Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770): English: Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane

A Humble King and a Suffering God

By Yme Woensdregt

The church is in Holy Week this week as we mark the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. In this time, Christians make a pilgrimage on the via dolorosa, the “way of suffering”. We walk with Jesus as he journeys to the cross. The Via Dolorosa is also the name which is given to a route of pilgrimage in the old city of Jerusalem, as pilgrims trace the steps which they believe Jesus walked from Pilate’s judgment hall to Golgotha. We seek the heart of Jesus’ identity and ministry in the world.

Holy Week began on Palm Sunday. Normally, Christians around the world would hold processions on Palm Sunday, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus comes to Jerusalem not as a conquering king, but as a humble servant. He rides a donkey, not a stallion.

His followers bless him, calling out, “Hosanna!” For many Christians today, the word is a shout of praise or adoration. But in Hebrew, the root of the word means something like “save us” or “deliver us” or “help us” (Psalm 118:25).

It’s a helpful way to think of it in this time of pandemic. We cry out to God to help us. Just as Jesus rode into Jerusalem then, so Jesus rides into our lives today as a servant. He doesn’t magically wipe all pain and sorrow away. We don’t pray that God somehow ends this pandemic with a flick of the wrist. Rather, we pray for God’s love to enter our lives, to heal and strengthen us so that we are inspired to reach out in love to our neighbours. We pray for God’s courage and patience to encourage us to work together to help flatten the curve of this pandemic. We pray for God’s strength to do what we have to do to take care of each other. That, I believe, is where God is present in all this.

I saw a post on Facebook this week, which makes the same point: “I remember a story about a rabbi during a natural disaster. He was asked how he could explain such a tragic act of God. The rabbi answered that the disaster was an act of nature. The act of God occurred when people stepped up to help each other.”

That is where we find God in our lives and in our world. Jesus rides into our lives, and we cry out, “Help us, O God.”

As Holy Week progresses, conflict deepens. Jesus clears the moneychangers from the Temple. He continues to teach. He challenges the authorities more deeply. He holds up a vision of a God who cares most deeply for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and denounces any religious establishment which seeks power and influence.

As a result, the authorities decide to get rid of this troublemaker. Jesus is betrayed, arrested, denied by Peter, put on trial with false witnesses. Finally, he is brought before the Roman governor Pilate, who hands him over to be flogged and crucified.

It is a week of pain, of humiliation, of darkness. And in the deepest darkness, Jesus dies crying out that God has also abandoned him.

Holy Week is shaped by its beginning and its end.

The week begins with a humble king. His followers bless him and seek God’s help.

In the same way, in this time of pandemic, faithful followers of Christ reach out to bless him and to seek God’s help. We pray for God’s strength and hope. We believe, as the Creed of the United Church puts it, that “we are not alone; we live in God’s world.”

The week ends with Jesus on the cross. There are many ways to think about what the cross means, but at a very basic level, it means suffering.

I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Flossenburg in 1943 because he joined the plot to assassinate Hitler. On April 8, 1945, they hanged him.

In prison, he wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison”. One entry says that “the decisive difference between Christianity and other religions” is that our natural religiosity makes human beings “look to the power of God in the world”. We want a God who will come in power to overturn injustice and pain and set things right again.

“The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help.”

What a remarkable phrase: Only a suffering God can help.

The week that begins with a humble king ends with a suffering God. As someone once wrote, when Jesus takes up his cross, he “stands in the white–hot centre of the world’s pain”. He doesn’t merely glance in the general direction of suffering and then ease away. Rather, Jesus dwells in the pain we all suffer. He identifies wholly with those who are aching, weeping, lonely, fearful, and dying. God takes our pain into God’s very self.

Wherever there is suffering, Jesus is there. Wherever there is grief, Jesus is there. Wherever there is pain, Jesus is there. This is “the mind of Christ” as Paul writes in Philippians 2, that Jesus gave himself to dwell in the pain of the world. This is what inspires contemporary followers to live sacrificially in the time of pandemic, that we also might have “the mind of Christ”.

At the beginning of Holy Week, a humble king rides into our lives to serve, and we cry, “Save us! Deliver us!” At the end, a suffering God takes out pain into God’s heart and holds us.

In the midst of this time, we also raise our broken hosannas, waiting for the word of life which comes with Easter.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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