Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

He has been played by Harrison Ford, William Hurt, Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Kline, John Travolta (sort of) and Martin Sheen (ad nauseum).


It seems there is no end to the public’s appetite for films featuring the American President. The President appears in the Oval Office so frequently that the studios simply recycle the set. Apparently the set for “The West Wing” was deemed too accurate and was therefore off limits during the Warner Brothers Studio tour.

We seem mesmerized by the symbols and all the power. And we’re not alone. Tony Blair wanted his own version of Air Force One and only backed down when the British press dubbed the idea “Blair Force One.” Remember Brian Mulroney’s special podium? He had one constructed early on, meant to look “presidential.” I think it had a beaver on it. Luckily the press mocked that one away too.

Power and the trappings of power fascinate. I can confess that I have a rather awkward looking photo of me and my brother standing ridiculously close to the White House (it’s no longer possible to get that close). We’re standing beside a small fountain that looks exactly like someone has been whited-out of the picture. I like to tell people it was Nancy Reagan.

And motorcades. There is an entire sub-genre of films that include a presidential motorcade: and not just motorcades in Dallas either. If you want to build tension or fill some screen time, just insert a motorcade flying past a few Washington landmarks. This is one, however, that the movies usually get wrong. The real motorcade is up to thirty cars long, too long for movies, and a reminder that life is stranger than fiction.

It leads me to ask. Jesus, where is your motorcade?

Sure he had one, if you count a donkey and a colt, the foal of a donkey. And people running along side, while not exactly Secret Service (another sub-genre of films), they were trying to protect their friend. This was a bid to make Jesus look “presidential” if only for a few minutes, to leave an impression with the gathering crowds. And gather they did, if only to see this one who mocked the triumphant entry they knew so well.

The king’s entry, you see, wasn’t of the coronation kind, as we might be led to believe. The king’s entry was a regular occurrence, like a motorcade, witnessed every time the king came home or moved about the town. Even the “hosannas” and the palm branches happened often enough for people to see what was happening. The fall festival, marking the harvest had one too, with the very same shouts that met Jesus that day:

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

It was about the trappings of power met by popular imagination. The response was as routine as “Hail to the Chief.” The ruler of the day would enter the Holy City at the height of the harvest festival, wanting to make a connection in the popular mind between the bounty and his government. The people saw through it like Blair Force One.

It didn’t stop them from trying. When Herod was but a simple governor, appointed by his powerful friends Mark Antony and Octavian, he lost his position for a time. He fled to Rome, back to his friends, only to return with a title to secure his position. He had the senate in Rome grant the title “King of the Jews,” ending any ambiguity about his role. And considering all the struggle to get the title, we can well imagine how he would react of anyone ever showed up saying “We’ve come seeking the baby born King of the Jews.”

And boy, did they love their titles. Octavian, who defined the age, was give the title “the Illustrious one” (we say Augustus) and “the first head.” Never satisfied, he was called “the son of god” and in death he was given the month of August, to match the length (it is said) of his famous father who got July. And all Brian wanted was a nice podium.

It leads me to ask. Jesus, where is your motorcade?

Jesus arrives, making fun of the titles and pomp and all the trappings that people in power claim to need. His first task was to take the treasury, not to appoint a finance minister, but to turn tables and reclaim the temple. Having set his face to Jerusalem, we knew he would have to go. We knew that eventually he would arrive, and begin the project that would redefine power for all of time. And so he enters:

His motorcade was a couple of beasts.
His advisors were tax collectors and sinners.
His chief of staff was a fisherman.
His Oval Office was the Upper Room.
And His podium was the cross.

He entered a once holy city, now overrun with the symbols of Rome. Eagles here, standards there, coins and statues with hated symbols of Roman occupation. Jesus entered a city polluted with royal power, proclaiming violent men gods and foolish men kings. It was in this setting, surrounded by gaudy monuments and idolatrous symbols that Psalm 118 finally made sense:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

The city’s infrastructure looked impressive, but it was rotten to the core. Stone stood upon stone, but the construction was a mere façade hiding the truth: this city would reject the effort of the True Architect and opt instead for little more than a movie set. The high walls impress, the symbols shine in the near-eastern sun, but it’s not real. None of it is real. It is a California fake standing in for the real thing.

But take heart. The stone that the builders rejected will become the chief cornerstone, and though the construction will be a simple wooden cross, it will stand for all time. Amen.


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