Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters celebrated the feast of the annunciation this week. Celebrated Mary getting pregnant with Jesus. Until the early Middle Ages, in some parts of Europe, this day was also celebrated as New Years Day, connecting the celebration of a new beginning in the womb of Mary with the beginning of a new year. Of course this all went back to pre-Christian times: In Europe seeds that slept through winter start to germinate in late March with Spring heralding new growth and fruitfulness. And it is at that time fertility rites and festivals for fertility goddesses are celebrated. Placing the conception of Jesus and the celebration of Marys emerging motherhood square in the middle of a time where fertility, fruitfulness and new beginnings were celebrated in pre Christian, pagan times anyway.
The feast falling in the week before Holy Week is pure coincidence and will only happen every so many years, but it will always be around Easter time, and that is I think meaningful:
Tucked away in our remembering the death, suffering and resurrection of Jesus is the remembrance of his mother becoming pregnant; of the man Jesus being conceived in the womb of his mother. Of his mother discovering her monthly bleeding has stopped and something new and awesome is happening in her body. Reminding us that the Jesus we meet on his way to the cross was of the same flesh and blood as we are, grown in the womb of his mother for 9 months, a vulnerable human being who needed to learn how to walk and talk, who started on mother milk and gradually moved to more solid foods, probably crying over a grazed knee like any other child, and seeking his mothers comfort when he woke up from a bad dream in the night.
Jesus was THAT human.
This is easy to forget, especially as we tell the stories of holy week. It is easy to let Jesus grow into a mythic figure, a god, a hero who wrestles with cosmic powers beyond our understanding. The stories so dense with symbolism, references and hindsight that they all too easily allow us to see past the man of flesh and blood. Allowing us, hearing that story for the umpteenth time, to disengage and project it on a cosmic canvas that has very little to do with the ordinary day to day of our lives.
This week for instance, I heard someone say that, of course, Jesus suffering was beyond any of our understanding. And however pious that may sound I think it is also a cop out. If we believe it to be much worse than what we could ever suffer Jesus moves right out of our lives and you and me stay behind feeling that whatever may be happening in our lives or in the lives of those around us isnt worth considering seriously. What the gospels tell us, what someone like Paul tells us, however, is that Christ in his suffering and death connected to our humanity in a way too deep for words. That he took OUR suffering upon himself, that OUR iniquities were visited upon him. He went down to the pits of OUR existence. Experienced HUMAN betrayal, and then died OUR death. What scripture keeps telling us is not that Jesus was different. What it keeps telling us is that he was the same as us. Human, flesh and blood, vulnerable, fragile, and caught up in the politics of human existence as any of us may get caught up in the expectations, fears, excitement and worries of others. And it is like that when he enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey with crowds milling around him full of hope and energy, ready to follow him in a political uprising. The fever of the mob about to get out of control communicating itself between the lines of the account the gospels give us of the occasion.
Did he know?
Of course he did. He didnt have to be divine to not have picked up on the growing animosity of the Jewish leaders. The warnings his friends gave him were pretty strong. Of course he knew. In all this tumult rides a man who is under a cloud of growing threat. A man pulled between a crowd ready for action and leaders who are anxious about the bloodshed action may cause.
And suddenly, after it is all over, those who remember what happened on that day will have started to wonder, with the double vision of hindsight, about the donkey and if that part of it was coincidence or if it was a signal. A signal from Jesus trying to speak to a crowd that had gone beyond listening, or perhaps even to leaders that had already moved beyond the point of no return: Look, its not what you think. I am not entering the city on a war horse, I am a man of peace.
And wondering about that donkey, and about what had been going on in Jesus heart and mind at the time, they must have seen other connections and written them into the story in an attempt to understand what happened and what it all meant.
They must have remembered the story of Isaac, on the back of a donkey, riding at his fathers side, wondering if it could really be that his own father would be prepared to sacrifice him on the altar of his religion. And Abraham, ready to give up everything he had to an inhuman God that would take what was most dear to him just to see if he would.
They must have remembered the donkey of Baalam (Numbers 24) that prevented the cursing of the people because it could see things the person riding on his back couldnt see. They must have remembered the prophecies of Zechariah about a King, riding on the back of a donkey, who would bring peace and healing to the nations. And other texts they knew. And suddenly what at the time must have seemed a coincidence must have started to speak volumes to them with more and more connections from all over scripture starting to resound with the story they themselves had been part of: A man, entering Jerusalem, riding a donkey.
