Palm Sunday 2012- Year B § Philippians 2: 5-11/Mark 15:1-39
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
The Heart Of Faith
We have entered the very heart of Christianity. We are meditating on the mystery of God. And the mystery only deepens, which is as it should be.
Having just read this portion of an ancient Christian hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians and about to read Mark’s account of the passion, we pause for a moment to consider just what lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
It is at once overpowering to the extent that when Jesus breathes his last, the curtain, which is meant to conceal the Holy of Holies in the Temple over half a mile away, is torn apart from top to bottom. A curtain meant to conceal and contain the presence of God opens the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to all. Torn apart like the heavens in chapter 1 at Jesus' baptism when a voice declares, "This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased!" The voice returns at the moment of Transfiguration, "This is my Son. Listen to him!" But this time there is no voice beyond that uttered on the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me." And then comes the voice of a Roman Centurion whose task is to oversee the state ordered execution. "Truly this man was the Son of God."
The ultimate reality about God is revealed in this final moment. What is revealed is both shattering and strengthening. For what is revealed is the human face of God. And the human face of God is nothing less than to assert that Jesus is God
It is shattering because it destroys all we have been taught to believe about God, all that we wish God to be: Almighty, all powerful, sitting on a heavenly throne, in charge of all that is, seen and unseen. Here Saint Mark invites us to see God in this despised, rejected, suffering figure. Like the disciples and no doubt many present at Calvary, we wish to turn our eyes away as if this is all some sort of bad dream. To do so would be to miss the whole meaning of incarnation and passion which is that God comes among us in weakness and humility to stand with us in the midst of the created order.
Such humility does not get portrayed in the literature of any time or place more dramatically than the picture of God willingly emptying of God’s self, limiting oneself, as the letter to the Philippians has it:
“…Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
The key word at the heart of the mystery of God, at the heart of The Word made flesh, is “emptied.” In the New Testament Greek the word is kenosis: to empty oneself, to pour out oneself, to give one’s self in entirety on behalf of others.
In the story we are about to rehearse, our God is the God of kenosis. At the heart of God’s self-emptying humility is this: God willingly is wounded.
The mind of God, the mind of Christ is self-emptying. God willingly limits God’s power in order to become engaged in life on earth. And more: God is willing to limit God’s power to undergo the ultimate in powerlessness so that the power and the glory of God can enter the world. To effect this, Jesus gives up security, status, dominance and reputation, and power.
As our Palm Sunday begins, we read of his so-called “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. People spread garments and branches of palm along his way. They are jubilantly shouting, even singing, Hosanna, Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes, who comes in the name of the Lord! Jesus! Jesus! Blessed is he who comes! For years we have dressed it up to look truly exciting when in reality it was no doubt a small crowd acting out a rather pathetic demonstration of Love for the God who is Love. It is a kind of political morality play - not a welcome kind of scene for those Romans in charge of keeping the Passover Peace.
Are we so familiar with this story, so certain in our beliefs about God in Christ that we fail to see the isolation and seeming helplessness of Jesus that we forget that the mockery he suffers is ultimately the human mockery of God?
Of course he could no doubt get himself off the cross as many of his adversaries mockingly urge him to do. But that would run counter to his announced mission. It would run counter to all he has said and done up to this point, predicting three times that this would be the end of it. As religious leaders and Roman soldiers mock him as a king little do they understand that they unwittingly proclaim his truth. It is inconceivable to them that God as King of the Universe would allow this moment of crucifixion to be his enthronement. But, he does.
The great hymn of this in Philippians describes God’s unwillingness to be an arrogant God that humans often mistakenly think they require and even more often seek to reflect.
Have we not seen? Have we not heard? Do we not get it? Simon of Cyrene, father of Rufus and Alexander replaces that first Simon, now called Peter. Peter who has more than disappeared. He has denied having anything to do with Jesus. This new Simon, an African at that, appears to be a point of entry for all future disciples. The New Simon picks up the cross and carries it just as Jesus says we must. Simon is you. Simon is me.
Then comes the darkness. The threat of divine response and judgment comes upon the whole earth for three long hours. Can we recall that time before time itself, when out of the chaos of darkness this God on the cross summoned light and life and order and creatures, making us male and female, imago Dei, in the image of God? Does the darkness at noon portend a slipping backwards? Does the rejection of God's Beloved Son signal creation in reverse? Or, are we at the dawn and painful birth of a new creation?
Then, after three hours of darkness, the first utterance since his curt reply to Pilate, "You have said so," God speaks for the first time: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The Word is unwilling to come down even now. Rejected by his people, abandoned by his friends and disciples, he now experiences the abandonment of God, the sense of divine absence that accompanies all human suffering. The darkness without is matched by a darkness within as one commentator puts it. He is still calling on God, but there shall be no answer from God until he has shared to the full what is the lot of all human beings in death.
But the response that comes is not expected. Nor does it come from any expected place or person. First, the curtain in the Temple is rent, torn apart from top to bottom. This corresponds to the rending of the heavens at his Baptism. In both cases, at the beginning and end of Mark's story, it signals a divine response to the obedient association of Jesus with sinful humankind - first with those who respond to John's call to repentance in the River Jordan, and now hanging between two criminals in fulfillment of the "deeper baptism" about which he spoke to his disciples.
The first rending is accompanied by the divine voice proclaiming, "This is my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased," an assurance repeated for three of his disciples at his Transfiguration. At this final rending there is no such voice. The startling moment is when the confirmation that this is the Son of God comes not from God, but from a Gentile Centurion - "the stained human lips of the one who has supervised the execution!" [Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom - A Theological Reading of Mark's Gospel, Liturgical Press, Collegeville:2008]
The first rending of the heavens signaled the breakdown of the barrier between the divine and human world. This second rending of the Temple curtain signals the break out of the divine saving presence from the Jerusalem Temple to the world at large! If the Centurion can be the recipient of God's saving embrace, there is hope for us all!
If God can be present in such a way at Golgotha, a place so totally under the control of the demonic powers of Empire for which the world continues to lust, then there can be no corner of the globe so evil as to be immune to outreach of divine saving grace. The world at the foot of the cross may be immersed in a deathly darkness, but in his final loud cry from the cross, the light, that first light that starts creation, is already breaking forth the dawn of a new creation. If the supervisor of the Christ's execution and who no doubt participated in the mockery of God can see the light, there is no captivity to evil so great that cannot be brought to conversion and faith.
Mark brings us face to face with the mystery of God before which we have nothing to say. All of our theologizing, all of our attempts to put God into words dissolve at the foot of the cross. Where we tend to go wrong time after time is to bring our ideas of God with us from wherever we get them and try to fit Christ into those ideas. If we are to take our Lord's Passion at all seriously, as we must, we must be willing to let our understandings of God be corrected, revolutionized, changed, so that we too may be changed - changed into the likeness of God in Christ.
We are now invited to enter the mysteries of this story one more time. It is the story of what it means to be human. It is the story of what it means to be created in the image of God - imago Dei. It is the story of God, which in the end must be our only story.
[The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark …]