just as loudly, “Crucify him.”
There is so much here, so much on which to reflect. And really, what might be best for us would be to be silent, to sit with our emotions, with the images that run through our minds, to sit with our memories, our faith, and our doubt, and not worry about words.
But among all those images, in the stories from Mark’s gospel that we heard, I want to draw your attention to one theme, one set of characters, one aspect of the drama, that might help us orient ourselves to this story and to the days that follow this one.
One of the dominant themes that runs through the Gospel of Mark, from its very beginning is that Jesus’ disciples are uncertain of who he is, unclear on what he is about, and misunderstand Jesus’ intentions and message. This portrayal intensifies as the gospel progresses, and in the passion narrative, we see a group of disciples who are fearful, forgetful, and abandon Jesus. He dies alone, on the cross, the cry of despair on his lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the end, Jesus wonders whether he has been abandoned by God, as well as by his friends.
Even as this is Mark’s dominant theme, he writes into his gospel another theme, or contrasts the behavior of Jesus’ male disciples with another group of individuals, the group of women. So, at the beginning of today’s reading, we heard not only of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, but of the wonderful story of the woman who anointed Jesus. Her behavior, and Jesus’ praise of her—“she has anointed my body beforehand for burial”—is Jesus’ acknowledgment that even if he is betrayed by Judas and the other male disciples don’t understand what is going to happen, this woman, this disciple does, and as he commends her he says, in one of those ironic twists Mark loves, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”—ironic, because the story is indeed told of her wherever the gospel is proclaimed, we don’t know her name.
So to at the end of today’s reading, Mark depicts Jesus’ death, the confession of the centurion, and then, “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”
There they were, watching silently, fearfully, full of grief. There they were standing afar off as their hopes and dreams were dashed, their teacher, killed. There they were as they watched his execution, his death, and watched as others they knew took his body down and buried it. Was it then that they made plans to come to the tomb after the Sabbath, to anoint his body with spices? To touch him once again, to perform the familiar and ancient rituals of burial?
As followers of Jesus, as seekers, the curious, Holy Week presents us with intense emotions, profound questions. It is a story that many of us know, and as we reenact it in the liturgy of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, we do more than go through motions, or play a part. We enter into the ancient story, and become characters in it ourselves. It is a story that asks us where we stand, what will we do?
And all of those characters, Judas the Betrayer, Peter the Denier, the disciples who fell asleep while Jesus prayed, the disciples who fled in fear from the scene and abandoned Jesus. We are at times, all of those characters. We have each at one time or another, acted like one of them, or of the others—the crowd who shouted “Crucify him” or the soldiers who executed him, or the bystanders who mocked.
Holy Week confronts us with profound questions, but none may be more pressing, more difficult, than the one that asks, “Where do you stand? Or “Are you walking with Jesus on his journey?” Are you staying with him, bearing witness?
Even as our very human emotions, our busy, complicated lives, our divided allegiances, encourage us or tempt us to flee, or keep silent, or deny, or betray, or simply to ignore, Mark is challenging us, as he always does, to go deeper, to plumb the depths of our own lives and experiences, and as we do that, to look for, to seek Jesus.
When we do that, when we dare to allow Mark’s story, the story of Jesus to enter deeply into our lives and world, we are confronted, not only with ourselves, but with the mystery of salvation, the mystery of Jesus, the mystery of love and sacrifice.
Earlier in the gospel, as Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, after he made his first prediction of what would happen when he got there, he told his disciples, “If you want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me.”
When we do that, we enter into Jesus’ journey, going with him into the heart of God, where we will find love. It is not an easy journey, because as Mark insists, the journey to God, into God, is a journey into the suffering, oppression, and injustice of the world, where God is working transformation. It is there that we see God, there we find God, there we know and are loved by God.
Following Jesus to the cross, standing near the cross, we encounter God in Christ. We encounter the miracle of transformation as Mark tells us, even his executioner knew and saw, that truly “This man is the Son of God.” May this experience and transformation be yours this Holy Week, may this experience and transformation be everyone’s in the midst of our broken, suffering, unjust world.
