Yesterday was Palm Sunday and I wanted to share a few thoughts at the beginning of Holy Week. At the very end of the service at our church, the organist played a tune called “Gothic Suite.” The playing was marvelous, and yet what came to my mind was a sense of foreboding that the music carried. All of Israel, and Jewish pilgrims from all across the Roman Empire are converging on Jerusalem for the Passover festival, the time when Jews celebrate their deliverance from slavery and oppression in Egypt. For the Jews of that time period though, the celebration was paradoxical. They were living under what they would have considered to be their oppression under Rome, and they were constantly anticipating the time when God would return to rescue them and restore the temple and the nation of Israel to a greater glory than that of King David. They longed for a king who would lead them to victory over the pagan forces that dominated them. This is what they were celebrating and asking of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Hosanna means “save us”. They were asking Jesus to be the one to deliver them. The celebration is ecstatic, as anyone can tell reading the chapters of Jesus’ triumphal entry.
However, that triumph quickly turns sour, as Jesus enters the temple and declares God’s judgment on the temple, and shortly thereafter, he prophesies that the temple would be destroyed. He challenges Israel’s authorities at every turn. Jesus is bringing God’s purposes to bear on the people, and it is not what they either wanted or expected. By the end of the week, the crowd is shouting “crucify him” instead of “hosanna.” By the end of the week, Jesus is crucified and placed in a grave.
Often times in pageants put on by churches, Jesus is smiling and enjoying the crowd as he enters Jerusalem. However, I am inclined to think that he was actually sad. He knew what the crowd truly wanted, and he also knew that that was not what he came to offer them. Jesus did come to inaugurate God’s kingdom, but it was not a kingdom of the style that originates in this world. It is a kingdom of the meek and lowly. Where the last are first, and the first are last. Where the servants lead, and the leaders are servants. Where people love God, and love their neighbors as themselves. A kingdom of peacemakers rather than warmongers. A kingdom of the persecuted, who love and forgive rather than seek revenge. A kingdom of people who turn the other cheek rather than striking back. Kingdom people who love their enemies rather than hating and fighting them. He brought a kingdom of sheep who serve God by serving the least of these. This was not what Israel wanted, and this is not what most people want today.
The interesting thing is that Jesus suffering on the cross is dependent on the Jewish population being in exactly that position. If the Jewish people were set on following Jesus, then the cross wouldn’t have happened, because Jesus was only delivered to be crucified after Pilate provided the crowd with the option. One could easily paint either the crowd, Pilate, or the Jewish authorities as the key ingredient historically in Jesus’ death. My focus on the crowd is to indicate the dynamic in the change from the shouting of hosannas on Palm Sunday, to the shouts of crucify on Good Friday.
How does this affect our thinking on the atonement? I’m not sure. I subscribe to no one theory in particular, and I think they all have something to contribute to our understanding. In Eastern Orthodoxy, as I understand it, the closest thing they have come to a theory is Christus Victor, and beyond that they are content to live in the mystery of how the cross works theologically. The word atonement itself simply means “at one with”, and I think this is perhaps the best take. On the cross, God and humans are reconciled and brought together in Jesus. There are profound depths to explore here, and a blog post is completely inadequate for the task. Maybe for now, we can continue to think through and plumb its depths, and stand in its mystery as we continue on through Holy Week.