Must it Come to This
(Palm Sunday, 2003)
By Charles Rush
April 13, 2003
Matthew 26: 36, 39, 27: 45-50
Jer. 31: 15
day we remember the joy of the Jews that came from the world over to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, the great long pilgrimage up to the Holy City. And we remember the celebratory entrance of Jesus, the throng that pretty quickly turned into a protest march and without knowing it became a funeral procession.
There is such hope and promise in the very idea of
Jerusalem, whose name literally means ‘the City of Peace’. Recall the hopeful
words of Isaiah, “In those days, the people shall come from every nation, and
stream up the holy mountain… nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”
I had read about the joy of pilgrims in the ancient world
making the trip to Jerusalem, so the first time I went, I had the Taxi (called
a Sheruit) let me off at the base of the mountain where the road begins to wind
up. 25 years ago it was covered in vineyards and still rural. I was going to
walk up like the ancient pilgrims that sang a song about the steep ascent. If
memory serves I walked for a bit, realized this would take forever, and got
another cab 80% up the mountain. The zeal of youth is easily matched by an
abiding commitment to sloth. The road switches back along an ancient trail.
Even in the last leg, you are quite tired reaching the top,
reaching the walls of the ancient city, the cool breeze even in summer, the
gaze across the Judean desert. You wend through the tiny cobbled alleyways,
past the raw goats head in the butcher shops and the open sacks of spices in
the Souk. On the Sabbath, back then you could walk through the Christian
quarter and the Arab quarter, through a tiny, almost single file, entrance in
the stones to get into the Wailing Wall, the crumbled wall of the 2nd
Temple. The first time I was there, military presence was heavy. There was an
armed seargent guarding the City of Peace, and this day he happened to hail
originally from Baltimore. Somewhat different from our ushers in the morning,
he was barking, in three languages ‘Check your weapons at the door. No
ouzi’s, no sidearms at the Wall.’ He was padding people down,
occasionally finding weapons the owners had forgotten they even carried, like a
back up set of keys. “You, the .45 stays on the table, pick it up as you leave.
Thank you. Next.” It was a scene out of Mad Max at Bartertown.
Inside, you are back outside, the great cacophony the Jews
call worship. Orthodox ritually swaying down at the wall, pressing scraps of
petition to the Almighty into every crack and crevice on that Wall. A throng of
soldiers just released for R&R, carrying each other on their shoulders, one
with the Israeli flag drapped over him like a prayer shawl. Hundreds of people
from every conceivable nation, some of them back then having traveled from the
Soviet bloc after years of persecution, trial, and finally they are there.
There was a woman in the distance, standing at the base of
the great ruined Wall. She appeared to be someone who had dreamed of being
released to go home to a place of her spiritual imagining, a place she had
never been, a place where she would find her people, her home at last. Now she
was finally there for the very first time and all that longing and frustration
came bubbling up like a volcano and she just stood there crying and shaking.
Other women came over to touch her, just a hug. They understood. It happens a
lot, Jews who have traveled far emotionally to get to that place and it is
different and more subterranean than they realized it would be. The pilgrimage
today to the Temple mount, like the pilgrimage in the time of Jesus, is filled
with so many different emotions.
When Jesus arrived, he must have also been filled with a
sense of august majesty, the sheer scope of the Temple mount and the area like
it would have had some of the same majesty that we feel today walking up the
never ending steps to our nations Capitol. Just as today, you have a proper
sense of personal puniness in front of the great height and weight of the
Capitol, so Jesus also must have felt like a country peasant before the whole
grand Imperial power of the Temple built by the Roman empire.
He had a sense of destiny and he knew what it would exact a
high cost. When the people turned out to hail him as the Messiah, he must have
known that the Roman Imperium would kill any would-be Messiah’s. And when he
went to the Temple, overturned the money changers tables, and accused the
Temple authorities of moral and spiritual compromise, surely he understood that
kind of confrontation would lead them to collude with the Roman army to make an
example of him for others to fear.
There is this pathos as Jesus moves through the events of
that week. He is humane in the face of death, humane til the end about
the fragility and beauty of life. “Father, if it is possible, let this
cup pass from me.” We are told that he prayed, he prayed, he prayed until the
sweat ran like blood. The gospel writer of John almost paints a pieta at the
end of the story that highlights the touching humanity of life in the midst of
torture and death. He has Mary come with some friends to see Jesus on the
cross. Jesus says to her, “Mother, behold your Son.”
Right now we hear a lot of rhetoric about facing death. We
have the twisted theology of martyrdom among Islamic fundamentalists that
almost longs for death as an entrance into a better world. Macabre, sordid.
We also hear the language of honor, of valor, and
patriotism, the noble ideal of laying down one’s life for one’s country. But
whether sordid or noble, after the action cameras have gone home and the
reporters have filed their story, we are all left holding a picture, “Mother,
behold your Son.” Did it have to come to this? Jesus is aware
that there are some things that are more important than life. He is aware that
he is caught up in something like that, something bigger than just himself,
something much more important. But, he retains that humane lilt about the
simple wonder of living, the love of mother and child. Did it have to come
to this? Can you let this cup pass from me? It is a deeply humane
questioning of life, of God?
The gospel of John has Jesus answer the question for
himself, somewhat cryptically. Just as he dies, he says, ‘It is
finished.’ The Greek word doesn’t simply mean, it is over. It also means,
it is complete. It is as though he is saying, my life has reached it’s
conclusion, it’s fulfillment. Integrity is like that. It is intrinsically
valuable. How many of us, whether we live long or short, whether we know all
that life has to offer or a lot of frustration and set back- how many of us
will be able to say of our lives, I have fulfilled my purpose? My life was
worth living. I have done what I came to do.
But what a high price to pay. Did it have to come to
this? We too look on with Mary, remembering the words of Jeremiah, “A voice
is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her
children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.”
The author Ann Weems writes, “One August 14, 1982, the
stars fell from my sky. My son, my Todd had been killed less than an hour after
his twenty-first birthday. August 14, 1982… and I still weep.
Many were there for me… family, friends, and people I
didn’t even know who sent their loving-kindness by mail or phone or in person.
These tenderhearted ones were God-sent, and they have no idea how deeply they
walked into my heart.
“One of those people was the Biblical scholar Walter
Bruggeman. He was enormously present to me and my family. One day (many months
after my son’s death) he called and said I certainly didn’t have to answer his
question if I didn’t want to, but he was working on (a commentary on) Jeremiah
and wanted to ask me, Will Rachel be
comforted? I remember answering with little hesitation: No. No, Rachel
will not be comforted. Not here, not now, not in the sense of being ultimately
comforted. Of course, those people who are surrounding me with
compassion are doing the work of angels, and I bid them come, but Rachel
will only be comforted when God wipes the tears from her eyes…
She goes on to say how she has changed, become more complex
and complicated in the years that have followed her son’s death… “Anger and
alleluias careen around within me, sometimes colliding. Lamenting and laughter
sit side by side in a heart that yearns for the peace that passes
understanding. Those who believe in the midst of their weeping will know where
“In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.
And in his
To those who
He stands now throughout all time,
his arms about the weeping ones:
“Blessed are those who mourn,
shall be comforted.”
He stand with mourners,
For his name
are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.” Someday. Someday God will
wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.
the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
There is a deafening alleluia
Rising from the souls
Of those who weep,
And of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
The hand of God
Putting the stars back in their skies
One by one.[i]
[i] Ann Weems, Psalms
of Lament (Publisher find:1995), pp. xv-xvii.
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