One of those interesting confluences this week as the March for Our Lives took place in Madison today, a day after Madison Episcopalians walked the Stations of the Cross in Madison, a day before Palm Sunday and our re-enactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Three consecutive days, and three very different scenes on the steps of Grace Church.
In my nine years at Grace, I have witnessed and participated in many marches and rallies. There were the Act 10 protests in 2011; the demonstrations after Tony Robinson’s death in 2015, the Women’s March in 2017. There were many others. Some passed unnoticed. Often, we open our doors and welcome protestors inside, even spontaneously, as we did on the Day without Latinos in 2016. Equally often, the protests pass barely unnoticed. It’s a rare day when the state legislature is in session when there aren’t a few people walking around the Capitol waving signs. Some days, the Solidarity Singers are loud; other times, they can barely be heard.
Walking the Stations of the Cross in this setting is always jarring to me. I encounter people whose faces I know. We pass by the food trucks where I often buy my lunch. But our route is also disorienting. There are blocks that we walk down that I rarely walk in my regular routine, and I have the opportunity to look around and contemplate the square from a different perspective than the one I have as I typically make my rounds.
Yesterday, we paused for one of the stations on N. Carroll St, just in front of Grace Church. Across the street, on the Capitol sidewalk, the Solidarity Singers were in full voice. A few steps away from them, three police officers were talking with a homeless man. As we contemplated Jesus’ suffering and death, one of those little moments that occur regularly in downtown Madison was taking place. A man, likely intoxicated or high, possibly mentally ill, was dealing with police officers. As I watched, they called for additional assistance. EMT’s? I don’t know. We had to move on to the next station.
I wondered how many other incidents like that were taking place even as we were connecting the events of Jesus’ suffering and death with the violence, oppression, and inequality in our community and nation.
There were a handful of us yesterday–fifteen or so, who spent the hour tracing a path from Grace to the Dane County Jail, the City-County Building, and around Capitol Square. As we walked, bearing witness to injustice and oppression, remembering Jesus’ suffering and death, we passed by suffering that was occurring on the sidewalks beside us and the suffering and oppression behind the walls of the jail, the courthouse. We walked past banks and law offices, and the museums that tell the official, sanitized version of Wisconsin history: The institutions that oppress, and in which we are enmeshed and implicated, the forces that oppress and marginalize vulnerable populations. All of these surround us and shape us. They are the air we breathe.
Today, there were thousands who marched from the Library Mall to the State Capitol to rally for gun control. As we do at Grace, we opened our doors on this cold day to offer warmth and respite from the cold, rest for the weary. Before the march arrived at the Capitol, police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs made a round of the square and there was a heavy visible presence of law enforcement.
Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will process through our courtyard to the very doors that were held open today. We will reenact Jesus’ protest march in the streets of Jerusalem, a march that proclaimed the coming of God’s reign, the overturning of the system of domination that crushed the poor, the outsider, the widow and orphan, the coming of a new way of being, a new world of justice and peace. I’m guessing that in terms of numbers, it looked more like the little group of us who walked the Stations of the Cross than the thousands that marched today. A small group of those men and women who had come with Jesus from Galilee, and perhaps a few locals who had heard about him.
On Good Friday, the whole weight of Rome’s imperial power fell on Jesus and his little band of followers. Many of us feel like an even more powerful weight of hatred and oppression looms over us and even now is crushing the most vulnerable in our society–people of color, LGBTQ persons, undocumented immigrants; the power of cynicism and the super-wealthy that have rigged the system in their favor.
But at the same time, the voices and energy of children have been raised to challenge one of the most powerful special interests in our land, and have mobilized millions across our country to cry out for justice and change.
Christians this Holy Week remember and re-enact the events of the last days of Jesus’ life; we remember the oppression and injustice that he fought with love. As Americans, we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his martyrdom for the cause of equality, justice, and freedom, and the hatred that opposed him and brought an end to his life. The forces arrayed against change are more powerful now than ever before.
Watching events unfold this week against a backdrop of oppression, injustice, and violence, fearful for those who speak out and remember the deaths of Jesus and MLK, despairing for the future of our nation and world, my faith is rekindled by the witness of school children who, having experienced the worst of humanity, are showing us the possibility of a new way, a new America.
