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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Who comes in the name of the Lord?

From tomorrow’s gospel, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem from the Gospel of St. Luke (19:38) -
“Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest.” 

The cry of the crowds in the gospel reminds us of the angels singing over the fields of Bethlehem. Yet there seemed to be less irony in the angels song, who were privileged to behold the birth of the divine among us, a baby in an animal shelter. In the infancy narrative, the angels heralded the eminently unnoticed birth of a future pretender to the throne of Caesar Augustus. Here, on the streets at the gates of the Holy City in the wildly unpredictable days before the festival, the crowds seem to be thrilled that God has finally arrived with rescue in the person of this wonderworker. (‘Hosanna’ means something like ‘grant salvation’, according to the RNAB). They expect God's solution to their political problems to arrive in a ‘king,’ a son of David, who will throw the Romans out and reestablish the independent monarchy of Judah.
That’s what we want, too. Every year without fail, we seem to watch as the passion, death, and resurrection story turns into a restoration dream of some kind of monarchy, so that we can be the winners and sit on the right and the left. It goes something like this: Jesus suffers and dies for our sins, but knew he would rise again, and he does, and then God gives him a crown and he rules forever with power and glory. Look at the images —they are images of empire, based on our romantic nostalgia for jewel-draped, imperial übermenschen, so that even our language in prayer is full of words like “all-powerful,” “omnipotent,” “kingly,” “dominion,” “splendor,” and so on.
But when Christians say “Jesus is Lord,” we don’t mean that Jesus is a Lord like Constantine or Charlemagne or King Henry. We have no experience of Jesus being like that. To the contrary, Jesus had a completely subversive view of leadership: “Whoever would be first among you must serve the rest.” When we say “Jesus is Lord,” we mean that lordship is redefined by who Jesus is. When we say “Christ the King,” we don’t mean that Jesus has a crown, lives in a castle, and rules, however benignly, like the kings of earth. His word is the opposite: “my kingdom is not like those of this world.” We mean that for us, being “king” has been redefined by Jesus. The one who was born in an animal shelter, who ate and drank with prostitutes and sinners, who healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, was tried for capital crimes, beaten, nailed to a cross and died, that Christ is king. Being king changed from ruling with power to laying absolute “power” aside, bending down from heights of eternity, and washing the feet of the world. Just how much the Church has bought into the wisdom of Caesar and ignored its mission can be seen in the shock of people when the new Pope Francis seems uninterested in the trappings of his office and tries to lead by example a way of simplicity and service. It remains to be seen how his leadership will redirect the Church's course.
Furthermore, we learn from the human Jesus what God is like, since he is the “icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The paschal mystery of Jesus is the paschal mystery of God, who is love, being-poured-out-for-others, and even so, somehow, the fullness and paradigm of life. Riding on a donkey into Jerusalem not to overthrow the oppressor but to be faithful to who he is, life-giving unto death, Jesus “comes in  the name of the Lord,” yes, as king, but changing the very meaning of dominion, turning it upside-down, just like it happened in Bethlehem, and on each step of the road he had taken since.
I suppose my task this year, like every year, is to figure out what that means for me as a father, husband, friend, voter, church leader, shopper, songwriter, citizen, son, grandfather, and so on. Figure out some way to stop contributing, however unwittingly, to death-dealing, power lust, and the tyranny of needing to be infallible. As I’ve been saying in my workshops and days of renewal and as I’ve said here, if Jesus, being God, “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at,” then surely all the lesser statuses, including being right about everything, means nothing if it’s possible to give life in some way to other persons. If there is absolute beauty in this self-emptying love of God that pours itself out into all of the wonder of creation, then creation for me as an artist must be telling the truth without bombast, without promoting a god of armies and blood.
It’s not always easy. In the Exodus story, horse, chariot and rider are thrown into the sea. It’s easy to make that into a kind of act of divine vengeance, rather than as the result of the violent intransigence of a king and slavemaster who would not back down from his own need for retribution. Even today, every bullet we fire ultimately strikes us in our own heart, and the hearts of our children and grandchildren.
Have a good Holy Week. Blessed are you who come in the name of the Lord of service and peacemaking.