Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Who Is Jesus?

Who, and what, is Jesus?  This is the crucial question for parade-goers on Palm Sunday.

His actions make a claim impossible for friends and enemies alike to misunderstand.  N.T. Wright suggests that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is rather like a group of Christians erecting a manger scene in front of a model of an empty tomb.  Seeing that, you would conclude that whoever created the display was trying to bring together the messages of Christmas and Easter.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus brings together the approaching celebration of Passover, the great story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, and Hanukkah, the festival celebrating the triumph of Judas Maccabaeus, the King who set Israel free from foreign domination.  And for good measure, he rides a donkey, evoking Zechariah 9:9, the King coming in peace.  Every detail of the day touches one of those themes, and the unmistakable message to all who are there is that the Messiah is entering the city, he is the True King and he will do the work only Israel’s God can do.  If he didn’t speak a word, his actions alone would carry that message.

Does he know what he is doing, or is he caught up in the excitement of a holiday crowd, playing out a role that will get him in deep trouble?  Is he a peasant sage, a rustic from the country, unaware of big city sophistication, as critics, ancient and modern have long contended?  Is he blundering into a succession of tragic errors that will combine to cut him down unnecessarily?  Or is he more sophisticated than the critics themselves, employing visual and spoken signs and symbols to confront his enemies in the only way that will ultimately make a difference?

These are not trivial questions.  They point the way to two very different possibilities.  On one hand there is the possibility, famously noted by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, that Jesus might have been insane (a more contemporary variation would be “deluded”), or that he was some sort of intentional deceiver, pursuing a scheme of unclear purpose.  The third possibility, Lewis suggested, is that Jesus was and is just what his actions and words declared him to be: God Incarnate executing a plan to defeat the world’s evil in a way that still challenges human imagination.  How do we discern the truth?

Look ahead, Paul counsels the Philippians. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:5-11)

Over the years that short, tightly packed passage has given rise to essays, books, sermons and even hymns.  Its significance here is that it calls us to look at the events of Holy Week and Easter not as short stand-alone episodes, but as related elements in a drama that draws together, and makes sense of everything else in the four gospels.

To the human eye, the days we call Holy Week look like an unmitigated disaster.  In human terms they are, but the only reason we even remember Jesus is that the events of the week were not the end of the story.  Beyond the cross is the tomb, and beyond the tomb is the resurrection, the impact of which works backward, revealing in these strange happenings the hand of God reaching into the chaos and mess of the world to initiate a foundational change in human history.  Follow the parade on Sunday, wave palm branches, throw flowers, but stick around to watch the confrontations and deeds that follow, and then see what happens to it all a mere week hence.

Howard MacMullen
© March, 2012

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