We witness in many ways to the power of love and justice. In protests, in processions, as we walk the way of the cross. We witness in our words and in our actions, in worship and prayer. And we bear witness and offer support to the voices of those who cry out for justice and change. Through it all, my faith in God who is justice, peace, and love, sustains and strengthens me.
Sepulchre, by George Herbert
Oh blessed body! Whither art thou thrown?
No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?
So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
Sure there is room within our hearts good store;
For they can lodge transgressions by the score:
Thousands of toys dwell there, yet out of door
They leave thee.
But that which shows them large, shows them unfit.
Whatever sin did this pure rock commit,
Which holds thee now? Who hath indicted it
Where our hard hearts have took up stones to brain thee,
And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee;
Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,
And as of old, the law by heav’nly art,
Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art
The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart
To hold thee.
Yet do we still persist as we began,
And so should perish, but that nothing can,
Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
As the events of Holy Week unfold, and as we share in them and make our own pilgrimage to the foot of the cross, it should be impossible for us simply look on and register them as an odd quirk of history. This was the perfect storm. This was where the hurricane of divine love met the cold might of empire and the overheated aspiration of Israel.
Mary Oliver from her book Thirst.
At the entrance of the Dane County Jail
This is the fourth (I think) year we’ve walked the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison. It’s a strange, uncomfortable experience in that for me, I’m walking streets I walk nearly every day as I go to and from work or grab lunch or run errands. This year, as in past years, I encountered familiar faces as I walked, among them two elected officials of county and city government.
This year, in addition to the usual distractions of city traffic and people going about their business, we had to compete with construction on Capitol Square and with the Solidarity Singers, who seemed to be a larger group than they had been in recent weeks.
To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to today’s event. For whatever reason, my spiritual focus has been elsewhere, and my energy diverted to other matters. If it hadn’t concluded at Grace, I doubt whether I would have participated.
I was surprised how quickly I was caught up in the experience. It wasn’t just the familiar stations, and the meditations that connected Jesus’ suffering with the suffering on the streets of Madison. It was also about making Christ’s suffering present on these streets, at the door of the Dane County Jail, opposite the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum, and at the steps of Grace where a homeless person died in the winter of 2014, and where so many homeless people have sought refuge over the last thirty years, and hungry people have been fed.
We do so much to protect ourselves from the knowledge and experience of human suffering on the streets of our city. The homeless and panhandlers are harassed and shoved out of sight. The inhumanity of the Dane County Jail is at its worst several stories above the room in the City County building where Madison’s Common Council and the Dane County Board of Supervisors deliberate.
To walk the way of the cross in Downtown Madison is to bear witness to the blood on our streets and in our city. It is also to see in that suffering and pain, the suffering and pain of Jesus Christ.
Today I realized that our little Stations of the Cross, walked as we’ve done it every year on the Friday before Palm Sunday, has become an essential part of my preparation for the drama of Holy Week.
For background on the devotion of the Stations of the Cross and how we do it here in Madison, follow this link.
Descending Theology: The Crucifixion
To be crucified is first to lie down
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out
on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes
fix you into place.
Once the cross pops up and the pole stob
sinks vertically in an earth hole perhaps
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
but your own self’s burden?
You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.
Thus hung, your ribcage struggles up
to breathe until you suffocate, give up the ghost.
If God permits this, one wonders how
this twirling earth
manages to navigate the gravities and star tugs.
Or if some less than loving watcher
watches us scuttle across the boneyard greens
under which worms
seethe and the front jaws of beetles
eventually clasp toward the flesh of every beloved.
The man on the cross under massed thunderheads feels
his soul leak away,
then surge. Some windy authority lures him higher
till an unseen tear in the sky’s membrane is rent,
and he’s streaming light, snatched back, drawn close,
so all loneliness ends.
Wednesday in Holy Week
Preaching and teaching, toiling to and fro,
Few men accepting what He yearned to give,
Few men with eyes to know
His Face, that Face of Love He stooped to show.
Man’s death is life. For Christ endured to die
In slow unuttered weariness of pain,
A curse and an astonishment, passed by,
Pointed at, mocked again
By men for whom He shed His Blood—in vain?