Hosanna! Save us from Self-Interest! Palm Sunday-B

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

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!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

For many years, as a preacher, I have been captive to the insight that the fickle crowd who cried Hosanna at the Triumphal entry would have largely made up the crowd who cried for Jesus Crucifixion only days later. I have harped on their fickleness.
Whilst I still hold to that insight as valid, I have had my captivating lockup sprung open by considering the etymology of that interjection “Hosanna“. Reflecting on that one word, I am beginning to realise that the culturally captive crowds of Jerusalem would have almost no other way of seeing the man on the hiterto unridden colt than as the expected Saviour come to rescue them from their perceived enemies and according to their preconceived expectations.

The key lies, as I have said, in the word Hosanna which originally comes from Psalm 118:25 “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!”.
By the time of Jesus this Psalm verse had found its way into common parlance as a greeting and blessing. When one looks into the Greek version of the Old Testament the Septuagint, the word for Hosanna in Ps 118:25 is translated σῶσον δή (soson dei) which, if you don’t have Greek, means “save us”. I suppose it would be close to the Irish common usage, “God help us“, said willy nilly in conversation.
There is an interesting sidelight here. In Lent 5b last week we read of Jesus asking in John 12:27, “And what should I say—‘Father, save (SOSON) me from this hour’?”
Isn’t that strange the one thing Jesus said he wouldn’t ask of God, “Save me from this hour” is the very thing that the crowd requires of Jesus in their Hosanna-“Save us now!”?

Staying with the John passage of last week, Jesus declines to ask God to save him, he rather requests the Father to glorify his name. At face value it would seem that the Jerusalem fan parade is glorifying God’s name but they are not really. They are simply demanding their own liberation. “Save us now!

The paradox of Jesus’ life is that the glorification of God’s name is found  in the ignonimity and humiliation of the accursed one who is nailed up on a tree. It is from there that the salvation called for in the Hosanna arises.  However, this salvation is now completely redefined by the poured out life on the cross.

Which brings me to that Jerusalem flash mob and their, “God help us! God save us!”

Isn’t that the most primal prayer ever prayed?

As I write and muse, I realise that the only thing that would change in my prayer in 2012 from the prayer of the crowd is that I usually pray, “God save ME!” My Western consciousness doesn’t care much for the tribe or clan. That aside, the prayer is the same. It is the most basic form of prayer. It is an expression of self interest.

We who know this story so well, know that when the expected terms and conditions of that salvation did not materialize , the crowd turned viciously on the colt rider and had him done away with. I am not convinced we would have done any different. Except that we would probably sue Jesus first, and expose him in the tabloids as a fraud for good measure!

The question that remains for me though, is whether the crowd could have done any differently? It seems that as enculturated self interested human beings (are there any other kind?), they were only doing what it is our nature to do, they wanted to survive.
The horror of Holy Week for me is that I realise again and again that were I in that time, as I am now in mine, nothing would change. Self interest always wins.

Yet the real miracle we see in this whole Holy-Horrific week that lies before us from Palm Sunday to Easter, is how the Divine parent uses the most destructive forces of human nature, namely scapegoating and violence; as the very process of redemption.

My “Hosanna”,and my “Crucify him” screamed from the visceral core of my being, and screamed with absolutely no real understanding of what I am asking for, becomes the miraculous vocabulary with which God teaches me the meaning of unconditional love, mercy and salvation.
The cross becomes the confrontation with my self interest.
So into the horrors we go…

When I have gaped and groaned long enough at the feet of the Crucified one this Easter, I pray I will arise with a transposed cry in my heart.
Perhaps this year God will change me enough to cry out “God save them“, and “Crucify me!”

Do you suppose  those words will glorify God’s name?

The Art of Dying Well, with Jesus

Recently there has been some significant deconstruction of the grief cycle as postulated and engraved into our psyches in the last twenty years by the work of thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. So it is incumbent on me before I reference these “stages” for the work of Holy Week that I acknowledge the challenges that have been put to her work. I  concur with most of the criticism of the “Grief Cycle”.  What was intended to be a tool for helping professionals became popularized and bandied about by people who demanded of grieving friends that they pass through each stage in some kind of causal process. I am not sure Kubler-Ross would have been happy with what became of her insights anyway! The main outcome of the critique has been a realisation that what Kubler-Ross identified exclusively with death and dying processes are in fact normal human responses to chaos and change. For example, there is as much chance of experiencing the “stages” (and they are non-linear stages that come in any random sequence and recur multiple times) when your motor vehicle engine “dies”, as when you hear that you are suffering from a terminal illness.

Having paid my dues to current research, let me proceed to say that the headings of the Grief cycle still offer useful lenses through which to observe some of the archetypal activities and personalities playing out during Holy week. Along with the work of Kubler-Ross I have in the last few days been introduced to the themes of the classical “Ars Moriendi” – the art of dying from 15th and 16th Century Europe and so may be able to weave these into the themes as well.

Born in a time when death from Bubonic plague (Black Death) was prevalent. the Ars Moriendi, or “art of dying,” is a body of Christian literature that provided practical guidance for the dying and those attending them. These manuals informed the dying about what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a “good death” and salvation. The first such works appeared in Europe during the early fifteenth century, and they initiated a remarkably flexible genre of Christian writing that lasted well into the eighteenth century.

An article in the Christianity Today Library merges the themes of Ars Moriendi with the Seven words of Jesus from the Cross and this might just become my outline for the Three Hour Vigil on Good Friday,

The Grief Cycle Stages

DenialPeter and the crowing cock – the” rock” that wobbled.

What to do when the ground beneath you shifts.

