(On March 31 I spoke to the Southwestern Ontario regional conference of StreetLevel. I took the opportunity to lead these wonderful frontline street ministers into Holy Week from the perspective of someone who was there. Someone who was passionate for his city. I think that maybe this can function well as a reflection for Holy Saturday. This day of disappointment. This day of such profound loss.)
I was passionate about my city.
I so longed that it would live up to its name,
that Jerusalem would indeed be a place
where shalom rained down like a Spring shower.
In this city, however, what we knew more violence than shalom.
Instead of the rains of peace, our streets knew more about the flow of blood.
Whether it was the forced labour to build this city under Solomon of old,
the oppression of the poor by the rich under one regime after another,
the child sacrifice during those times of idolatry,
the violent cruelty of the Babylonian invasion,
the bloody machinations of Herod the Great,
the hard boot and sharp swords of Roman occupiers,
or the Temple hierarchy with its sacrifices and extortionist taxation,
the result was the same.
Bloodshed, oppression, and a city of violence that begets violence.
But that’s not what a city named shalom is supposed to look like.
And I so longed that the promises for my city would be fulfilled.
I so longed for streets of safety
where there would no longer be the sound of weeping,
or the cry of distress;
where infant mortality would be unheard of
and old folks would live full and rich lives;
where folks would build houses
and inhabit them;
they would plant gardens
and have community feasts;
where people would have fulfilling labour
and child protection agencies would be irrelevant.
I so longed for a restored city of shalom,
where there would be no homeless neighbours,
where people would no longer need to numb themselves
with cheap wine,
where the vulnerable and broken would be held in love
and find their refuge in a community of justice.
This was my hope for my city.
And I worked with all of my heart to realize that hope.
But sometimes I just needed to get out of town,
and have some time alone to pray and rest.
So it had become something of an annual ritual for me.
On the first day of the week of Passover, I would get up dark and early,
pack a lunch with a good amount of wine to sustain me for the day,
and walk through the Temple precincts, out the Golden Gate,
down into the Kidron Valley,
and start the climb up the paths on the side of the Mount of Olives.
And, as usual, the guards by the gate would give me a bit of a look over,
but I always knew that it wasn’t folks leaving Jerusalem
that concerned them so much,
as it was folks entering later in the day.
You know there was never really just one reason
why I took this annual hike up the Mount of Olives
at the beginning of Passover week.
On the face of it,
I just wanted to get out of the hustle, bustle
and dust of the city for a day.
Smell the moist soil;
enjoy a little green instead of the drab browns and grays of the city.
Listen to the birds sing.
And just be quiet for a while.
Maybe that is it.
I wanted to be quiet.
It was Passover week, and I wanted to prepare myself.
As I climbed I would sing one of the great psalms of our people,
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!”
And I believed Psalm 118 as I sang,
even though most of the evidence all around me
brought into question whether it was true.
It’s hard to believe in God’s steadfast love
when everywhere you look you see imperial hatred and cruelty.
Somehow I’ve always had a hard time putting together God’s steadfast love
with Roman rule over the holy city.
Of course this tension was especially heightened for me,
and for all of my people, during Passover.
And that is why Passover was a dangerous time in Jerusalem.
Here we celebrated a feast of liberating memories
in the face of an oppressive reality.
In the face of Roman imperial rule we remembered
our earliest memories of imperial brutality, our first experience of slavery.
And we remembered our God
who confounded and destroyed our oppressors.
We remembered our exodus, the blood on our doorposts,
the Passover lamb.
So Passover was a dangerous time.
These kinds of memories only served to deepen our disappointment and pain,
and make more acute our longing for liberation.
It’s quite the thing to remember God setting you free
from one house of bondage
when you are living in another house of bondage.
And the Romans knew that Passover was a time ripe for revolution,
so the tensions in the city were high.
Perhaps so high that I just needed to get away,
climb the Mount of Olives
and calm myself for the week ahead.
