When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. Luke 2:15-16 NIV
I am searching this Advent season for hope—hope that’s a tiny bit brighter, hope that lifts up my eyes to see more than I have seen before, hope that stirs in my heart, even for a moment. I feel the words of this hymn, ”I come in half-belief.” It’s not the most promising mood to bring to Advent, but it’s all I’ve got. The reasons don’t matter. They are myriad, as perhaps your reasons for hesitatingly approaching Advent.
The truth is that many of us have experienced struggles in the past year. The truth is that our country has seemed unbalanced, troubled, confused. It is also true that suffering has made its way into villages and cities and hamlets all over the world. I feel the strain. It affects my soul and troubles my spirit, so I longing for a gentle sign of hope to make its home in my heart.
My contemplation led me today to the hymn I share with you for your own reflection as we approach Advent’s first Sunday. I hope you will ponder the text and listen to the video of the choral arrangement. I am moved by this hymn every time I hear or sing it. The words invite me to the manger, the place where there is room and welcome always and forever. Even as hope eludes me, the eternal truth still stirs my soul: How could I forget how Love was born, and burned its way into my heart—unasked, unforced, unearned, to die, to live, and not alone for me. For all the world, the Hope of the world!
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6 NIV
Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word, I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred; But there is room and welcome there for me, But there is room and welcome there for me.
In that unlikely place I find him as they said: Sweet newborn Babe, how frail! And in a manger bed: A still, small voice to cry one day for me, A still, small voice to cry one day for me.
How should I not have known Isaiah would be there, His prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare: A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me, A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me.
Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned It’s way into my heart—unasked, unforced, unearned, To die, to live, and not alone for me, To die, to live, and not alone for me?
Dr. Jaroslav Vajda (1919-2008)
“Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” arranged by Craig Courtney | BYU Men’s Chorus featuring Laurence Lowe, French horn
I collect crosses. All over my house, you will find crosses on the wall. Big crosses, medium sized crosses, tiny crosses and even jewelry crosses! Some are beautiful like my San Damiano cross with an icon of Christ printed on it. Some are ornate. Some are made of wood and others are cast in stone. Some are made of iron and some are simple, lovely crosses made from a palm frond. So today I found the image of the cross you see above. I call it the kaleidoscope cross. The cross is a bit over the top with the palms surrounding its tie dyed, kaleidoscope-ness. Still, it is surrounded by all those palm fronds, so it seems suitable for the day we call Palm Sunday.
People named it Palm Sunday because of all the waving, swaying palm branches in Jerusalem on the day Jesus went there trying to ride in on a donkey. And they named it that because of all the shouts of “Hosanna.” Maybe they even had some kaleidoscope crosses around on Hosanna day, or at least a kaleidoscope of cloaks on the ground. For Jesus and his followers, though, it was just a day to go to Jerusalem, but to go there in an unforgettable way. To be sure, it was a day of palm fronds waving furiously, shouts of Hosanna, cheering and a kaleidoscope of colorful cloaks on the pathway. If only that had been the only reality of that day! But it wasn’t and it isn’t.
In fact, I take exception to Palm Sunday. I take exception to our palm-waving celebration and our kaleidoscope cross, unless we also include the passion story of Christ. For those of us who observe Holy Week, there is no problem. We will relive the story of Christ’s passion all the way to the cross. But if you celebrate only Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday; you will miss the most important part — the passion of Christ. So let’s look at the story.
There is no doubt it was a strange parade. They sang and shouted “Hosanna” at the top of their lungs. Peter might have reached out and grabbed a little kid in the crowd. Then maybe Andrew reached up to break off a branch from a palm tree to give it to the kid. Maybe he placed it in the kid’s hand and watched the child join with the crowd, cheering and waving like mad at their king on a donkey.
There’s something about a people so beaten down with sorrow and fear of Rome. They had little left to lose. Maybe this is what made them join the band of Jesus followers, welcome them and wave branches. Maybe having little left to lose moved them to join the cheering and the singing, the dancing and the shouting. Some stripped off their colorful cloaks and laid them on the path. Jesus was there in the middle of it all, of course, calm and steady, solid and resolute.
I imagine that, if the disciples could tell us the story of that day, it would sound something like this:
Things got a little out of hand.
But that never seemed to bother Jesus. He got tired sometimes. He needed rest and alone time sometimes, but he didn’t try to control us. He let us be however we were. That day we were happy, and he didn’t bother to explain or tell us anything to make us unhappy.
