Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Palm Sunday : A Tale Of Two Myths

This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, a key turning-point in the approach to Easter.  It is, I would suggest, a tale of two myths – of two stories that transcend time and space, from which we construct our understanding of the universe we live in.

The setting is Jerusalem, at Passover: a potential flash-point.  Two myths are converging, from opposite directions.  The Roman provincial governor is approaching from the west, from the Mediterranean Sea, from the base of Roman rule, the military harbour of Caesarea.  He heads an army, to swell the permanent garrison stationed in Jerusalem.  He comes to enforce peace – the Pax Romana – the gift bestowed by the god-man Emperor.  Admittedly, that peace didn’t prosper everyone equally; in fact, only a very few; but it was, nonetheless, self-evidently better than any alternative system by which to structure the world.

At the same time, a stream of pilgrims approach Jerusalem from the east, rising out of the desert, the direction from which God has promised he will return.  As they crest the Mount of Olives and descend into the Kidron Valley, looking to the Temple on its other side, and the city beyond, they are singing psalms.  They are singing a particular set of psalms, known to us as Psalms 113-118, which tell of the time when God delivered his people from another empire, Egypt.  This is how the celebration, the commemoration of the Passover, begins: this is how they enter-in to it as not just as ancient history that shaped them, but as their story, in their time.  There is another hope by which to understand the universe.  Year after year, they sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 118:26a).  Year after year they respond to the exhortation, “With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” (Psalm 118:27).

Among the pilgrims, Jesus, riding on a foal, making a messianic statement that God will once again rescue his people from slavery.  People point him out – is that? ... it is! ... that’s Jesus, there!  They join in his celebration of – his entering-in to – the Passover.  And yet ... and yet, they were blind to who he truly was and what he came to do.

Jesus oriented his life by the same mythic story as the other pilgrims.  But as they sang “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.  What can human beings do to me? ... The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! ... This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter ... The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes ...” (Psalm 118:6, 16, 20, 22, 23) he alone took the words as speaking particularly of him, as he entered-into this particular Passover.

The same two myths still converge today.  In my culture, the myth of Empire tells us that we can all enjoy the peace, can all prosper.  Politicians of all parties hold out their alternative answers to the troublesome reality that there are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ – hold out their competing proposals for helping the ‘have-nots’ to have more.  But there is an underlying problem, that the myth of Empire will never address: that the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is getting wider, and will never be bridged until the ‘haves’ are willing to have less.

In my culture, the myth of God’s deliverance [1] sees Jesus in the crowd, riding on a foal, and knows that he comes not to overthrow the Romans but to overthrow the powers and authorities behind all Empire.  And yet ... and yet I fear that we are as blind to who Jesus truly is and what he comes to do as we are to the governors who come promising peace.

That is why we need Palm Sunday.

[1] Some Christians are uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘myth’ because they understand it to be a denial of truth-claim.  But all myth is by definition a truth claim, in the deepest sense; whereas not all truth is myth.  If I tell you that I had a bowl of cereal for my breakfast today, I have told a certain kind of truth (historically-bound, empirically-measureable); but it does not transcend time or space as a story from which anyone will construct meaning by which to live.  The story recorded in the Old and New Testaments has primacy among the myths by which I understand the universe.  I find them to speak deep truth.  Nonetheless, my own telling of the myth can never fathom those depths, never contain them.  I must not mistake my telling of the myth of God for the myth itself.  God has revealed himself to us, but we do not yet fully know, or even – truth be told – penetrate much beneath the surface.

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