For a brief time, this past Saturday afternoon, I realized that I was feeling pure joy. A beautiful early spring afternoon had beckoned me to my favorite place—outside—and I was enjoying bright sunshine and vivid colors at Black Water Falls. I had been hiking the paths and attempting the still icy, snow covered steps to the falls, yet none of the remnants of winter seemed to bother me. There was just something about the afternoon, the sunshine, the brilliant blue sky, that made me believe that spring was here, coaxing me into a knowing that winter was undone!
And then I noticed it. I was feeling pure joy. My face was smiling in such a way that I could not stop and for this moment in time I felt joy and hope all over. It was intoxicating!!!
In that moment, the greens of the evergreen trees were otherworldly, bright green that seemed almost greener than green. The water of the falls was alive and rushing to tell the news that spring was under us and over us and just waiting for the snow to melt so it could reveal something extraordinary. The air was soft and magical and seemed to whisper as it blew across my face, “just watch, just wait. It won’t be long. Let your heart be glad.”
During that time of joy there was a pure and clear understanding that all around me, this elegance and awakening—creation in early spring—is a gift to behold from the One who loves us the most.
On the drive home, still feeling the effects of the joy that came over me earlier, my mind turned to the events of a certain Sunday, long ago. It was a Sunday just before Passover, a Sunday we call Palm Sunday. I wonder if on that Sunday, there might have been some people who gathered with a sense of what I was feeling—joy, hope, anticipation.
We know the story. In my family Palm Sunday held a very special meaning. It was highly regarded and the story of that long-ago Sunday was told again and again. My brothers and I knew that even after hearing the story at church, we would also hear the story again at the dinner table. Only this time, the story would be embellished with other stories of Palm Sundays across the history of my family. My father, the family historian and story-teller, loved this day. For him, it was the beginning of a theological/emotional roller coaster week that touched on all that makes us human and eternal.
Jesus sent some of his disciples out to find a donkey colt. Somehow, Jesus knew that this particular animal had never been ridden. The donkey was young, untested, and probably afraid amidst all of the people that were encountered that day. Was it even strong enough to carry a grown man along a path lined with people shouting “Hosanna?” And yet, this donkey was exactly what Jesus wanted to make a statement that many really didn’t hear. He had not come to be a military hero, to save the people from evil Roman government. He came as a Prince of Peace who came to save the world from evil and sin and to instill in all people the gifts of love and compassion, life abundant and eternal.
As soon as Jesus began the ride toward Jerusalem, the celebration and excitement began. Many, many people gathered. Coats were strewn upon the pathway to honor Jesus. Palm branches were cut from the trees that lined the way. They were also strewn along the path and were waved to and fro in front of the procession. In the midst of the joy and celebration, the waving of the Palm branches was an act of defiance toward Rome, an announcement that the people believed that the tide of oppression was about to turn. The Messiah was coming.
How long the celebration lasted I do not know, but each year I am reminded that the celebration ended and that in the next days the joy and excitement that the people felt disappeared and was replaced with the disappointment that came with the realization that Jesus was not going to raise an army and overthrow the villains of their lives. As it often happens with human nature, the crowds turned against Jesus, swept up in the propaganda of the religious leaders and convinced that this Jesus that they celebrated on Sunday was really the source of all their problems and the best thing to do would be to get rid of him.
Those closest to Jesus understood a little, but their joy and excitement turned to confusion and fear. They had heard Jesus speak of his death, but they could not absorb the news. It didn’t sink in. In the midst of a most profound celebration of the Passover, there was disquiet among those who knew Jesus the best. He washed their feet. He celebrated and remembered the freedom that came with the Passover long ago. He looked at them, loved them, held them in his embrace, gave them strength when he was the one who needed strength and support and ultimately, drew them together in a profound gesture of forgiveness, grace, and remembrance as he broke bread and passed a cup.
Then, in a garden, in the gathering shadows of night, a betrayal was set in motion that would have a most profound effect on all that followed. That night Jesus prayed deeply. Jesus prayed fervently. Jesus prayed earnestly gathering strength, gathering hope, gathering peace for his soul, knowing that on the next day, at the moment of his death the ugliness of sin—the sin of the world, past, present and future—would cover him and he would feel abandoned and deserted. There was no other way.
A trial occurred, but it was a false trial, an illegal trial.
A denial occurred, but it occurred in confusion and horror and shame.
And Jesus was taken away, beaten, scourged, diminished.
And crowds shouted “Crucify.” The joy of “hosanna” had turned to clamors for death.
And Jesus was taken away and killed, and seemingly taken care of.
And joy and celebration, peace and hope disappeared from the earth.
I have often wondered what the disciples and friends of Jesus talked about over that weekend. What did they remember? Did they remember what he taught them, that life was to be lived with love and compassion and grace?
Did they remember how he healed broken people and the brokenness of this world? Did they remember that he fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, had time for the sick and those in bondage to whatever life threw at them? Did they remember how he offered them hope and forgiveness and grace?
Were they determined to live as Jesus had lived after the nightmare had ended? Or were they just willing to give up, forgetting that the love and hope that Jesus brought to them also came with a deep abiding joy that sustains even in the darkest of times?
This week IS a theological/emotional roller coaster that causes us to examine what the followers of Jesus believe in the core of our souls. It would be so easy to think that Jesus died for our sins and then rose from the dead, promising eternal life to those who say the magic words, but when we deeply examine the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we know it isn’t that simple. This world is gravely flawed, filled with evil and tragedy. Jesus did not want us to ignore the world’s condition. Jesus wanted his followers to work toward abundant life for all people. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Jesus wanted abundant life to be in the here and now, not just in some future moment and the teachings of Jesus clearly indicate his desire for all people to experience abundant life. For me, the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7 and the parable of the sheep and goats, found in Matthew 25 offers to us the clearest understanding of what Jesus wanted life to be for all people, no conditions needed, no questions asked.
In the life, death, and resurrection there is joy that comes from a love so profound, a compassion so deep, and a hope so life-giving that Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us—would willingly give up something most precious in order for the world to have abundant life. He was willing to give up his own life so that those who would follow him would long for all people to have that same abundant life and know that all people are loved and cherished and are sons and daughters of God, no matter what.
In this theological/emotional roller coaster week, all emotions, all feelings are valid. We need to feel the joy and excitement of Palm Sunday. We need to feel the disappointment and hopelessness that sneak into our lives. We need to feel anguish and grief and sorrow. We need to feel pain and suffering. We need to feel numb and maybe, for a moment, abandoned.
In the midst of these emotions, we need to consider if our lives reflect the abundant life that Jesus wants us to share with the world.
When we allow ourselves to feel these emotions, then we will be ready for the next part of the story.
To God alone be glory