But as I climbed and sang my psalm,
I remembered that there was always another good reason
to be up here at the beginning of Passover week.
From the top of the Mount of Olives I could not only see the holy city,
I could look down the road to my left and see the pilgrims
come up the Jericho road to the city and the Temple for Passover.
They would be singing the same psalm that I was singing,
and encouraged by their procession,
maybe I could believe that refrain about God’s steadfast love a little longer.
This particular morning, however, was different.
I was at the top of the mountain shortly after the sun had risen
and the Jericho road was still deserted.
But off in the distance to the west,
down the road that came in from the coast,
I could see a cloud of dust off in the distance.
And my heart began to beat with anxiety.
I stopped singing my psalm and stared down that road
trying to catch a glimpse of what was coming.
As the procession came closer and closer
it was becoming clear what it meant.
But then I began to hear noises coming from the other side,
sounds echoing up the valley from the Jericho road.
Familiar sounds of singing.
The pilgrims were coming to Jerusalem.
I looked down to my left for a few minutes,
straining to hear snippets of the same psalm,
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!”
Joy was beginning to overcome my anxiety,
but then I turned and looked again to my right,
down the road from the West, and there they were.
A fresh regiment of Roman troops marching down the road to Jerusalem.
A little show of force to remind the locals about who was in control around here.
A strong arm to keep an oppressed people down
and to confront their memories and hopes
with the hard reality of Roman boots, swords,
and … if necessary … crosses.
The Romans knew what week it was,
and they knew that Jerusalem posed a security threat
to the empire during Passover,
so they reinforced the security personnel in the city.
But the noise from my left was getting louder.
Joy and despair on a collision course.
Hope and repression about to meet again.
I looked back down the Jericho road
and listened again for the song of the pilgrims.
And then I first heard, and then saw something
that could only mean trouble this week.
What I heard was the crowd singing the end Psalm 118,
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,”
but it seemed like they were singing,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
That in itself was a dangerous thing to sing
in a land that already had a puppet king in the north, Herod,
and a Roman appointed governor here in the south, Pilate.
But what made this crowd recklessly seditious and a threat to us all,
was that it appeared that they actually had someone
who they were heralding as a king!
There in the middle of the crowd sat a man on a young colt,
or perhaps a donkey (I couldn’t tell from that distance),
and the crowd was shouting to him as the arriving king!
Laying down their cloaks and palm branches on the road
in order to keep the dust out of this king’s eyes,
they kept singing,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!”
And all I could think was,
thank God there is this mountain
between those crazy pilgrims and the soldiers
coming down the road from the other side of the city.
Because if there was one thing that was clear to me that morning,
it was that the pilgrims’ enthusiasm notwithstanding,
if this so-called king was going to bring peace in heaven,
it sure wasn’t too likely that any peace was going to come
from this display of civil disobedience along the Jericho road.
And my hunch was that this week would not see any heavenly peace in Jerusalem,
rather, all hell was about to break loose!
Rains of peace, you say?
Not too likely.
My city of violence was about to erupt again.
The same old shit,
the same violence,
the same repression,
the same blood stains on the streets.
I’m sorry, I know that I’m sounding cynical and jaded.
I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking, if it is Passover,
and if God is the God who sets his people free from the oppression of empire,
then why not embrace this display of revolutionary piety
down the Jericho road as a sign of God’s coming liberation?
Why not take this bit of street theatre as an encouragement
for my own hopes for the restoration of my city,
my own hopes for a renewal of Jerusalem?
Well, I have two reasons for my cynicism.
First, I’ve been there and done that.
You see, this wasn’t the first rabbi to show up out of the wilderness
proclaiming the day of the Lord.
He wasn’t the first to walk into Jerusalem with some divinely sanctioned
vision for urban renewal.
These guys are a dime a dozen,
and I’ve actually embraced a few of them myself,
only to be disappointed time and again.
No, that is not a path I am willing to go down again.
Not one of them has made my city into the promised city of shalom.
