Sunday, April 5, 2020

Palm Sunday (Fourth Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 27:11-45

It is surely a function
of the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves
that the word that leaps out to me,
in both the Palm Gospel and the Passion narrative,
is the word “crowd.”
The scene of residents of Jerusalem
jostling together with Passover pilgrims
to hail Jesus as the one who has come
in the name of the Lord
fills me with a not-so-vague sense of unease.
As I picture the scene I feel an irrational impulse to yell
“social distancing!” and “stay at home!”
and to try to make the crowd disperse.
Of course, the fact that it is also a crowd
that cries out for Jesus’ crucifixion a few days later
suggest that this is not simply an irrational fear.

Even apart from epidemiological concerns,
we are all familiar with the dangerous mob mentality
that can overtake groups of people,
whether this happens in a physical crowd,
like the mob in the Praetorium calling for the death of Jesus,
or, as is equally likely today, a virtual crowd,
like Twitter mobs that “cancel”
those guilty of various transgressions.
There is a kind of anonymity in a crowd
that seems to give license to people
to give free rein to the worst impulses
of fallen human nature.
A mob mentality can lead me to do or say things
that would otherwise be unimaginable,
because I can lose myself in the crowd
and convince myself
that somehow it is not really me
who is doing or saying these things.
Surely the mob that calls for Jesus’ death
was not composed of uniquely evil people.
And the mob can make us think
that we are somehow immune
from the consequences of our actions.
There is something deeply chilling
when those calling for Jesus’ death
cry out, “His blood be upon us
and upon our children”
because it shows a scoffing disregard
that seems to think that the mob absolves us
from any real moral responsibility.
It is almost as if the crowd is responding
to the idea that they could be held accountable
for murdering an innocent man
with a collective “whatever.”

But not all crowds are murderous mobs.
The deadly and demonic crowd
is only one possible form
that groups of people can take.
Even as we might currently feel unease
at the very thought of large groups of people
congregating in one place,
there is in us still a healthy longing to gather,
a desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves,
to find our place among a multitude.
Mobs may become murderous,
but there are also life-giving assemblies of people,
the crowds of humanity that we miss terribly in these days.
This includes the crowds who assemble
for sporting events or concerts or lectures.
For Christians it above all includes
that supernatural assembly that we call “church.”
Indeed, in these coming holy days
we are not simply recalling and celebrating
Jesus shedding his blood for each of us as individuals,
but also how, through his death and resurrection
and the giving of his Spirit,
he has called to himself,
as John sees in his apocalyptic vision,
“a great multitude that no one could count,
from every nation,
from all tribes and peoples and languages,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

This crowd is no mob,
but rather those gathered
by an unimaginable divine goodness
that inspires us to act in faith, hope, and love.
This is the crowd for which we long.
The Christian doctrine of the communion of the saints
says that neither time nor distance
can break the bonds
that the Spirit has forged between us.
Jesus has died and risen
and given us his Spirit
so that we can remain united with him
and with each other
even when we are physically separated.
So let us celebrate the holy days of this week
with hearts renewed in hope,
even as we long for that day
when we see each other,
no longer dimly as in a mirror,
but face to face.
And may God have mercy on us all.