Darkness (Palm Sunday)
The juxtaposition on this Sunday of Jesus’ triumphant Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem with the long reading of the Passion of our Lord is jarring to say the least. Sometimes it makes me long for the days of my youth, when the gospel reading of Jesus’ acclaimed entrance into Jerusalem had Palm Sunday all to itself and it was an occasion for joy and celebration. The great turn which we experience this morning from songs of praise to a darkness which covers the whole earth leaves little room for celebration. It is rather, meant to disturb us, to move us away from complacency.
We’re getting a taste of what it means to move away from complacency these days. Things that were taken for granted just a few weeks ago, family gatherings, going to work, playing sports, giving a hug to a friend or loved one, crossing the bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau, none of that is possible for us right now. But even this pales in comparison with the great turning that happened in Jerusalem during that first week that we look back on as holy.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, and everyone was asking “Who is this?”
That’s the question, the question that drives the gospel texts forward, the question that each one of us has to answer for ourselves. Who is Jesus for you?
The answers given by the crowds on Palm Sunday were enthusiastic and hope-filled. This is the Son of David. This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth. This is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. This the one who will save us, the messiah promised long ago by the prophets. And large crowds came and spread their cloaks and waved their branches and shouted songs of praise. Jesus was, or so they thought, the one who would fulfill their hopes and dreams.
Five days later he was dead. A darkness came over the whole land. What went wrong? There was a great turning to darkness. In John’s gospel, Jesus says that he came to testify to the truth. And what a truth it is that is revealed about humanity in that great turning. Some, when they realized that Jesus’ way of peace and humility and forgiveness would not fulfill their hopes and dreams, felt a profound sense of disappointment, even betrayal. Judas was one of those. He was one of Jesus’ friends and yet he turned and betrayed him.
The authorities, when they realized that Jesus’ message would endanger their positions of power and privilege, that he was about to disrupt the order that they had constructed and relied upon, they turned to their own self-interest and decided that Jesus had to be destroyed.
Peter and the other disciples, well, they were caught in the middle. I don’t doubt that Peter was sincere when he told Jesus that he would be with him until the end. But as the darkness deepened, his fear became too great and when the moment of crisis came, he turned and denied Jesus.
One after another, truths are revealed.
Pilate, the one who is in the judgement seat, the one knows that Jesus is innocent, he sacrifices him to preserve his own power.
The crowds who acclaimed Jesus only a few days ago now mock him and call for his death.
The question “who is Jesus?” becomes grounds for mocking, for abuse. “Are you the king of the Jews?” asks Pilate in derision. Those who pass by say “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross, save yourself!”
But Jesus does not save himself.
Because we are the ones who need saving.
Because the mocking, the betrayal, the denial, the self-interest, the power-seeking, and the willingness to sacrifice another lead to their inevitable conclusion.
A darkness came over the whole land.
One of my favourite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, points out in her book “Learning to Walk in the Dark” that God does some of God’s best work in the dark. In her book, she says “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again.”
Though the darkness isn’t something that most of us would choose, darkness can be a time of healing and grace, of transformation and growth. When everything is light, it’s easy to stay as we are and to disregard the shadows. Darkness unsettles us. Familiar touchstones disappear. As Taylor puts it, “you come face-to-face with what really matters because it is too dark for most of your usual, shallowing distractions to work.”
In darkness we become disoriented - and that can create space for God’s Spirit to work in our lives. Sometimes we see things in the darkness that we’ve never seen before.
The centurion and those with him, the soldiers who had stripped Jesus of his clothing, who had put a crown of thorns on his head, who had mocked him, who had flogged him, they were covered with darkness like everyone else as they kept watch over Jesus at the cross. I don’t know what happened to them, or what happened inside them. I don’t know how great was their transformation, or whether they had an experience of God’s grace and mercy. But in the darkness they saw something that they had never seen before.
“Truly this man is the Son of God.”
Homily Yr A Palm Sunday, April 5 2020, St. Albans
The Passion of our Lord
Readings: Matthew 21.1-11, Isaiah 50.4-9a, Philippians 2.5-11, Matthew 26.14-27.66
Image by Petras Gagilas, Creative Commons