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Holding Two Opposed Ideas and Still Functioning: Palm/Passion Sunday

Sunday, March 24, 2024 (8:00 AM liturgy)
John 12:12-16
Mark 15:1-47

The famous American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Current and most common practice on this Sunday that leads us into Holy Week is to hold together the story of the palms and the story of the Passion: two opposed ideas, if there ever was…

‘[T]he great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they book branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel!”‘

Or we might dip into Mark’s version: ‘Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”‘

And after the roller coaster ride that follows, we come to the end of the story (well, not the very end): “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joset, and Salome.” From great crowds spreading cloaks and waving branches… to a single soldier (complicit in Jesus’s death), and a handful of women watching from a distance. Two opposed ideas, and yet we’re called to retain the ability to function. (Maybe aided by our recollection that the Good News of the Easter Resurrection will come down to us thanks to the testimony of a woman; not a great crowd.)

For as fickle (or human) as the crowds may have been, their cry is genuine: “Hosanna” — it means, basically, save us, or save, we pray, or save, please. At one point or another, whether fleetingly, or over an arduous period; whether hope-filled or desperate… “hosanna — save, please” is going to be our cry. (Likely already has been, at some point.)

And as we saw, the crowd’s plea (or prayer) is answered::they are offered two saviour figures. Both of them are named Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus Barabbas. “Bar” you might recall was common, and meant “Son of,” and “Abba” will of course be familiar: “Abba — Father” This murderous rebel insurrectionist is Jesus Bar-Abbas (Son of the Father). He’s presented to the crowd by Pilate alongside this more confounding saviour figure, Jesus, whom the reader knows is truly Son of the Father. But in the frenzy and desperation of the crowd, they are easily confused. And the real saviour cast away, condemned.

I’ll say it again: their cry, their plea is genuine. In our own day the crowds are continuing to cry out. Different saviour figures are presented. But not everyone is able to retain the ability to function. To choose wisely.

My favourite Anglican thinker, William Stringfellow, living and writing in the turmoil and change of the ’60s and ’70s, writes that “[i]n the turmoil and excitement of Barabbas’ revolution, it is easy to be seduced into supposing that the revolution of Barabbas is actually the revolution of Christ… [T]he Christian must recognize that that revolution, needful as it may be, is not identical with Christ’s revolution and is not to be mistaken for it.”

So while our cries might today join with the Hosannas of the crowd, our liturgy, and Jesus, call us to greater wisdom and discernment when faced with the opposing experiences of the Palms and the Passion. To move out of the comfortable anonymity of the crowd, and join the women who faithfully followed Jesus (if even at a distance). One of the ways we can do this is by following, as best we can, the worship rhythms of Holy Week, where there’s no shortage of services. We might also come full circle, to the exhortation of Ash Wednesday: follow Jesus by way of “self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.” Noting that most if not all of those practices are pretty much inexplicable to the established powers and movements of our world: the Barabbases of our day. Foolishness, and stumbling blocks, as Paul would say. But that is our faith. Through the weakness of God (that we see on the cross), we witness the power of God at work. Amen.

© 2024 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter