In the Christian calendar Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. During this week we are reminded to reflect upon the meaning of Jesus death on the cross, an event that took place nearly two millennia ago at a place which still remains the epicenter of religious and political violence today.
By lunar coincidence, this week also marks the festival of Pesah, or Passover, the most celebrated Jewish holiday of the year. Passover commemorates Gods deliverance of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
Jesus had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover with his disciples when he was caught in a web of events that would eventually lead to his death. The crowds who were waving palm branches and proclaiming him the messianic king, would only five days later cry for his execution. A sobering reminder of the human tendency to want God on our own terms.
While most Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the New Testament weaves the central events of this week into one overarching story of redemptive history.
But what makes this week holy? According to some scholars of religion, both the Jewish Passover and the Christian celebration of Jesus death and resurrection should be understood as Middle Eastern variants of ancient agricultural festivals, springtime rituals based upon the fertility cycle of nature. Jesus death and resurrection is thus interpreted as yet another example of the many dying and rising savior-mythos well known to ancient cultures and especially popular among the mystery religions of the Roman Empire.
In this view, all life is a great wheel, a never-ending cycle of night and day, springtime and harvest, life, death and re-birth.
But at its orthodox core the Christian tradition rejects this understanding of the seminal events of Holy Week. It presents a different view of history and a different view of time. It declares that the eternal God of creation has come into our world, has stepped into our time, in the person of a Nazarene named Jesus.
The events of Holy Week mark what T. S. Eliot called the point of intersection of the timeless with time. What happened one Friday in Jerusalem was not once upon a time, but once for all time. As Jews reenact the mighty act of God in saving his chosen people at the Exodus, so Christians are called to follow Jesus on his lonely trek from the Upper Room through Gethsemane to Calvary.
To those who would reduce the meaning of this week to a mere fable connoting existential truth, Christians say: What you call myth, is history and, conversely, What you call history, that is a myth The myth of human self-sufficiency, the illusion that the ebb and flow of natures passions are all we need to build a human life upon, the fantastic hoax that lasting moral order in the world can be derived from the will and power of orthodox ingenuity alone.
It is at this season of the year, we celebrate the grandeur of all creation in the beauty of the flowers and the return of the robins. We clasp our loved ones in rituals of food and drink, laughter and embrace. Some of us will also sit in services of silence, fasting, and reading sacred texts, as we all contemplate the mystery of the holy and the sanctity of all life.
But what makes this week holy is something else. It is the fact that something happened some two thousand years ago, in space and in time, something so shattering that the grinding wheels of fate were stopped and death is now no longer allowed to have the final say.
It declares that at the heart of the universe there is a personal presence, a God who has chosen not to remain in his heaven, cocooned within himself, but who is a part of the world he has made, and has taken upon himself the burden of loving it back to himself. And this he has expressed, as we are able to understand, through a humbly born baby in a manger and as a suffering man on a cross.
We are invited by these holiest of days, to believe beyond all doubt, that this lonely speck in space is a living planet, that the soul is eternal and that there is transcendence in and beyond this world, though not apart from suffering and pain. That decisions we make here and now have consequences that will last forever, that time is a God-given opportunity to learn and evolve, and that his love is the one thing we experience that will last and remain for all eternity.
Pax et Bonum!