Saint Benedict writes in the 6th century: “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days? Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out for us to open our hearts.”
“Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?”
When I first encountered that question in the preface to St. Benedict’s Rule, it made me want to raise my hand. I am in search of good days, but no more or less than each of you. I am also in search of enough good days to make a life, maybe even a good life. “We live our lives in search”, writes Frederick Buechner, “for a self to be, for other selves to love, and for work to do.” These are not new ideas invented by postmodern people, these ideas are as old as our species.
Our world is not a simple place. It never really was. But it is clear that with the noise and the pace and the demands of our lives in this information age, we struggle to balance all of these things. It is more difficult because it is more necessary than ever.
We are asked by the communities of which we are a part to do more, not less. In the places where we work, we are asked to be more productive, more efficient, to work longer and harder. We are seldom encouraged to rest and we are never asked to slow down. We are bombarded by information and by noise, and we are conflicted by our priorities and our choices and our time constraints. We are given tools—faxes, computers, iPhones and Blackberries—and yet we still have only one mind and one heart and one spirit. We have only a certain amount of strength and a finite number of hours in the day and only two hands with which to work.
How then do we balance all these competing voices and demands—some of them good, some of them not so good, and some of them simply omnipresent—with our longing to serve God? Jesus tells us that the Reign of God is within us, in all its glory and fullness. St. Benedict writes, “The Lord waits for us daily to translate his teachings into action. Our way of acting should be different from the world’s way because the love of Christ must come before all else.” And something in our hearts knows this is true on a profound level, but sometimes our lives say something else.
So here we are at a crossroads, with one foot in the past and one foot in the present, headed toward a future that is only going to get faster even as some of us get slower. Reading between the lines of today’s Gospel reading challenges us to examine our lives and to make better choices in the here and now.
Two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most holy week of the Jewish year. One of the processions was composed of peasants, the other of imperial troops. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was himself a peasant, from the peasant village of Nazareth and his message was about the Reign of God On the opposite end of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the Kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of Empire. The troops were needed as reinforcements during the festival season, when uprisings were most likely to occur. Passover, you will recall, celebrated the victory of Israel over a previous empire, the Egyptians, and the whole thing made the Romans rather nervous.
Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the Ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. It had begun with the greatest of the emperors, Augustus, who was called “son of God”, “lord” and “savior”, the one who had brought “peace on earth.” After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take permanent residence among the gods. Especially for the Jews in Jerusalem, Pilate’s procession embodied a rival view of the world and a rival theology.
Jesus’ procession was prearranged as a political “counter-demonstration” if you will. Jesus planned it in advance and its symbolism was clear, based on the prophet Zechariah’s writings. According to Zechariah, a king comes to Jerusalem riding a donkey and “he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” The king riding a donkey will banish war from the land; he will be the King of Peace.
Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God. This is the contrast and the choice—between the kingdom of God and kingdom of Empire—not only in the Gospel of Mark, not only in the story of Jesus, not only in the story of Christianity, but in our own personal stories.
We have to answer two nearly identical questions: The first is, Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? It is a crucial question because the Lordship of Jesus is the path of personal liberation, the return from exile, the conscious reconnection to God. The other question is: Do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Savior? The Gospel of Jesus, the good news of Jesus, which is the gospel of the Kingdom of God, involves both questions. Jesus did not, contrary to the views of some, come to preach about the rewards of Heaven. He came to proclaim the Reign of God in the here and now.
Holy Week and this journey of Lent we are bringing to a close, are all about an alternative procession and an alternative journey. The alternative procession is what we see today, on Palm Sunday: an anti-imperial and nonviolent procession. Now, as then, the procession of Empire leads to capital cities, imperial centers, places of collaboration between religion and violence. Now, as then, the alternative journey is the path of personal transformation that leads to journeying with the Risen Christ, just as it did for his followers on the road to Emmaus. Holy Week begins again today as the annual remembering of Jesus’ last week. It also presents us with questions that pierce us to the core of our being: Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?