Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
This weekend, the Church moves into Great and Holy Week, culminating in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. On Palm Sunday we cry out in praise of the Lord, but by the end of the week events will leave the bitter and sorrowful taste of the Passion. This week combines the stories of joy and suffering, mistakes and successes. It captures the contradictory feelings we identify in our everyday lives, all of which are part of the struggle to be His disciples.
We are followers who rise and fall and rise again behind a rough-hewn Cross and in the dank draft of an empty tomb. Holy Week tells of our capacity for great love but also for great hatred; the capacity for courageous self-sacrifice but also our ability, like Pilate, to “wash our hands” of Christ; the capacity for loyalty but also for great abandonment and betrayal.
The entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, in particular, offers a different dilemma for us to consider. From the “Hosannas” on Sunday, to the “Crucify Him!” on Friday–why were those human hearts turned so quickly and decisively away from Jesus? Simply put, it was a case of mistaken identity. Biblical scholar Fr. Joseph Fitzmeyer, writes: “It is notable that this is the only time in all the Gospels that Jesus elevates Himself above the crowd, but instead of doing so by mounting an elaborately decorated military horse, he mounts a plain donkey and rides into the holy city of Jerusalem.”
In the book of the minor prophet Zechariah, Chapter 9, we see this event prefigured: “Rejoice, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! For your king comes unto you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”
Jesus comes as peaceful and humble, not as the denizen of power and politics. While the Jews longed for the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, the defeat of their Roman occupiers, and the coming of a Messiah-Warlord who would usher in the great reckoning–they just didn’t get Jesus! The waving of palm branches had a specific symbolic meaning. They were used to celebrate the Maccabean victory two centuries earlier, when the Jewish Maccabees militarily conquered and retook Jerusalem from pagan overlords. This was what they cheered as Jesus entered, mindful of King David and King Solomon and their ceremonial ridings into Zion.
In their yearning for that once-imagined utopia, those expectant Jews missed the donkey and therefore cheered for someone altogether different than the one riding it. The donkey was a mere “beast of burden”, the conveyance of the poor and of those who sweat their brow to just survive. This was the means Jesus chose to enter the Holy City, and by choosing it, he signaled precisely the kind of Messiah He was, the Suffering Servant of all, who cast His lot with the rejected rather than the “all together.”
Recall the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24: “…we had hoped he would be the one to rescue Israel.” In commenting on this mistaken identity, the late Scripture professor William Barclay writes: “It seems clear that Jesus even raised the hopes and expectations of his own disciples that he was coming to town as the “new sheriff” to take over. And when everything took a very different turn by Thursday night, their disillusionment became profound.”
In one day, Palm Sunday, the entire Gospel of Luke, for example, was summed up in this way: Jesus, His life, His preaching, and His true identity where completely misunderstood because He did not come to meet our expectations and ideas or those of His fellow Jews. He came to meet our truest needs. The fact was, He had not come to rescue Israel from political and economic oppression. He came to die on the cross and to “crush the head of the viper” by His rising from death’s grasp! There are important lessons for our lives on Palm Sunday.
We need to let Christ BE Christ
The most important question asked at any time in history is Jesus’ query “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-33) Remaking Christ in our likeness is a dead end. Caught up in our own perceptions, ideas, needs and psychological mechanisms, we make Him out to be a reflection of ourselves, such that He begins to think like us, behave as we do, adopt our reactions, have similar opinions, and is shaped in our image. We forget Genesis, Chapter 1:26: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….”
We stop searching for Him because we think we have Him figured out. We justify all manner of behavior in light of our self-styled perception of Him. This was the problem of the Jews on Palm Sunday. Jesus didn’t correspond to what “messiah” meant to them. Rather than take him at His word, they hung on to their own historical and political perceptions, became disappointed, and eventually soured on Jesus. We are reflections of the unseen God and His Christ. The most accurate record we have for determining the words and mind of Jesus is in Holy Scripture.
If Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, He means it. If he suggests that we too will suffer like He did if we are His disciples, believe it. If he asks us to go sell all that we have, take up our cross and follow Him, we had better find a way to do it. If the Lord teaches us that the poor, rejected, sick, and marginalized are why He came, we need to search our hearts for those things in ourselves. Only by taking Jesus at His word will we come to know Him as He is.
Spiritual writer Fr. James Martin reminds us: “You can’t tame Jesus. Humanity and divinity are both part of his story. Scissor out the uncomfortable parts, and it’s not Jesus we’re talking about, it’s our own creation.” The attempt to dull the Lord’s challenging life and make him as we are is an act of pure revisionism.
We Need to Understand that Our Life Will Change
The moment we allow Jesus to be who He is in our lives, our life will change. By accepting the power of Christ to transform us into His image, we need to actively dedicate ourselves to changing our lifestyle—how we speak to one another, our value system and priorities and those of our family, the way we spend the resources God gives us, and the kind of witness we provide to the society and to the world.
These are things that we react against because we are slaves of comfort and habit. We resist any serious call to authentic personal change because it means that we have to surrender, to give up, to let go—and let Christ! Archbishop Anastasios of Albania writes: “The crowds really did not understand Jesus, they didn’t really know Him. They were desiring a Messiah of their own making, their own creation. Once they discovered that Jesus was not going to fulfill their expectations, they quickly deserted Him in the harshest of ways—they handed Him over to the cross.” Remember that the opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference. Are we indifferent to Jesus?
A Changed Life Leads to Greater Intimacy With Christ
For those who embraced the life and teaching of Jesus during His earthly sojourn, who accepted Him at His word, the chance for greater closeness to God became very real. The enigmatic voice from the burning bush of the Old Law, became a face in the New. The Fathers of the Church maintained that human persons stand at the point of intersection between two gravitational fields: the force of gravity which pulls us down towards self, ego-centeredness and sin, diminishing us and distancing us from God, and, on the other hand, the gravitational force of God’s love which lifts us up to greater closeness with Him.
Jesus’ life was all about getting close to Him and therefore close to the Father with Whom He was one. By taking Jesus as He is and living His message as it is—with all its challenges and “uncomfortables”—intimacy with God will grow. Holy Week is the time to make a renewed commitment to that effort. Let us us take Jesus seriously. Let us make our discipleship a serious way of living everyday. Let us leave the realm of pious wishes, good intentions, and empty promises, to deliberately live as Jesus lived and therefore nurture our relationship with the Crucified God. This coming week, we hear the soul-embracing good news that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future! Join us to celebrate that wonder!
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