We’ll begin with an invitation to Holy Week from Seasons of the Spirit:
Steadfast God, it has been a long journey.
We have been with ancestors in the desert
and sought you in unexpected places.
We have left footprints in the sand
and our souls in the wilderness.
The pilgrimage has been long
but promise and hope run deep in our faith tradition.
Now the long shadow of the cross
and the footsteps of Jesus
find us waiting at the gates of Jerusalem.
We have arrived.
Yet it seems the journey is still not complete;
there is a deeper journey still to make.
This Lenten wandering has been just the beginning.
The greatest story is still to be told.
Come let us gather at the gates of the city;
the crowds are preparing to enter.
(Adapted from Seasons of the Spirit, Lent/Easter 2013, pg.96)
This week I’ve been thinking about that day 2,000 years ago when Jesus entered Jerusalem with his disciples. We had a lively discussion at the Garden View Bible Study last Tuesday trying to imagine what it may have been like to be part of the crowd on that day. We began by acknowledging there would have been a huge crowd of people pressed tightly together, everyone craning their necks to see and hear. Is he here yet? What can you see? Can you see anything yet? Yes, here he comes! I think it’s him. There are people in front and people behind in a great procession. They are shouting something. What is it can you hear? Yes, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Could this really be the messiah we’ve been longing for? Could this be the one who will save us from our enemies, who will free us from this life of fear and persecution and banish the Romans forever?
I imagine there would have been tremendous emotion and energy in the crowd that day. There would be anticipation and excitement. There would also be some nervousness and apprehension that accompanied the
risk and danger of gathering in a large crowd in Roman occupied Jerusalem. Biblical scholars estimate that Jerusalem, at that time, would normally have a resident population of around 40,000. During Passover, it is estimated that 200,000 or more pilgrims would travel to the city.
(The Last Week, Borg and Crossan, pg. 18, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) The Roman army always increased their military presence where crowds gathered, particularly during the high holy days in the Jewish calendar. Roman officials needed only the slightest provocation to react violently to eliminate even a murmur of dissent or the possibility of any notion of staging an uprising.
I’m not sure if the Roman soldiers would have understood the religious symbolism of Jesus’ descent from the Mount of Olives heading toward the gates of Jerusalem. The Jewish crowds would likely have made the connection that their ancestors claimed the final battle for Jerusalem’s liberation would begin on the Mount of Olives. They would also remember their ancestor, Zechariah, who proclaimed, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)
These were dangerous times to be gathering in great numbers in Jerusalem. Dangerous times often create desperate people and the people gathered in that time and place were longing for a saviour to free them.
This, combined with the festive atmosphere of Passover celebrations and the heroic story of their ancestors’ escape from bondage in Egypt, may have emboldened the crowd and given them more than a reasonable expectation of hope in those troubled times. Add to that the amazing stories that had been circulating from pilgrims who had heard Jesus speak and had experienced his healing and empowering presence. The Romans had good reason to be wary although it was not a military rebellion that Jesus would initiate. Jesus, as we know, was the catalyst for something much bigger, much stronger and lasting than a military revolution. The early Christian movement that Jesus inspired was a conversion of the hearts and minds of people whose lives were focused on God and God’s kingdom here on earth. This revolution of the heart would not end with Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. As we know, Christians throughout the ages have been inspired by Jesus’ life and ministry to act courageously and stand up for justice in small ways and in great sacrificial acts.
In the Lenten Gathering this week, we were reminded of the oppressive regimes of Pharaoh and Caesar in ancient times. We pondered what examples there were in more current history and talked briefly about the Nazi regime in Germany. We remembered there were people who lived in Germany who, at the risk of their own lives, hid Jewish people from the Nazis. These were ordinary people, guided by conscience and belief, doing what they could in dangerous times. A German Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others in the Confessing Church proclaimed their loyalty was to Jesus and not to Hitler and the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed just before the end of the war. While in prison, Bonhoeffer maintained his faith and left a legacy of writings that continue to inspire many Christians today.
The civil rights marches in the United States are another example of courageous faith-filled action that changed the course of history and that helped to liberate people and allow them civil liberties that had earlier been denied.
In our world today, we hear so much news about terrorism and the threat of religious extremism. In our Lenten discussion group we found no
easy answers or explanations of how we, as ordinary Canadian citizens, could address these global concerns. However, one small but important thing we agreed that we can do is not to buy into the culture of fear that is often fuelled by politicians and news media. We can continue to promote a culture of hope and peace based on the innate goodness of most people. We can continue to exemplify the ideals of a caring community that reaches out to the world with love. We can follow the Way of Jesus.
I don’t have any personal experience with risking life and limb in civil rights marches or other kinds of public protest. I have, however, been thinking about the little ways that I have walked with others publicly that showed my support and that embodied my beliefs. I remember soliciting sponsors and walking in many “Walk for AIDS” marches in Nelson. Always, our United Church, had the largest group sponsorship and we had a publicly supportive relationship with ANCHORS the local HIV/AIDS advocacy organization.
Also, when I lived in Nelson, I walked every year with a small group of people from our church in the Gay Pride Parade. In the beginning, not everyone thought it was a good idea for representatives from the church to walk with a rainbow banner that clearly identified the name of our church.
The first few years there was even a blatant attempt at intimidation by a citizen who had a tripod set up to videotape people walking in the parade. He stood right at the edge of the road and was as close to being “in your face” as possible, while holding a placard with a Bible verse interpreted in a hateful manner. I have never before, or since, experienced a person who exhibited such a menacing presence who did so without verbally saying a word. One Sunday, while I was greeting at the main door of the church after worship, I was verbally accosted by a guest who had seen me walking in the Pride Parade and who was adamantly opposed to my participation.
These experiences were uncomfortable but apart from the criticism of a few in the community there was little risk involved. Over the years people in the community became accustomed to our consistent presence and we earned the respect of some non-church people for putting our belief in the importance of the inclusivity of all God’s people into visible action.
And so, in this Holy Week, when we remember the crowds that gathered to experience Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, we remember how difficult it was to continue to follow him in dangerous times and in risky ventures. I thank God that some were willing to take risks and found within themselves the courage to carry on. The witness of their lives has inspired and encouraged future generations. May we continue to be brave enough to walk in their footsteps wherever this journey takes us.
And so we pray,
we give thanks for Jesus and his followers
who gave so much to live in God’s way.
May we, who are sometimes swayed by the crowd’s approval,
and who often avoid conflict
for fear of its cost to us,
hold fast to the gospel of peace and justice
and follow faithfully in your way
wherever it may lead us.
(Adapted from Eggs and Ashes, pg. 131, Wild Goose Publications, 2004)