There he is. Right there.
Truly, this was God’s son. Then what is he doing there? Why couldn’t he save himself? Why wouldn’t he reject all the taunting and ridicule and show the crowd what’s what? How did God’s son, the Messiah, suffer and die a death that we replicate in our words and in this crucifix in this very place and all over the world?
I confess that on this Palm Sunday I find myself scouring the landscape for good news. When I read today’s gospel, I find only betrayal, denial, abandonment, condemnation, and more betrayal. When I read the newspaper, I find more of the same.
And then I look up, and there he is, surely not to reinforce our despair at the suffering all around us.
Unlike the first crowd watching Christ’s passion, we know, of course, that Christ’ suffering on the cross is not the end of the story. And yet, I want us to linger here, for a few minutes at least, in this passion, this suffering.
The poet and memoirist Mary Karr has a poem called the Grand Miracle. I’m only going to read the first half:
Jesus wound up with his body nailed to a tree—
a torment he practically begged for,
or at least did nothing to stop. Pilate
watched the crowd go thumbs down
and weary, signed the order.
So centurions laid Jesus flat
on a long beam, arms run along the crosspiece.
In each palm a long spike was centered,
a stone chosen to drive it. (Skin
tears; the bones start to split.)
Once the cross got propped up,
the body hung heavy, a carcass—
in carne, the Latin poets say, in meat.
(—The breastbone a ship's prow . . .)
At the end the man cried out
as men cry. (Tears that fill the eyes
grow dark drop and by drop: One
There he is. Many of you know the history of this crucifix, or may have known it once. Here’s the essence of the story: “The artist sought to create a crucified Christ that communicated the victory of the cross. Thus our crucifix depicts a Christ who is very much alive and is looking toward heaven.” Not all of us have a body like that one. Someone I know calls him the “ripped Jesus.” But there is no mistaking that this is a human body we’re looking at, a suffering body.
We know from the Gospel story that suffering is the way to hope, and that we are to look for hope in suffering. In the worst of times, the prophets call us to be hopeful in the literal sense of the word: filled with hope. Like every Christian since the crucifixion and earlier, we live in times when it’s hard to map that hopefulness that we find in the cross onto the rest of life. Where is hope in Syria? For children poisoned by sarin gas? How do their parents move from darkness to light? Where is there hope for our oceans, temperatures and water levels rising inexorably year by year in ways that will affect every one of us? Where is there hope for Coptic Christians in Egypt terrorized and killed this very Palm Sunday morning? Where is there new life for prisoners doing time in inhumane systems where they are treated worse than any of us would treat an animal? Where is there new life in a decade when suicide is epidemic among American teenagers? Where is there hope in our own city where the median home price is $700,000 and yet thousands of men, women, and children live outside in extreme poverty?
Christ’s agony is in all of this. Only when we let ourselves experience passion and outrage and agony will we be able to enter into his suffering and death. It is in our suffering with him, and in our suffering with the world—our compassion—that hope is to be found. If every Eucharist informs our experience of holiness and hospitality in daily, perhaps every Palm Sunday can inform our response to the misery and dispossession that surrounds us. What if we bring the Eucharistic holiness of all things to bear on the experience of suffering? What if the hospitality we find at this altar becomes the doorway through which we join others who suffer? When we join in the suffering of Jesus on the cross and the suffering of the world, Christ is present in us.
Why can Jesus not come down from the cross to save himself? Because then he would not be here, and here, and here. When we enter this place on Sunday mornings, and when we leave, we bow twice. First, we reverence the presence of Christ at the altar, and then we reverence the presence of Christ in all of you. Christ is present in us even as we let despair and hopelessness move through us like a fever leaving our bodies.
In his poem “East Coker,” from The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes:
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.
This darkness is God is part of our Holy Week journey, part of the passion into which we are invited to enter. Our very participation is a reminder that God is present in darkness, and that darkness turns to light.
This whole week is a week of movement. As we move through our Holy Week worship, you might pay attention to the movement in you of darkness and light, hope and despair.
Later today (as we entered…) we will walk around the block, waving palms, as signs of victory that are at the same time signs of suffering. We have no delusion about the outcome of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. At the same time we anticipate the victory of hope over suffering, life over death. Only in letting our whole lives be infused with suffering and hope coexisting as they do in God can we make sense of what is before us on this day, and what lies ahead.
There. He. Is. Here we are.