“I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.” Denial is usually only a temporary defence for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of situations and individuals that will be left behind after death.

Of course Peter was denying knowledge of Jesus, in the presence of possible hostility and exposure, but was this denial rooted in a deeper denial within Peter that was the result of the chaos he was experiencing?

In my own experiences of shock and chaos, which include being blown up by a land-mine during the bush war, motor vehicle accidents, and experiencing divorce, I have known the numbness that floods the psyche and the functionality that has one feeling that you are standing outside yourself and simply going through the motions without being fully present. Peter had been very vocal about never allowing anything bad to happen to Jesus, but now it had and he was numb. This can’t be happening!

I wonder if Peter’s denial of any association with Jesus was an attempt to disassociate? Disassociation is a very powerful psychological protection mechanism and I don’t want to enter the Freud – Janov debate on this matter, suffice it to say, that there is a very strong pull in times of chaos to deny what is happening and extreme cases even to disassociate from the reality of what is taking place.

The first two woodcuts in the classical Ars Moriendi (see graphic above) show what are called Temptation in the Faith and Encouragement in the Faith respectively

The first woodcut shows the Saints and sages, isolated behind the headboard, whilst the dying one is beset with a horde of tempting and fear inspiring characters.

Chaos will do that won’t it?

All that we know and trust has little worth as we are overwhelmed by the experience.

The second woodcut, “Encouragement in the Faith” has the person surrounded by consoling and nurturing visitors.

Could this two stage process be a graphic illustration of Our Lord’s own experience on the cross?

My God my God why have you forsaken me?” is classically named the Cry of Dereliction, it could also be the cry of Desolation.

Jesus beset by the chaos, the pain, the loneliness, the sheer brutal horror, finds himself denying that God is present.

I insert this here, because I believe it is important that we recognise that these processes are largely unconscious. It is only one who has established a grounded spiritual practice of prayer and contemplation, who will be able, in every moment to be conscious of the inner and outer processes at work in their being and not disassociate and be overwhelmed by the demons who masquerade as realities, whilst the stable mind would know in a wink that they are illusory and ephemeral shadows on the screen of a tormented mind.

It is a great consolation for me that even Jesus had this moment of overwhelming fear!

Anger“Father, …take this cup away from me..”“Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?” Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.

Whenever I am confronted by people who insist that Jesus knew every step along the way that he was going to die as a substitutionary sacrificial lamb as his Father’s will, I refer the discussion to Jesus in Gethsemane. Here we see a Jesus who is not resigned like some robot to the execution of the programmed plan. I see a young Rabbi, with dreams and trust in a Kingdom of Love that could change the world if given a chance to grow in people’s hearts. The looming opposition, the sinister leaving of Judas bringing in the darkness (and it was night!), all of this brings Jesus to his knees before God and he isn’t acquiescent, could he be angry?

God knows it didn’t have to be this way! Jesus knows it too. For me the grappling Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane is a deeply consoling image, a transformative icon. Once again I see the move from desolation to consolation. The shift that is shown in the woodcuts at the start of this blog. From, “Take this away!” to “Let your will be done in my life“. And if you thought that the movement from that desolate pole to the consoled one was easy, count the drops of sweated blood along the way!

BargainingJudas said, , “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

“Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…” The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time…”

Judas makes a bargain. Thirty silver coins, a month’s wages for a life. What makes this deal unconscionable is the fact that Judas is bargaining with someone else’s life. There is the hint of the scapegoating theme here again. It is easy to bargain with the lives of others, but it is also cheap and has suicidal consequences. We can speak of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”), we can speak of Colateral Damage but what whatever our euphemistic name for the bargaining with the lives of others may be, we have to realise that it is never a fair exchange, and Emotional, Ethical or Soul suicide will be the real outcome of such bargaining.

In contrast, Jesus doesn’t bargain at all. Not even for his own life. Is this not the ultimate challenge for the Christ follower. To be prepared to be the one who pours my life out, instead of trying to get someone else to do it in my stead? There is a business in Port Elizabeth called Q-4-U (Queue for you ) For a fee, this company will stand in line for you so that you don’t have to have the unpleasant experience. It’s a bargain! It makes me wonder though how many of us look at the church and the clergy as “Serve- 4 U” or “Compassionate-4-U” or “Suffer-4-U”. Doesn’t “vicar” mean “in place of” or “substitute”? What a bargain!

DepressionHe said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?”

“I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die… What’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?” During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

I discovered during months of psycho-therapy that depression is the leaden blanket we pull over our souls when the anxiety of reality is too hard to bear. Is this what the pre-Psychology gospel writers are trying to portray with these disciples who cannot keep awake?

They had been in the Upper Room, they had seen Jesus offering Judas the reconciling, dipped bread. They had witnessed the refusal. They must have felt the tension, the apprehension the anxiety. How much easier to pull their robes over their heads and sleep. I thank God that in the moments when this life is overwhelming and I sink into the shadow world of depression, that Jesus is still awake and praying for me and every other one who at times find living their life too much to bear. May I in moments of clarity and calm, be prepared to sweat blood for those whose suffer mental anguish and illness.

Acceptance“Father,… yet not my will, but yours be done.”

It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the death that is approaching. Generally, the person in the fifth stage will want to be left alone. Additionally, feelings and physical pain may be non-existent. This stage has also been described as the end of the dying struggle.

The final consolation, comes here in the Garden and also on the Cross. Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Those moments when we can breathe it all out and surrender ourselves to the reality of God’s consoling care. Soon enough the cycling chaos will whirl me up and down the spiral, but just for now, I rest in God and practice for the moment when my out breath will be all there is and what follows is not another in breath, but whatever the Spirit, who first gave me life, wills.