When I was in my 20s, the senior pastor at the church I served participated in a tradition where he would walk around town with a large wooden cross on Good Friday. Other clergy would join him in this, and for most of the day on Good Friday there would be someone walking around town with a cross on their back. Many people found this to be a powerful remembrance of Jesus’ last moments, but I found it to be a little strange and it made me very uncomfortable.
Palm Sunday is the beginning of a week-long remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we celebrate Palm Sunday it isn’t a simple commemoration of a past event, but a liturgical remembrance through which Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem becomes real for those worshipping. We have really perfected these kinds of remembrances as a worshipping community. Baptisms and communion are sacramental remembrances. Different people may have different interpretations of remembrances, but I believe that when we participate in a remembrance we’re not just ritually mimicking Jesus to dramatic effect. I believe we do these things with an expectation that we are actually ushering in the kingdom of God by reforming ourselves for the transformation of the world.
I think what made me most uncomfortable about the cross-bearing sign action was that it seemed (to me) like a dramatic reenactment of the Gospel story without any compelling message to usher in radical change in the world. It seemed like showmanship.
Watching Bryan Stevenson’s lecture via livestream last week (thanks to Temple EmanuEl!), one of his final comments brought this home for me. He said, “I don’t think the threshold question of the death penalty is, ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?’ I think the threshold question is, ‘Do we deserve to kill?’” As we remember the execution of the Son of God this week, it is hard not to think of all the ways God’s children murder each other every day, in body and spirit. Is this the kingdom of God?
Another clergy friend of mine told me this week that she is uncomfortable with the way the church often takes such great joy in retelling the Easter story. Yes, resurrection is cause for joy, but it also changes everything. Death does not have the last word! Is our world so vastly different now, with news of the resurrected Christ? Do we really allow the remembrance of Jesus’ execution and resurrection to embolden us to transform our world? If we did, my friend said, we wouldn’t confuse acts of charity with acts of justice. We wouldn’t be satisfied with setting up food pantries, we would just solve food insecurity. We wouldn’t be satisfied with homeless shelters, we would build homes.
However you choose to mark this Holy Week and whichever remembrances you embrace during this week-long journey to the cross, it is my prayer that they bring you closer to the kingdom of God.