The shock of recognition
What strikes me this year about the passion narrative is the profound depth of failure. We start off today with the glorious action of waving palms and declaring Christ to be the King, only to betray him and to deny that truth over and over again. Judas, one of Jesus’ faithful disciples, fails Jesus by betraying him to the authorities. The disciples fail Jesus by getting caught up in an argument about whom among them is the greatest – a self-centered argument on the best of days, but an utter failure of focus on Jesus’ last day. Later the disciples fail Jesus by falling asleep while he prays in Gethsemane – when he had specifically pleaded with them to pray with him. One of the disciples fails as he resorts to violence, striking one of the slaves of the high priest. Peter, one of Jesus’ most loyal and insightful disciples, three times denies having known Jesus before others. The leadership of the faithful fail over and over as they insist on Jesus’ death out of fear. Pilate tries three times to release Jesus but succumbs to peer pressure and has Jesus killed despite the fact that he knows Jesus is innocent. All the people gathered are willing to release a known murderer and insurrectionist in order to kill innocent Jesus. Hanging in death, one of the two criminals by Jesus’ side derides Jesus to the end. Even the soldiers mock Jesus as he hangs helplessly approaching death.
Jesus’ death on the cross is a grave enough sin to mourn today. But when that sin is preceded by failure after failure after failure of the people to right their relationship with God, we see more clearly the deep recesses of human depravity. The staggeringly long list of sins would be easy enough for us to dismiss as “those peoples’ sin.” But that is part of the reason that we participate so tangibly in the liturgy today: waving palms, reading parts of the passion narrative, shouting, “crucify him!” We play an active role in the liturgy today so that we can understand how active our role is in the same sin of “those people.” Listening to the story is heartbreaking – not just because watching others sin is hard to do, but also because we see ourselves in their sinfulness. We know their failures because we fail, too. We fail to honor Christ in our own day, we deny our Lord, we betray our God, we fail to be faithful disciples.[i] Though there is a part of us that wants to claim we would never have been bystanders or participants in Jesus’ death, the scary reality is that we know we would have.[ii] Their failure is our failure.
Acknowledging our utter depravity is important today. We have spent the last six weeks pondering our sinfulness and working on amendment of life. But perhaps we can never truly amend our lives without recognizing how deeply our sinfulness goes. Our Lenten disciplines are meant to help us focus on one specific area of life that needs amendment, and in that way, our disciplines are effective means of bringing us closer to God. But today, the Church reminds us that we have so much further to go. Even if we managed to see amendment of life this Lent, today we are reminded of how our very nature is one of repetitious sinfulness that knows no bounds.
So why does the Church have us wallow so deeply in our sin today? The primary reason we journey through the dark tunnel of our sinfulness and failures is so that we can more fully appreciate the enormity of next week. Next week, our tone and content is almost the opposite – total joy and jubilation that our Lord is risen from the dead. But in case we were tempted to become jaded by Easter – to be distracted by our new suits and dresses, the festive songs and flowers, or the bountiful meals – the Church wants us to remember how profoundly full of blessing Easter is. The profound depth of our sinfulness is matched by the profound depth of love and forgiveness offered in Christ’s resurrection next week. So although the depravity of this day may feel like overkill, that overkill is necessary for us to understand the shocking gift of Christ’s resurrection. Although today’s sense of failure may feel overwhelming, I invite you to absorb the sobering reality of this day. Carry that weight with you this week as we journey through the Holy Days. If you are able to do that, the release of that burden on Easter Day may be more profound than any of the surface trappings of Easter. And your cries of rejoicing will be born out of a place of deep gratitude and appreciation for the Lord our God, who loves us despite our failings. As a people who know how little we deserve our Lord, we will rejoice with newfound appreciation of the God of love – the God who gave his only begotten Son, so that all that believe in him might have eternal life: a tremendous gift indeed! Amen.
[i] William G. Carter, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 182.
[ii] H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 181.