Well never know if Jesus thought all those connections through before the event or if they fell into place afterwards. If the story was further shaped by the connections that turned up once people were able to look at it with the double vision of hindsight or if Jesus purposefully shaped his own story to enable people to make those connections afterwards. And I dont know if it is that important. What is important for us is to let the whole breadth of connections this story opens up, speak to us when we try to understand Jesus journey as well as our own.
Here is a man riding to a horrific death on the back of a donkey with an excited crowd around him.
The crowd reminding us of how easy it is to get swept up in a frenzy of excitement that loses sight of the price in human blood and tears that may have to be paid. Reminding us how easy it is to be swept up in the enthusiasm of a crowd on the war path. Something that has happened on a grand scale in history over and over again, resulting in holocausts like the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the long March in China and more recently the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Something happening on a smaller scale in our lives, over and over again where people mount their high horses and find an enemy to fight and unite against. It can be in the office, at work, or even in a family context where people gang up, and it will always result in suffering and often in bloodshed.
It is in the middle of that very dangerous, explosive situation we all know and have experienced in one way or another that we find Jesus, riding a donkey. Refusing to get on a high horse with them, keeping to his call, keeping his integrity, even where nobody at that point seems to be able to hear or see the message he is trying to convey.
The Jewish leaders were right: This could have escalated into a dangerous situation with much bloodshed to be expected. With the city full of people just before Easter one spark like this could set the whole city on fire.
"Better to sacrifice one than for all to suffer" we hear them say somewhere else. And here again we meet a very human response. It seems reasonable to sacrifice one for the well being of many. And in this case it is the sacrificing of someone who has been a pain in the neck anyway.
With the scandal of abuse in the Church all over the papers this week I could not help but make the connection. In the seventies and eighties, with the Church booming in every respect, to muffle a few complaints here and there must have seemed minor compared to the greater good of protecting the Church and all the good work it was doing. Especially in the context of a society where abuse was something that was blamed on the victim most of the time anyway. For those in charge at the time it must have been relatively easy to convince themselves that covering it up was better for everybody, even the victims, because greater good would grow out of it.
In the middle of that we find Jesus, riding a donkey to his death. Aware and ready to join those who over the ages have become human sacrifices in the context of an institution, a good cause, a volatile situation, or a difficult issue. It not only happens to victims of abuse in the Church, it happens to them everywhere. As someone who has worked with people who have survived an ordeal like that I can assure you people still find it much easier to evade the uncomfortable than to confront and accept it and work through the difficulties. Even in this Church.
Didnt Jesus ask for it? His friends warned him, he could see what was coming, he could have turned around and returned to Galilee to where his supporters were and nothing would have happened. He came looking for it, and then we couldnt do anything else but take our leadership seriously and make sure he would not endanger more people than just himself. Sometimes one has to make hard decisions that cost. Thats life.
And there we have another, very strong argument turning up, used as an excuse across the ages: Our religion, our faith demands it of us. What needs to be done, needs to be done. God wants it.
Very early on in Genesis there is a powerful story exactly about this issue. A story where another donkey carries a man ready for sacrifice. In that instance the sacrifice doesnt happen. Because God himself intervenes and sounds a loud and unambiguous "no". No human sacrifice. Never. The world around you may be involved in that, but not you, not my people, not this faith. This faith is about life, about people living without fear. About a God that will provide.
Whoever believes that there could be anything more important than that has got it wrong, has moved into another religion.
Jesus rides into that situation on his donkey, ready to be sacrificed, to show that this is not what God desires. God doesnt want the human sacrifice the religious establishment of Jesus day feels needs to be brought. In their scrambling panic to save what is important to them, they cant see what he is trying to show them: The prophecies being fulfilled, the King of peace riding into their midst begging them to open their hearts.
Its not something that happened only then. Many of us in the Church may recognise the feelings of those Jewish Leaders who saw everything they stood for, their tradition, their faith, their way of life under threat from a country bumpkin from Nazareth. Of course they fought back. And so there are those among us who fight, two thousand years on, for our tradition, our faith, our way of doing things and will try to trample out the fire of the Spirit burning because where it seems to be leading seems unfamiliar and uncomfortable and doesnt quite concur with what has always been the way.
Jesus rides into that fear driven response of the religious establishment. Ready to be sacrificed. Entrusting himself to the indestructibility of what he stands for, of the love of God that has filled his life, the flame of the Spirit that has led him on his journey. Staying true to what he is: A man called by God to take the message of death defying love further than anyone has ever done before. A persistent and unwavering voice in the middle of the tumult of people caught up in the sticky mess of life and joining the fate of those who get crushed by the machinations of power and fear on the back of that donkey riding into the darkness of betrayal, innocent suffering and death. He says: "I stand at the door and knock. Let me in and let me take over, so love and healing can replace your fear and pain". Amen.