March 20, 2005
The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, "Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt."
At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.
Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him.
Reading from Swedenborg
There are many reasons God could not redeem humankind--that is, rescue people from hell and damnation--except by taking upon himself a human form. For redemption was the conquest of the hells and the ordering of the heavens, followed by the establishment of a church. This is something God in his omnipotence could not do except through his Humanity, just as no one can work without an arm. And the Lord's Humanity is actually called "Jehovah's arm" in the Bible (Isaiah 40:10; 53:1). . . .
To bring about redemption without his Humanity was as impossible for God as it is . . . to make trees grow solely by supplying heat and light, without creating air as the medium of their transmission, or soil out of which they can grow. Or it is as impossible as casting nets in the air to catch fish there, instead of casting them in the water. (True Christian Religion #84)
Palm Sunday is one of my favorite days of the Christian liturgical calendar. It is a time of celebration, of triumph. It is a time to be reminded of life's joys and ecstatic moments. I love the palms; I love the music of the day.
It is also, in many ways, a day I dread. For walking into Palm Sunday is not like viewing a movie whose ending we can't guess. We know what lies ahead: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We also know that Easter and Resurrection are only a week away. Yet the time in between is one in which we become aware of the suffering in life and the violence of our world.
I find deep meaning in the juxtaposition of these events. We start this week--Holy Week--in triumph. We end it with resurrection. Yet in between we see the dark side of ourselves and our world. We need to look at all of these things that lie between Palm Sunday and Easter, as painful as they may be.
I wish we could say that although Jesus lived in a violent time, our world has progressed far beyond that violence, and today we would not crucify the Messiah. Yet Jesus said, "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me" (Matthew 25:40). Violence toward the innocent and vulnerable is violence toward the Lord. Yet violence permeates our society. In recent years we have been dumbstruck by school shootings. Vulnerable youth are the Jesus in our world today. And they can be killed by violence.
It is easy to be enraged by the young boys with rifles, and seek to lay blame. Yet Jesus, as he was dying on the cross, did not bear grudges towards his murderers. Instead, he asked that his Father forgive them, for they did not know what they were doing. In the same way, those boys probably do not fully grasp what they are doing. We may think of them as sick; as alarming signs of a society out of control. However we understand their actions, we remember Jesus' urge to forgive in the midst of violence.
It is easier, in some ways, to do that with the killers of Jesus. We know that the resurrection came soon after his death, and it all makes sense to us now. But violence around us today does not seem to have the theology behind it that allows us to fit it into our understanding of Holy Week. Yet perhaps there are some similarities. For it was God who brought resurrection out of crucifixion. And that same God is with us today.
Swedenborg helps us understand how we can let the Lord continue to work in our lives. He explains to us how the purpose Jesus' life was that of God assuming human form in order to bring redemption. He writes:
God could not by his omnipotence have redeemed mankind, except by becoming a human being. Nor could he have made his human divine if his human had not first been like that of a baby, then that of a child, and then formed itself into a container and dwelling into which his Father could enter. He did this by fulfilling everything in the Word. (True Christian Religion #73.3)
Jesus achieved union with God, which is called his state of glorification. Swedenborg emphasizes that it was not the suffering itself on the cross that led to redemption; it was the act of glorifying his Humanity that did so. And his ability to experience glorification came through his living a life in accord with God's will.
A similar opportunity is available to each of us. We can invite the Lord to work with us, to take us through repentance and reformation into regenerating ourselves. This is available to each of us, and to all those around us. The regenerating process is open to the schoolboys who have killed people, if they choose it. It is open to us when we feel absolute despair about the state of the world--when we feel overwhelmed by the "Good Fridays" in life.