As for the Pharisees, well, it was one of the things they hated the most about him, the way he refused to control us. He didn’t seem to need to control anyone and, therefore, refused to let anyone control him. He didn’t tell us much either, and that bothered us too, if we’re honest. We couldn’t figure out how he might overthrow the Romans without taking for himself some measure of the power and control they exerted over us. But it bothered us less when we were with him, because when we were with him, we felt like we could believe anything and we really thought things would change when we got to Jerusalem — change in a big way.
To the Pharisees, it was blasphemy — all of it. The way we sang and danced in the street, the image of Jesus on the donkey like some kind of street guy playing king. It was all offensive to the Pharisees. But mostly it smacked of disorder and freedom, two things they feared and fought tooth and nail.
“Rabbi, tell them to stop, make them stop!” they shouted.
Jesus turned from watching the dancing children, the singing men and women. We watched him meet the Pharisees’ eyes. Peter’s hand involuntarily clutched the hilt of his sword. Jesus held the donkey still while all around him the crowd rose and swelled. There was amusement in his eyes and he smiled a sad smile.
“If I tell them to stop,” he said, “the stones you walk on will rise up singing and dancing. You cannot stop joy, my friends, cannot stop praise that flows like a river. Heaven and earth are being un-damned. We will sing and dance while we can.”
If we ever needed permission, we had it. We cheered and sang all the louder, “Hosanna! Hosanna! All glory, laud and honor to Thee, Redeemer, King!”
It felt like a fresh new day! Like everything we waited for was so close we could almost taste it. It was glorious.
It’s harder now, to talk about everything else that happened. When we reached the inner edge of Jerusalem, Jesus burst into tears and the words he spoke terrified and confused us. Confusion and fear followed us everywhere that week. It hunted us, hounded us.
For a long time, when we remembered, we felt regret, embarrassment, deep sadness. We now see how little we really understood. But Jesus loved it. In some ways, it seems as if he carried our praise with him through the darkness he would endure. He must have focused on the memory of our singing when the crowds cried out for his death.
When we look back on it all — all of it — it is so clear that Jesus’ first desire wasn’t to change us. It was to be with us. And his being with us, changed us, slowly into something closer to who he was, what he was.
We like to remember it like this: Jesus carried us with him — our joy, our love — to the cross. And we carry him with us — his joy, his love — through every week ahead, singing and dancing or weeping in sorrow. We carry him, he carries us.
If only you and I had been there — then maybe we would understand the week that began on Palm Sunday as being more than a “Hosanna moment.” Perhaps we could get beyond palm branches and kaleidoscope crosses, because the cross of Christ wasn’t colorful at all. His cross was a rough, rugged, splintery, stark symbol of crucifixion and of death.
If only we had been there . . . we might have dropped our palm branches to the ground, running after him as fast as our legs could carry us. We might have followed him all the way up the hill, to the cross, the rugged one.
We might have followed him that day. We could have followed him that day and followed him all the way to the inevitable conclusion of his life. We might have refused to escape his suffering that day and in the days ahead. And we can refuse to escape his suffering in this day. We can follow him in this day, learning about and committing to all the ways we might follow him.
It’s easier now really, because Christ lives. Christ lives in us. “The Church is His body,” writes Joseph B. Clower, Jr., one of the theologians I studied in seminary, who beautifully explained the true meaning of Christ Incarnate. This is the last paragraph in his book, The Church in the Thought of Jesus.
The Church is His Body. He clothes Himself in her humanity. She is His continuing incarnation. It is not fiction, therefore, to say that the Church can share in the suffering of Christ. If the Church will give His Spirit free course in her life, she cannot escape suffering. If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then the Church’s eyes flow with His tears, her heart is moved with His compassion, her hands are coarsened with His labor, her feet are wearied with His walking among [all people] men.
I must ask myself: Is my heart moved with Christ’s compassion? Are my hands coarsened with his labor? Do my feet get weary walking among the people who suffer all around me?
I guess what all of this means is that palm branches snd kaleidoscope crosses cannot even begin to symbolize Christ’s walk past the palms and on to the old rugged cross. Isn’t it a walk we must walk with him? Isn’t it a path of suffering we must take into our souls as Christ’s incarnation on the earth?
The choice is between a kaleidoscope cross and an old rugged one. It’s a choice we have to make every day.