“Courage is fear that has said its prayers,” a wise woman said. It is time to hold to our faith, to find our courage through prayer.
50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.
Hey, Wait a Minute
It is jarring, this sudden shift from the parade of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem to this dark day of Jesus’s arrest, trial, and death. Everything was going so well, and then, suddenly, it all falls to pieces.
That movement is captured in one of the video clips sent to me this week. A child waves his palm and says,
“Hosanna, Hosann----Hey, wait a minute.”
I think Andy captured the whole liturgical movement in a that one half second clip. “Hosanna, Hossan---wait a minute.”
I have been thinking a lot this week about Chuck Yeager, the first pilot ever to break the sound barrier. The test pilots knew that their aircraft was capable of Mach 1, but every time they got it close, it would shake so much that they would pull it back. It felt like the aircraft would fall to pieces if they pushed it any faster.
Yeager had a theory about how the sound barrier functioned as an emotional barrier. He pushed the X-1 up to Mach .98 and everything shook like it was going to fall apart. That had, as he said with his typical understatement, a certain emotional effect on a pilot. But, instead of pulling back, he pushed his fear aside, and pushed the throttle all the way to the firewall. It got even worse for a few seconds and then, suddenly, his speed indicator jumped all the way to the right and everything smoothed out. He had broken the sound barrier.
Jesus found that he could teach and preach and heal people all over the countryside and his movement gained momentum and followers and enthusiasm. By the time he arrived in Jerusalem, crowds welcomed him with a parade. But, when he began to heal people in the temple on the Sabbath, the air became thick with tension. It wasn’t that the religious leaders did not want the Messiah to come; they did.
They just did not think Jesus was up to the job.
When the crowd shouted “Hosanna,” it was more than “Hurray!” though it was that. Literally, Hosanna means “Save us!”
The salvation the crowds had in mind was from the Roman government and ruling class that taxed everything that moved, conscripted their sons, and enslaved anyone who could not pay both their debts and their taxes.
The religious leaders, however, had reached a kind of balance of power with Rome. It was a fragile peace, but relative peace nonetheless. If a Messiah had shown up ready to take on the Roman army and political machine, they probably would have supported him.
But Jesus? A man who preached peace and loving your enemy?
This was not the guy. In their estimation, Jesus would stir up trouble but he did not have the ruthlessness and military power it would take to see it through.
The whole city of Jerusalem was in turmoil, Matthew says.
Jesus had taken his movement all the way up to the edge of Mach 1 and everything was shaking, rattling, and coming apart. The prudent thing to do would have been to lie low, head back out to the countryside, maybe go see his family for the Passover holiday.
Instead, Jesus pushed the throttle to the firewall. He challenged the authenticity of the religious rulers. He pointed out how they picked and chose their religious rules and followed parts of the law with compulsive attention while leaving behind the essence of God’s law—the care of the most vulnerable among them.
Jesus pushed them and pushed them with his confrontative parables and his head-on challenges, and when the turmoil increased, he pushed some more until they arrested him, brought him to “trial,” and crucified him.
Our traditional liturgy for this final Sunday of Lent throws on the brakes of the Messiah train suddenly. One moment we’re waving palms and welcoming Jesus with shouts of Hosanna, and then, “wait a minute,” suddenly, the darkness of the story takes over.
From parade to arrest, just like that.
Isn’t that how we, too, experience catastrophe? Pearl Harbor, September 11, 2001, the sudden onset of this pandemic after not having one this contagious and this deadly this close to home for 102 years? When our scientists found a successful treatment for HIV infection, brought H1N1 under control, and protected us from the full wrath of Ebola, SARs, and MERs, we began to feel invincible.
The parade has come to a halt. The world is in turmoil.
Here’s where our faith gives us solace and hope.
Turmoil is never the end of the story. In fact, our faith ancestors were so confident of coming out of the other side of turmoil, breaking through the times when it felt as though everything was falling apart, that they wrote about the coming victory of God’s reign in the past tense. You remember Jonah in the belly of the whale? You might think he would be a bit fearful in there. Getting eaten by a shark, a whale, or a big fish would seem to be the end of things.
But Jonah sings, “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and God answered me.”
He goes from Hosanna, “Save us,” to “Thank you, God, you saved me,” while he is still in the belly of the whale.
And Mary the mother of Jesus sings, while she is pregnant and unmarried, in a terrible fix, “Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”
Here’s what Matthew does: at the moment that Jesus breathes his last, things literally fall to pieces. The curtain of the temple was torn, the earth shook, the rocks were split.
And then, Matthew tells us, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
To quote Andy again, “Hey. . . .Wait a minute.”
The dead were raised at the moment of Jesus’s death?
This is Matthew’s way of telling us that resurrection is assured, even in the darkest moments. In the belly of the whale, in the most difficult situations of our lives, in the midst of a pandemic, even at the moment of death, we can make our song not just “Hosanna,” Save Us, but “Alleluia,” we are saved.
Not too long ago, I visited the Smithsonian Air and Space museum and I saw Chuck Yeager’s X-1. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I saw made me shiver to think of his Mach 1 flight in that aircraft. It was scarcely larger than a couple of metal barrels welded together with a rocket attached to the back of it.
From all that I read, we are about to enter a critical time in fighting this virus. The number of cases will increase exponentially both from the contagion and from increased testing. The number of deaths will continue to rise on a steep curve, doubling every 2 and a half days.
It will feel like all the distancing we have done over the past 3 weeks is doing no good. This is not the time to turn back, to give up, to resign ourselves to the worst case. It is a time to push the throttle of distancing to the firewall and bear the emotional and economic consequences of staying home until we break through to the other side.
“Courage is fear that has said its prayers,” a wise woman said. It is time to hold to our faith, to find our courage through prayer, and sing with Jonah and Mary and Matthew of the assured victory we already have through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.