We can also see God's redemption at work in another arena of life in which there is much violence: our treatment of the earth. Swedenborg said God's spirit is part of all creation. Yet the way humankind has treated the earth does not reflect its divine spirit. Air is one of our most precious earthly substances, yet researchers have found that in the most polluted cities, people are 15% to 17% more likely to die prematurely than in cities with clean air. It is even worse in poorer countries. In Mexico City, severe air pollution has contributed to abnormally high rates of birth defects and learning disabilities. In Moscow, air pollution rose between 1949 and 1981, causing bronchial asthma among children to increase seven times.
Water is yet another of our precious resources. Yet an estimated five million deaths are caused every year by people drinking unclean water. There are serious water shortages in eighty countries that are home to 40% of the world's people.
Our land was also created by the Lord, and is filled with divine spirit. Yet each year one million acres of cropland are lost, and we blacktop land equal to the size of Delaware. Also, we are rapidly losing many species of animals, with 965 species currently listed by the U.S. government as endangered or threatened.
Where can be find the Lord's redemption at work here? The Lord's redemption is not just for humankind, but for all of creation. Through our regeneration, we are not just united with God and with each other, but with all of God's creation. Regeneration and redemption means for us that we can be restored in our relationship to the universe. Some talk of a "Cosmic Christ"--a Christ who is there not just for humanity, but for all of creation; for all that God created in our universe.
This we know,
All things are connected
like the blood
which unites one family. . . .
Whatever befalls the earth,
befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
Man did not weave the web of life;
he is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web,
he does to himself.
And, we might add, he does to the Jesus who lives on in the "least of us" as well as the least in our universe.
One year our seminary was privileged to have the Rev. Dr. Robert Kirven as a scholar in residence for several weeks. He shared a great deal with us, including a touching story from the life of his wife, Marian, who had died a year earlier. She suffered from a degenerative disease that prevented her from communicating with those around her. One day she and Bob were attending a service in the nursing home, and they were singing, "What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer." Just as those words were sung, Marian--who supposedly couldn't understand the words being said around her--looked up at Bob and smiled. He instantly understood that she was saying that she could communicate with the Lord even when she couldn't talk to those around her. She helped him to see the work of the Lord even in her illness. And Bob's presence at the school helped us all to see better the work of the Lord even in illness and death.
We all die. Whether we die by violence or peacefully in our sleep at an advanced age, we all eventually get to our heavenly home. But we won't have to die on the cross. Jesus did that. Even though he was a victim of violence and torture, the crucifixion became a resurrection. Even Marian's isolating illness became an opportunity for special conversations with God. Our pollution of our world can become a transformational moment in which we enter into a new relationship with the earth.
I don't know how the Lord will work in the lives of the poor family and friends of the people who have been killed in school shootings, or how the Lord will work in all of our lives as we strive to turn around a violent world into one of love and wisdom. But I know that God can make it all part of a lifetime of regeneration--can turn even the worst tragedy into redemption.
Much of the meaning of Palm Sunday and Holy Week has to do with recognizing this. No matter how bleak things look, and how overwhelmed we feel by the violence and suffering around us, the Lord is always there. We need only open ourselves to the process of regeneration in our lives, and know that the Lord is also at work in the lives of everyone else.
In the early pagan calendars, this time of year was seen a kind of New Year and new beginning. Easter is that new beginning for us. And Holy Week is our preparation to accept the resurrection that will be ours on Easter Sunday. Though things can feel bleak at some points during Holy Week, remember that it begins with the joyousness of Palm Sunday, just as life always has its times of joy, and it ends with the Resurrection. We need to remember the palms, and anticipate the resurrection, as we face the tough times that may lie in between.
For Holy Week this year, let's notice the violence surrounding us, and also be aware of how the Lord is transforming that violence into love. And let's notice the regeneration taking place in our own lives as we allow the Lord to transform our relationships with God, with each other, and with our earth.
O Lord of all Creation, we thank you for making our universe so beautifully interconnected throughout its vast expanses, and so intimately interconnected with everything within us. As you heal the souls of the people of this earth, may that inner healing also heal our world. And as we heal our world, may that, in turn, bring a healing peace to the souls of all the earth's people. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Wilma Wake