A few years ago now, together with the rest of Australia, I watched in a sort of horrified fascination the rise and fall of Mark Latham. Wasn’t that something? This guy was certainly different – on the plus side you could say he had a real freshness and spontaneity – on the minus side he was unpredictable, a loose cannon – certainly Latham was a charismatic politician, and Labour’s election campaign was always going to depend on whether we saw him as a liability or an asset. But what struck me at the time as most remarkable is that it was the media itself that first built up the idea of Latham as a breath of fresh air – then closer to the election it was the media that brought him down. Could it be that – the closer he got to Canberra – the things we liked about him at first started to make us nervous. Latham as unpredictable Opposition Leader was OK – Latham as potential PM made us collectively feel a bit nervous.
This is exactly what we get this morning, when we start at the end of the driveway waving palm branches around and the mood is buoyant – following this Jesus character we can do anything! – and we follow him into Jerusalem because that is where all Opposition Leaders head for – and we call him the Son of David which means we think he is the longed-for Messiah who’s going to kick out the Romans – but notice how when we get into Jerusalem the mood changes and now when someone asks ‘who’s that you’re all following’ we say ‘oh, just some prophet from Nazareth’. Not so much of the ‘Son of David’ stuff now under the shadow of the Roman fortress. The crowd picks Jesus up and sweeps him into Jerusalem because they see him as a political saviour – then they draw back nervously because more likely he’s going to turn out to be a political liability. A week later the crowd are going to be howling for his death – maybe even the same crowd, certainly another crowd just like it.
Of course, my analogy has got its limits. A major difference between Jesus and Biff Latham is that – for all that we see a crowd who change their minds about Jesus overnight - the gospels don’t for a moment show us a Jesus coming unstuck because of a propaganda campaign gone wrong – instead we see a Jesus who from the start of his ministry until the end is in control of his destiny. So why the change in mood? Why today’s ugly scene? Why does Jesus crash and burn?
We can’t pretend we don’t know how this story ends of course – in the resurrection – we can’t take the agonising journey from here to the cross without knowing what lies on the other side. But we’re not there yet. If as Christians we want to experience the exuberance of Easter morning – if we want to light the new fire next Sunday as the sun comes up and know that this is our Lord who once and for all has defeated death, then we need to watch with Jesus in Gethsemane and share at full strength the horror of the ordeal that’s ahead; and we need to stand at the foot of the cross with his mother on Good Friday. Only the Jesus who suffers as human beings suffer can teach us what it means to be human. That’s why the celebration of Easter doesn’t just take place on Easter Day – that’s why Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day are together called the Triduum, or the Great Three Days of our faith. Only if we watch faithfully with Jesus this week can we rise with him next Sunday. But we’re not there yet.
Back in the 12th century St Anselm came up with a plausible explanation not only for why Jesus had to die, but for why Jesus’ death puts us right with God. St Anselm’s typically medieval idea was that human sinfulness so affronted God’s honour that somebody would have to pay the price – but at the same time there was a dilemma because God’s mercy also requires forgiveness – and the only way out for God is to provide the victim himself – St Anselm’s idea of Jesus paying the price for God’s forgiveness of our sins became so popular that for many Christians it’s become – well, gospel. Unfortunately, St Anslem’s theory makes Jesus life almost irrelevant – because in this view of things it’s his death that makes us acceptable to God. The other problem is, that believing in a God who dishes up this sort of punishment leads to a hierarchical and authoritarian view of the world. It doesn’t leave much room for grace. And Jesus as the perfectly obedient son who becomes the divine victim becomes the unfortunate model for structures of abuse and neurotic guilt.
However, back in the 12th century, there was also a rival explanation. St Abelard at around the same time came up with the idea that God did not require Jesus death at all. God intends his creation for life, not for death. For St Abelard, it’s Jesus’ life that is important, because Jesus models for us how we can live out of awareness of our relationship with God, and St Abelard suggests that Jesus death is not the main point at all – Jesus death is simply the consequence of how he lived. St Abelard of course is the darling of all who see a political dimension to Jesus’ ministry, because it’s easy to see the accumulating opposition to a Jesus who insists on turning the status quo upside down, preaching subversive ideas like ‘blessed are the poor’ – associating with Samaritans and prostitutes. And it’s easy enough to see why - in the supercharged atmosphere of expectation that was 1st century Palestine under Roman occupation - this Galilean preacher would become the focus for everyone who’s looking for liberation and a better deal.
The problem with St Abelard’s idea is it’s too easy to slide from there into a view of Jesus as just another good man who risks his life for an ideal. Ultimately, it waters down the central Christian message that not only does Jesus show us what God is like, but that in Jesus, heaven and earth have touched each other so that human beings now get to share in God’s own life.
Neither obedient scapegoat nor activist, the life and death of Jesus have saving power because of who Jesus is - one with us in the circumstances of our lives and at the same time one with God. It is a 13th century theologian, the Franciscan scholar St Bonaventure, who I think gets closest to the mark with his idea that the fundamental logic of creation is the joining of opposites – in the Word made flesh, Bonaventure tells us, as the noblest completion of creation the most extreme of opposites are joined together – the infinite with the finite, the Creator with the created, heaven and earth. St Bonaventure goes on to suggest that the crucified Christ is the ultimate conjunction of opposites – the opposites of suffering and grace, hatred and love, death and new life. Metaphorically, St Bonaventure says, evil overreaches itself in putting to death what can never be put to death – and because of this the crucified Christ becomes for us an icon of reconciliation – the means by which the irreconcilable opposites of our own nature can be made whole – our contradictory impulses of self-gratification and self-transcendence brought together.
Passion Sunday is the day on which the contradictions expose themselves, the day on which the barometer plummets from the heady excitement of a carnival to the sinister recriminations of a show-trial. Standing at the entrance of Holy Week, Passion Sunday invites us to reflect on our own divided nature – to identify ourselves in the crowd that dances with delight in a Jerusalem street – and also to find ourselves in the crowd that yells for blood in the courtyard of a military garrison. As we follow Jesus on the short but agonising journey from Palm Sunday to Golgotha, we find that in the Crucified One we ourselves are made whole.
It’s often remarked that Holy Week – the week during which our liturgical remembrance slows down to match the time frame of the last week of Jesus’ life – is the heart of the Christian year. If we do Holy Week well – which is to say, if we hang around, if we wait with Jesus and take time out from all the things in our own lives that demand our attention so that the drama unfolds around us and within us – if, unlike the disciples, we don’t turn aside but stay and wait and pray with Jesus – then the whole of our Christian year as a worshipping community is deepened and energised. We only get the depth of sorrow and love and joy if we are prepared to live through it. And when we do take the time to live through it – one day at a time – then we come to realise that this grief is our own grief, this pain is our own pain, this betrayal is our own betrayal – that all the imperfections, all the suffering and regret and loss of our own lives are exposed for us in the divine sacrifice that horrifies us precisely because we experience the echoes of it in our own humanity. And we come to realise something more – that the depth of love we see this week also lives in us and the triumph of love over suffering that transforms the world on Easter morning is the very same creative energy of God that gives us life and redeems us from all that is wretched and selfish life-denying. This week, if we commit ourselves to fully experiencing all that it offers, sets us free from all that entraps and limits us – the negative scripts of abuse or sin – and reveals in us the possibility of what we were created to be – men and women enabled to live with courage and purpose and joy.
And so, I invite you to join with me this week in keeping the Great Three Days that are at the heart of our faith.