Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Face Like a Flint

It was no doubt a sweet little colt, that donkey's young one. Still with its mother, it had not yet been ridden on or broken. Yet this young animal was chosen to bear the weight of Jesus on His triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem.

And what a procession it would have been! Crowds gathering at the side of the road, increasing in momentum and volume as He approached the city. People throwing their robes down for Him to ride on, and hewing branches off the trees to wave and cover the crude path. They called out, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

Their voices swelled until all of Jerusalem - already bursting at the seams with additional people for the impending Passover celebration - started to pulse with excitement. "Who is he?" they demanded of people in the crowd. And members of the crowd who had followed Him around for the past three years, who had heard Him teaching, who had witnessed a miracle or two, were only too glad to reply that it was Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth in Galilee.

Maybe this was for whom they had been waiting for centuries, they thought. Maybe this was the prophet who would break the backs of those to whom they were in bondage. And they redoubled their cheering and celebrating.

And on Jesus rode, king for a day among the people He loved, among the people He had served and prayed and wept over. His face was set toward Jerusalem. He alone knew what awaited Him there.

He rode directly to the palace. Not the glorious palace of the earthly king, as the people might have anticipated, but to the earthly palace of the heavenly King. He had some unfinished business that couldn't wait any longer. For years He had been going to the Temple with His family and later with His followers. He had picked the brains of the priests and spoken with them of the things of God when He was quite young. He had read the scriptures there. In the last few years He had even challenged the spiritual leaders. For all of those years, how He must have hated seeing the desecration of what was supposed to be consecrated to Him! But His time had not yet come and so He had waited.

Now, however, He was not to be silenced. "My house is to be called a house of prayer," He thundered," but you have made it into a den of thieves!"

His time had finally come and He swept in, overturning tables and throwing out the merchants who had established their own for-profit organizations in this sacred space.

Then the crippled and the blind, emboldened by what they had seen and heard, made their halting way to Him and He healed them - right at home in His palace!

And the children sang to Him in their pure, sweet soprano voices, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" The children had heard, over and over, about the little shepherd boy who had killed the giant with nothing but a slingshot and a stone; that boy had become King David. They knew Jesus, too. He was one of the few grown-ups who always had time for them. He played with them and talked to them. He never told them to run along because He was too busy. As a matter of fact, when His disciples tried to tell them to get lost, He told the disciples to let them come to Him because it was people like them who formed the kingdom of Heaven. So of course these children wanted Him to be their king!

The chief priests and their acolytes were furious, however. And this commotion marked a new beginning in their determination to put paid to this rabble rouser, this usurper who did and was what they could only talk about.

By the end of the week, the priests would have plotted His demise.

He would have one last meal with His disciples, first washing their feet in an act of humility and leadership and love for His little flock.

He would take them to the garden of Gethsemane, where He would pray with His Father, asking for all that was to come to be taken from Him; but even having said that, He would submit to God's eternal will to be accomplished over His very human desire for reprieve. In His intensity He would sweat drops of blood. And He would discover that His disciples, far from supporting Him in His greatest hour of need and approaching abandonment, would all be found sound asleep.

One of His 12 closest companions would betray Him for thirty pieces of silver.

One of His dearest friends would vigourously deny even knowing who He was.

He would be dragged before rulers who would not be able to find fault with Him but were too scared and insecure to be able to withstand His accusers. This trial would end up being in three parts, with greater indignities being heaped on his head but no one able to state categorically what crime He had supposedly committed.

The crowd who, a few days earlier, would call out "Blessed be the Son of David!" would now demand that David's Son be crucified. They would mock Him and scoff Him. And He would remain, for the most part, utterly silent.

He would be beaten until He bled, until He could scarcely get up, the whip hissing past His ear, curling into His back, shredding His flesh.

He would be spit upon, gobs of saliva running down His face and neck.

A crude coronet of thorn branches would be fashioned and jammed down on top of His head, gouging His brow and skull. To move it even slightly would tear His skin further.

And this would all occur before He would be forced to drag the heavy cross, the instrument of His penultimate torture, up the hill - no doubt some of those same people who would herald Him on the road a few short days ago would now curse Him and jeer at Him as He would stagger under the weight of it. He would lay the cross on the ground and lay Himself upon it, feeling the air whistling past His face as they brought the hammer down on the nails pressing into His hands. How many hits of the hammer would it take for each hand? For His feet?

He would hang there while what was intended to be His indictment but was in deed a proclamation, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", was pounded into the wood just above His head. He would endure the sight and sound of the soldiers, supposedly guarding Him and his two companions, joking and laughing and gambling for His clothes as He hung there in agony.

Through the haze of pain, He would speak to the criminal hanging next to Him, telling him that the cry of his heart had been heard, and that that very day he would join Him in paradise.

He would see His mother helplessly weeping over Him again. How many times had He seen her disbelieved and misjudged and condemned and exiled by the people in their community! She had often wept then too, although she never blamed Him. She always believed, right from when the angel came to her as a young girl. Now the sword would pierce her heart, as the angel had foretold.

And He would see John standing with Mary. John the tenderhearted, one of His closest friends, would be undone to see Him hanging on the cross. John would brave the wrath and the scorn of the herd in order to be near Him in His final hours of pain; he would be the only one of the disciples to do so. John would care for His mother. They would care for each other. Though His heart would feel close to bursting, Jesus would speak to these two who loved Him with all their hearts, committing them to each other as mother and son.

And then the moment of greatest torture, far greater than all the physical anguish and brutality He would have to endure up to this point: He would undergo the searing rupture of the bond between God the Son and God the Father. He would cry in torment, "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?" This would be the first time, the only time, they would be parted. Indeed, the prophet had foretold this moment: "Your rebuke has broken His heart."

He would hang there, with the hosts of heaven on alert, ready at the slightest signal to do battle with the hosts of evil and to end this horror.

He would hang there as the sky would grow dark and the temple's veil would be ripped in two from the top down. He would hang as the graves of righteous people would open and release their dead, as the ground would split apart and the natural forces of this world would pause to witness the greatest war ever waged.

And when the war was won He would proclaim, "It is finished." The debt for sin would have been paid in full.

And He would die, mercifully after only about six hours. He would again be joined with His Father and would be able to say, with complete certainty, just before He died,  "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit."

It would be done.

Can you imagine having to select an animal for what will appear to be your triumphant ride into the city, all the while knowing  - in excruciating detail - what would transpire during the remainder of the coming week? It is no wonder He chose a humble donkey rather than a flashy steed. He was showing His disciples again how the foolish things would confound the wise. He was showing them again to focus on what was important.

It is no wonder that about that seemingly joyous ride on that lovely first Palm Sunday the prophet foretold His face would be set "like a flint."

There was no joy, no exaltation, no triumph for Him in His ride into His beloved city. He knew what He was going to be facing. He knew that the cries of the crowd were hollow, and that the effervescence of His friends and companions on that day would not last throughout even one week.
But He knew that He was resigned to doing the will of His Father.
And so "He set His face toward Jerusalem."

Palm Sunday Procession
(James J Tissot, 1836 - 1902)

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