Sometimes I struggle with the “play-acting” quality of our Holy Week liturgies. When we reenact Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, tromping and shivering around the parking lot, dragging our palms through the air self-consciously, it is hard for me to feel the proper jubilation. When we dip our toes into perfumed water on Maundy Thursday while others touch our calluses, it is hard for me to get past the urgency of my own embarrassment. When we pray over the bread and wine of the agape meal, it is a challenge for me to move my prayers beyond the 21st century hum of the ice machine in the fellowship hall kitchen. When we walk the Stations of the Cross, the ridiculously short distance from one station to the next in our little church can seem stunted, as if I am a little girl pretending to live in my doll house.
Why do we Christians, from the earliest days of the Church, reenact so carefully the last days of our Lord Jesus? Often, I’m afraid that we get caught up in a historical mindset. We long to go “back in time,” to feel what Jesus felt, to see what Jesus saw. We want to be there, to see Jesus of Nazareth, like a movie-goer watches what happens on the screen and feels as if she is there with the actors. I think that’s why the cars in the parking lot and the ice machine in the fellowship hall get in the way of my Holy Week commemoration. It’s as if the characters in a medieval drama that I’m watching are wearing wrist watches or carrying i-phones, interfering with the historical accuracy of my imaginary time-travel.
The purpose of the liturgies, however, is not to allow us to watch Jesus make his way to the Cross, as if seeing the events more clearly would somehow allow us to understand them. The purpose of the liturgies is to invite us to enter Jesus’ Passion ourselves. Instead of us asking, “God, help me to see Jesus, so that I can feel as if I really believe that these things happened once upon a time,” God is asking us to give our entire attention to the story that we are entering: to a story that happened once upon a time but that is still happening today—in our world and in our lives.
I was interested to read that the Passion story in Mark’s Gospel, from which we will read today, could have originally been written as this same kind of participatory drama. Some scholars believe that early Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem would have moved from place to place in the city, walking in Jesus’ footsteps. At each sacred site in Jesus’ final journey, the pilgrims would have recited what happened there, read appropriate words from the Hebrew Bible, said some prayers, and then the groups would have moved on to the next site. They would have ended at the tomb with the announcement, “He is not here; he is risen.” Mark’s Passion Gospel was their script in this ritual of prayerful commemoration.
In a few moments, you will hear a dramatic reading of this script. As the narrator begins, think about the story that you are entering. You know that, as we listen, the ground is going to shift under our feet. Little by little, everyone is going to turn away from Jesus: the crowds, the authorities, even his closest friends and disciples. You are going to watch the Passover King turn into the suffering victim—isolated and completely alone. And God is not going to intervene. God is not going to call the shots. The ugly and unjust powers of the world are going to take control. With the families of those on the German Wings flight, with the prisoners held by ISIS, with the poor and the unemployed, with the sick and the dying, with you and with me, Jesus is going to cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” As you listen, don’t stifle his cry. Your mind might try to jump ahead to Easter or to hunt for distractions and excuses to observe the scene from afar, rather than to enter the story. The idea that God’s power can be found in such apparent weakness goes against every fiber of our being. Yet, God’s total presence with us in the depths of our human suffering is the Good News that sets us free.
I will be interested to see what happens today in our hearts when we shake our ancient liturgy up a little bit. We are going to take up our veiled Cross again today at the end of our service, and we are going to parade back out of the church waving our palms once more. This time, we don’t have to pretend that we don’t know the tragic turn that our story will take, for we will have already entered into Mark’s Gospel. This time, we aren’t going to head right back into the safety of our church building, either. We are going to take our crosses made out of palm leaves, and we are going to walk all the way over into the hustle and bustle of Westport Plaza. We are really going to enter the world, in all of its busy distraction, in all of its injustice, in all of its suffering. And, our own hearts heavy with the Passion of Jesus, we are going to offer crosses to anyone who will take one. This time, there is no play-acting involved. This time, it is clear that we have entered the story, and our lives are in the hands of a God who loves us so much that he joined us in our pain and turned our bondage into freedom.
I just read a beautiful blog post that is written in Jesus’ name to the Christians of Indiana, following the recent unfortunate court ruling in that state. The author has Jesus write: “This wild, extravagant, world-altering love I have for my people, was intended to travel from my aching heart, through your trembling hands, to my hurting people.” May the crosses that we pass out today be filled with the “wild, extravagant, world-altering love” of Jesus’ life, death, and passion. May they pass through our weak and trembling hands, in order to reach God’s hurting people, in the Kroger parking lot and in all of the places that we enter, as the Story of God’s saving Love continues.