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Life in Death: Two Processions

Palm Sunday: 13th April, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14 - 27:66.

"Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30." So begins the first chapter of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book The Last Week (2006). We have just re-enacted one of the processions this morning. It was a peasant procession, something that looks like a planned political demonstration, though somewhat rag-tag, perhaps a bit like a march up from Federation Square heading for the steps of Parliament. At the rear of the procession was a carpenter's son, riding on a donkey with her colt in tow, intentionally evoking Zechariah's prophecy of a king who will come to Jerusalem "humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Matt 21:5, quoting Zech. 9:9). It was a dangerous game, because another procession was also entering the Holy City. Pontius Pilate was heading up this procession, as was his custom for all the major Jewish festivals. This second procession was well-funded, well oiled: a military procession for the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, the representative of Emperor Tiberius himself. The festival was Pessach or Passover, a time for Jewish people to celebrate their liberation from an earlier empire. The potential for trouble was very real so extra troops were brought in at this time to bolster the Roman garrison.

Borg and Crossan describe this second procession poetically:

Imagine the imperial procession's arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful. This procession was a peace-keeping exercise. Peace by a display of force. Peace through intimidation. Peace by spilling just enough blood to keep everyone afraid (F. Niedner, "Holy Irony" Christian Century 2008).

Mind you, the first procession, Jesus' procession, was not as straight-forward as it might seem. It had an underbelly. The crowds cheering "Hosanna to the Son of David" longed for liberation from a violent occupying force. Many in the crowd would have been Zealots, a political movement founded in 6 AD by Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee. They were a militant organisation that, long after Jesus' death, managed to stage a successful rebellion and take back control of Jerusalem from the Romans for four years; no mean feat. The Zealot rebellion ended in a bloody battle for Jerusalem and in 70 AD they were defeated. The temple was symbolically destroyed, and the freedom fighters were forced into the desert and a chilling last stand at Massada three years later. I visited there in my twenties, and the haunting history of this natural fortress still hangs in the air. The Romans could not scale the sheer cliff faces of Massada that rise well over 100m, so they decided to build a huge earthen ramp. It took them three months, but when they finally breached the defences all they found were dead bodies. The 960 rebels and their families chose to die at their own hand, killing each other (because Jewish law forbade suicide) rather than be taken captive by the Romans.

Jesus' rebellion ended in a very different way. The donkey-and-colt procession was a symbol of another kind of resistance, a symbol of another kind of reign. Zechariah notes of this king that, "he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations" (9:10). Jesus had been tempted to go the way of the Zealots when he himself retreated into the desert after his baptism, but he worked out then that this was not his call. After Jesus' procession — Jesus' political rally — the crowds dispersed; disillusioned. He was not the kind of king they were looking for. Later many of them turned on him and called for his crucifixion. Even Jesus' own disciples fled in the end. Only one life was lost in this rebellion, one man was nailed to a cross by Roman soldiers, while his mother and his closest friend watched in horror.

And yet this one self-sacrificial death changed the world in a way that the Zealots could not. The oppressive Empire was not overthrown by force, but was rather supplanted by a much greater power, the power of self-sacrificial love. Life in death.

As we prepare to enter once again into this truth over Holy Week and Easter, may our hearts be open to finding this same Christ spirit in our lives: in the ways we relate to one another; in the ways we relate to those around us, especially those in need; in our politics; in our workplaces and in our homes.

In closing I would like to read a poem by E. J. Scovell (Janet Morley, The Heart's Time: a Poem a Day for Lent and Easter, SPCK, 2011). Just as there were two types of procession on Palm Sunday, there are two ways of living, two ways of dying. One is like the Zealots, like the Roman soldiers, fist clenched to the very end, symbolic of a clenched heart within. The other way of living and dying is the Christ way, arms and heart recklessly open, whatever the cost.

I would if I could choose
Age and die outwards as a tulip does;
Not as this iris drawing in, in-coiling
Its complex strange taut inflorescence, willing
Itself a bud again — though all achieved is
No more than clenched sadness,

The tears of gum not flowing.
I would choose the tulip's reckless way of going;
Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
Till wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall.
Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall.


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