But there is another reason why I am so jaded.
You see, I lived in Jerusalem during that week and I know what happened.
In the first place, when I got back to the city it didn’t take too much effort
to find the band of messiah-welcoming pilgrims that I had seen.
I wanted to get to them and try to talk some sense into them,
tell them how dangerous this little display was.
But I first saw one of my Pharisee friends
and he told me that he and other Pharisees were out on the road that morning
to welcome the pilgrims.
And they actually had tried to get this rabbi to cool it|
and tell his supporters to quiet down.
You know what he said in reply?
“I tell you, if these people were silent, the stones on the side of the road would shout out!”
The stones on the side of the road? Right!
This guy thinks that all of creation will somehow recognize
that he is the returning king!
The crazy ravings of a back woods rabbi, however, weren’t my biggest worry.
I was worried about the Romans
and about this guy trying to pull off an insurrection,
that would spell disaster for everyone.
Blood would be flowing in the streets.
And, as I’ve said, there is no shalom in blood stained streets.
Finally I caught up to the crowd following him.
And where do you think he was going?
You got it, straight to the Temple.
Was he going to rally the people for action?
Was he seeking priestly sanction for his revolution?
Was he intending to collect the weapons that had been hidden there?
Or maybe pray that God would bless this revolution and drive out
the Romans as he had vanquished the Egyptians so long ago?
No. He did none of these things.
Rather, he walked into the Temple,
looked around at the daily business
of selling animals for sacrifice
and exchanging Roman currency for Temple money,
and went berserk!
He started yelling and screaming about his Father’s house
becoming a den of insurrectionists
and proceeds to kick over tables and drive people out!
If the little bit of street theatre on the road from Jericho
was provocative in the face of the empire,
then this outrageous behaviour in the Temple
could only be designed to incense and anger the leaders of the covenant people.
Well, it worked.
I don’t need to rehearse the story, it is fairly well known.
As the week progressed,
this rabbi had the people spellbound by his teaching|
and managed to alienate just about everyone
– Sadducees, Pharisees, the emperor, the scribes, the chief priests.
And, worse of all, he demonstrated nothing but contempt for the Temple
– even said that it would be destroyed.
Well, the leaders didn’t really need any more than that, did they?
I mean, if anyone had any lingering hope that this might actually be the Messiah,
then that hope was now dashed.
How could the Messiah of the God of Israel,
the God who dwells in the Temple,
ever believe that the restoration of Israel could be established
without that God and his Temple?
How could the City of David be restored,
how could this city be filled with the blessings of God,
how could the word go forth from Zion,
if Solomon’s Temple was not also restored?
By Thursday, things had pretty much come to a head.
I don’t know all the details,
but I hear that it happened at night,
there was a betrayal from within the rabbi’s own group of disciples,
the civic and religious authorities somehow got into collusion
and, well, then the crosses came out on Friday.
That’s how the Romans keep peace you know, by using crosses.
The peace of the cross, they called it.
I heard that the high priest had said something
about it being better that one man should die
than a whole people should perish.
He was a wise man that high priest.
So the rabbi died and they put a sign above his head on the cross that said,
“King of the Jews.”
The irony was a bit much, eh?
A king hanging on a cross.
As if the kingdom could ever come that way.
Well that was about a year ago now.
There are some folks who believe that this rabbi rose from the dead,
and now they are saying that the kingdom is actually here.
Yea, and so are the Romans.
Children are still born for calamity,
the homeless are still on the street,
weeping and the cry of distress fills the air,
blood stains the alleys,
the security forces keep a lid on things,
and Jerusalem still doesn’t live up to its name.
I’m not sure that it ever will.
I was passionate about my city.
Now I’m just numb.
I longed for a city where shalom
rained down like a Spring shower.
Now I’m just not so sure.
There have been too many damn crosses.
I don’t sing Psalm 118 anymore.
And I think I’ll take a pass on my annual hike up the Mount of Olives this year.