Impending Doom on the Horizon
“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” – Matthew 17:22
On Palm Sunday Christ entered Jerusalem with one goal in mind: the cross. Short on sleep, high on stress, and seated on a donkey, Jesus enters the city on a hill to the shouts of jubilee, joy, and celebration as Jews welcome him with open arms. They wave palm branches the same way Jews generations before waved them for Judas Maccabeus who organized a successful rebellion against Seleucid tyrants and demigods, ousting them from Israel. This sign, this extended branch, was a show of hopefulness in the face of oppression. A desire for national sovereignty in the face of Roman imperialism.
“Hosanna!” They shouted. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!”
What the Jews signaled to Jesus on that day was that they were eager for him to be their messiah, the deliverer who would take on the Roman empire and free the Jews from an oppressive regime. A Jewish leader who would restore Israel’s glory and national splendor. A man sent by God to wage war against the Roman fiefdoms of the day.
Little did they know, the same people who were waving palm branches on Sunday would soon be deriding and cursing Jesus on Friday, as he walked, bloodied and bruised, carrying his cross out of Jerusalem and onto the destitute calvary hill on which he would die.
“It’s such an interesting experience to sing happy songs and songs of celebration even on this side of resurrection when we know that Jesus entered Jerusalem with the shadow of the cross-bearing down on him.” Dan
Those are the words of my friend and brother in Christ, Dan, who struggles with the realities of the cross (as do I) and our posture to it this most important week of the year. Our culture has made Holy Week into Dollars Week, in the sense that we have industrialized religion for the sake of capital. Bumper stickers, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, leatherette bibles with initials engraved into them, personalized bedazzled “Jesus Lives” jean jackets, and the ubiquitous presence of the cross on just about everything marketable and sellable.
We’re like the money changers hanging around temple grounds, selling commentaries instead of pigeons. Anything to make a buck off of God’s people for the sake of Mammon.
But how are we measuring our understanding of this event, the crucifixion of Jesus, the Son of God, with our very limited perception of pain in light of festivities and celebrations that only last a week. Things that distract us from the brutality and finality of death. Why have we made the greatest event in human history, according to Christians, at least, only something we focus on for one week out of the year. For some of us, we only think of the Via Dolorosa, that dreadful walk from Jerusalems center to the outskirts of the town, the path Christ walked to be crucified, on a Sunday morning for forty minutes. That’s if we don’t doze off for twenty of them.
What must we do with the grandiosity and the tenebrous nature of the cross?
The shadow of the cross stretched over him, a reminder that death had a bounty on his head.
I cannot imagine his mindset then. Having traveled with his disciples for three years, covering a great deal of Palestine on foot, ministering, teaching, sleeping outdoors, or having to lodge at a stranger’s home for safety and security from exposure and low temperatures without pay or recompense. Jesus healed, preached, operated miracles, restored sight to the blind, stopped hemorrhages, brought men and children back from the dead, and forgave sins. He fed hundreds, and another time he fed thousands. He spoke to the masses from a boat that sailed easily along the shore so that all could hear. He sat with widows, welcomed children, embraced the diseased, and uplifted those caught in sin. Jesus spoke lightly to those whose burdens were heavy, asking that they let them go and take on his yoke, his burden, which was light and consisted only of love and the transformation of the heart. He spoke firm words of rebuke to religious clerics whose goal was power, dominance, and control. He chided them for their hypocrisy which led them over land and sea to make more disciples who would only resemble hate and bigotry. Jesus reprimanded priests and high priests, informing them that their religion was their food and their god their gut. They fed on the destitute and produced misery in the process. Unwilling to lift a hand to help the widow and the orphan, only demanding of them more subservience under the threat of expulsion and derision.
Jesus was, in all, God in the flesh, standing up for the forgotten and abandoned people of Israel.
But here he stood, past the gates of Jerusalem, under the shadow of the cross, looking forward to nothing more than death.
We mustn’t run from this painful scene, Jesus didn’t. We have the habit of slithering our way out of the gravity of the pain on the cross. Pain in general. And this is not something we ought to fetishize either, as some fundamentalist churches have done. Nor is it something we use as a cultic indoctrination tactic, fearing people into heaven, as Great Awakening preachers attempted to do.
We must look at the horror of the cross because the cross begs us our attention. Knowing that death was imminent, looming over him, as people celebrated his ascendence, must have been tormenting for Jesus, yet Jesus walked toward his destiny, not away from it. He confronted the cross, even though in the garden of Gethsemane he asked if there was a better way, a way in which to maintain the constant awareness of the presence of the joy of the Father without interruption was possible, for the cross did interrupt that presence, even if for a split second. The cross would sap Christ of joy, it would ruin his body, it would wound his soul and pierce his heart. The cross would show the world who was a devout follower of Christ and who had abandoned him. The cross demonstrated to the Romans that no one, not even an innocent man, would survive this monstrous machination of execution. Not even the so-called Son of God, the King of the Jews, would evade the painful flesh-tearing realities of the wooden cross. Christ did not shun the imagery of it, he welcomed it. He did not run from the height of this task, he walked toward it, breaking bread with a traitor and deceiver, teaching Olivet discourses to spiritually corrupt clerics, and healing people as he went, ever so humbly, to the cross.
The shadow of the cross has not disappeared. It echoes through eternity.
The cross is the constant reminder that Christ could have walked away from it all, from us all, and he would have been justified in doing so. The cross is there to remind us that there is no distance Christ will not travel to prove his point, his mission, and his love for humanity. The cross stands tall, bloodied, bits of flesh glued to its structure, fixated on us as much as we are pulled to its enormity, to remind us that we deserve its punishment.
A reminder that God opted instead to make us vessels of his love.
Shadows never shift but we do.
Love will remind us of Christ’s commitment to this grotesque act of inhumanity, namely, the crucifixion. Love will remind us that the shadow of the cross now whimpers in the light of the resurrected Christ. We needn’t worry about the presence of the shadow that killed our Lord. We must confront it, we must walk toward it, we must see it for what it is, it is ours, it has our name on it, and yet, it does not.
I pray we spend more time ruminating on the consequences of Christ’s cross. The instrument on which Christ’s life was extinguished.
It is perfectly fine to mourn the beginning of the end of Christ’s life on earth. We needn’t focus on the resurrection just yet, per se, for we are the product of the resurrected Christ already. We are transformed, quickened in the spirit because of his selfless love.
But for now, we can live in the morose reality of Christ’s impending lynching.
We too must consider walking in the shadow of the cross for it is only there, in that paradox of life for death and death for life that we truly understand the love of God for the world.
Featured Image by Joshua Eckstein.