Saturday, March 23, 2013

Being in the Crowd

The story we tell today centres around a  crowd. There is the enthusiastic crowd of people who cheer Jesus when he enters Jerusalem on the back of the donkey, and there is the mob that jeers at him on the cross. To which one would we have belonged? Possibly both.

Crowds are notoriously unstable. A group of football fans that is at one moment enjoying a match with relaxed cheerfulness can easily become a threatening mob. To be in a big group of people can feel like belonging to a community, and may be so. But you can be sucked up into a gang in which one loses one's individuality and consents to terrible deeds. Think of the Nazi rallies, sweeping people up into a hatred that one day many of them would find puzzling.

Today we begin Holy Week, and we are invited to become holy. Holy people grow into an independence of mind and heart which protect us from just becoming nameless, faceless in the crowd. In that sense this week, as we answer the call to holiness, we each are becoming a saint - someone who, by the grace of God, is becoming the person whom God created them to be.

Often we succumb to off-the-peg identities, and try to find ourselves in the role models of our society. Celebrities attract vast adulation, and thousands wish to belong to their 'community' through Twitter or Facebook. By associating with them, wearing their clothes, supporting their team, bearing their brand, we may hope to find ourselves. But we are called to be holy, to be saints and to take the risk of being ourselves, the unique friend of God that we are each called to be.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem announced his commitment to the daunting task ahead – and we mustn’t forget that his journey didn’t begin there on that dusty road; nor was he there by accident.

Here’s how Henri Nouwen sees it:  As he rides into Jerusalem, surrounded by people shouting ‘hosanna’, cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in his path, Jesus appears completely concentrated on something else. He doesn’t look at the excited crowd. He doesn’t wave. He sees beyond all the noise and movement to what’s ahead of him: an agonizing journey of betrayal, torture, crucifixion and death – far beyond anyone’s understanding. There is insight into the fickleness of the human heart, but also immense compassion. There is a deep awareness of the unspeakable pain to be suffered, but also a strong determination to do God’s will. Above all there is love, an endless, deep, far-reaching love born from an unbreakable intimacy with God and reaching out to all people, wherever they are, were, or will be. There is nothing that he does not fully know. There is nobody whom he does not fully love.

Jesus’ final journey up that rocky steep hill to Jerusalem didn’t begin in Jericho or Galilee, or even in Bethlehem. The journey to the cross began long, long before - “ even as the echo of the crunching of the fruit was still sounding in the Garden of Eden, Jesus was leaving for Calvary.” He is the Lamb, Revelation 13 tells us that was ‘slaughtered before the foundation of the world’ 

The crowd that cheers Jesus as he enters Jerusalem is drawn by his power. He comes as the promised King, the descendant of 'our father David.' They sing 'Hosanna', which means 'Save us'. They gather around him and escort him into the city. But the crowd that mocks him, many of whom were probably the same people, coheres against him, taunting him with his powerlessness.

The powerful attract us. We hope that by being with them, we may catch some of their glossy life and try to hide the creeping sense that we are worth nothing. The powerless can also evoke strong reactions, like a big cat attracted to a wounded animal. When celebrities fall, the media smell blood.
So as we begin Holy Week, it is worth asking how we respond to power and its loss. Do we home in on the strong people, even the bullies, shedding our convictions in the hope of a share in a bit of their strength? Do we distance ourselves from the weak and despised? Or do we dare to follow the King who 'being found in human form humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross' (Philippians 2.8)?

He gathers around himself a community on Easter Sunday, in which we find a multitude of brothers and sisters, but in which we can also dare to be ourselves, each individually caught up in God's eternal love for each of us. Amen.

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