The Dizzying Descent: A Palm Sunday Homily

By Dasha (Flickr.com – image description page) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What do we say when we get to the sermon on Palm Sunday?  This day begins in triumph, and ends in utter loneliness and desertion.  The crowd that spreads branches at Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem gives way to a crowd that demands the release of Barabbas instead.  The disciples who follow Jesus’ instructions willingly on the way into the city, can’t stay awake by the time we get to the scene in Gethsemane.  And by the end of the reading, they seem to have vanished into thin air.  Peter outright denies even knowing Jesus—the same disciple who just six chapters earlier proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, and who just a few hours before declares his undying loyalty.  Even the women who remain with him until the end, watch on from a distance.

It’s an unsettling descent. One by one, things are stripped from Jesus on this Palm Sunday – the palms that line the road, the cloaks laid down in honor of this blessed One, the voices that praise him, the friends that surround him, even the tunic he wears. All are gone in those last moments on the cross.

It’s been said that there comes a time in each person’s life when one stops accruing things and begins, instead, to shed them. It’s true. But it usually happens over several months if not years, not at the dizzying pace with which we experience it on Palm Sunday – Jesus pouring himself out as described in the ancient hymn of the Church found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “though [Jesus Christ] was in the form of God,  [he] 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” (Philippians 2:6-8).

We sometimes think that the God we see in the Incarnation and especially the God we see during Holy Week is an anomaly in the history of who God is – this God who empties Godself out in love for us, even when it leads to death.  Here is an exception, we tend to think.  God lives up in heaven but just this once God sets aside the gulf between creation and God, goes against all godly power, and humbly empties Godself out in the name of love.

But if that is what we believe, if we believe that the cross represents a unique way in the history of God, then we are wrong.  What we see in the Incarnation and in this holiest week of our year is that this really is who God is, through and through.  This emptying, this self-giving — it isn’t the exception to the way God works; it’s the rule.  Within the very life of God there is, and always has been, this same self-emptying love—the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit all pouring out themselves for one another in an eternal act of love.  That same love pours itself out for us, not as a rational choice on one specific occasion, but because that’s just how divine love works.

In fact, Jesus’ entire life was lived on this self-emptying trajectory of divine love. Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault describes it this way:

Thus he came and thus he went, giving himself fully into life and death, losing himself, squandering himself, ‘gambling away every gift God bestows.’  It was not love stored up but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Over and over, Jesus lays this path before us. There is nothing to be renounced or resisted.  Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing.  nd grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. That’s the kenotic path in a nutshell. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.[1]

As we walk the way of the cross with Jesus on this day (and throughout this Holy Week), we can’t help but wonder if this perfect love exists anywhere in us.

There’s a bit of danger here that I think we need to recognize. There have been times in the Church when the call to embody a self-emptying love has been used to encourage women to stay in abusive relationships, or to encourage those who are marginalized or oppressed to remain submissive. Perhaps, though, what we are called to empty ourselves of depends on our position relative to power. For those of us who are marginalized or oppressed, perhaps what we need to be emptied of is the internalized judgments that leave us feeling unloved or unworthy. For others of us, perhaps we need to let go of the privilege and power to which we sometimes feel entitled.

And remember, Paul addressed these words, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” not to individuals but to a congregation. We often lament the fact that the Church no longer plays such a central role in our culture. But perhaps the Church is just being emptied of the power we have enjoyed in the past – the influence, the wealth, the all-too-comfortable existence.[2] We don’t need to be alarmed at this shift in power. If the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is our guide, we know that it is exactly when we are stripped of our own devices – of all the trappings of worldly power – that the grace of God meets us with new life.

So this week as we walk the way of the cross (both as individuals and as the Church), let us not be afraid to make Jesus’ story our own. Let us seek to understand how our story intersects with this, the greatest story of God’s love for us.  Let us remember Jesus’ words to the disciples: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it.”  And these words: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  And maybe, long after Easter, these words will will coalesce into a question in our hearts: How can this kind of self-emptying love in our own lives be none other than the way of life?

 

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston: Shambhala, 2008) 70.

[2]  Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008) 174.