Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Sr. Shane Phelan, CMA*
Palm Sunday C – Sunday, March 24, 2013
The story is told that St. Teresa of Avila, on one of her many journeys, was crossing a river when she was thrown by her horse into the river. Landing with a splash, she looked up to heaven and said to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”
|Shane Phelan, Companion of Mary the Apostle|
It’s not just Teresa who encounters this problem. Jesus enters Jerusalem with blessing, coming in the name of God. Soon he will be dead at the hands of imperial power, abandoned and betrayed by many of those who today pronounce the blessing. No wonder God has so few friends.
But I don’t think God is the one with the problem. I think we have a problem. We have a scandal in our midst. Our faith is centered on one who is blessed, and the blessed one is crucified. What are we to make of that?
We can call it irony, but it’s not ironic. We can call it tragedy, but it’s much more than that. We can call it paradox, which is a nice version of contradiction. But all of those evaluations of this moment rest on a mistake. There’s no irony here, no tragedy, not even really a paradox. There’s simply blessing.
But what, exactly, does it mean to be blessed? Being blessed, like being God’s friend, is both less and more than it often seems to be.
When we hear the word “blessed” in the Bible, we are actually using one word for two distinct concepts. In the Beatitudes, we hear that the poor, the humble, the sorrowful are blessed. That’s a good word. In Greek it is makarios. It means to be happy, joyous. It’s good to hear Jesus tell us that things will not always be as they are, that we can turn around and rejoice, that we will be blessed.
But that’s not the kind of blessing that Jesus gets. When the crowds cry, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” the word Luke uses is eulogemenos, one receiving a blessing. The Greek in turn is translating the Hebrew barakh, which means to kneel, to receive a blessing.
Blessing, in this sense, does not make the blessed one happy. It makes them holy. It marks them off, it consecrates them. Our English word, “bless,” comes from the Old German word for spattering blood on the altar. To be blessed is to be a sacrifice.
Jesus was blessed, not as one who gets to have a quiet life with a wonderful family, but as bread and wine are blessed. Jesus was marked as God’s own, as a sign of God’s power, but not for his own enjoyment.
He really meant it. He did not come to do his own will, but that of God. He was blessed.
This is such a hard truth to grasp. Throughout our history we flee from this. We want to believe that virtue brings worldly success. that if we honor God we’ll get what we want. Like a good business deal.
We want the prosperity gospel, not only for the material goods it promises, but because it makes the world line up in an orderly way. It’s not just greed or self-interest that draws us to think like this. It’s just as much the desire for a world that makes sense. We want virtue to be rewarded and injustice to be punished. We need at least the hope of order and justice in the world.
But that’s not what blessing is about. If we honor God, we will indeed find joy and peace, but not in any simple way. If we honor God, we will more likely find ourselves in Gethsemane with Jesus, praying for the peace of the world.
Being blessed means walking into the chaos of the world. It means being a sign of God in the midst of a world that defies the power and love of God.
Being blessed in this sense is not a privilege of those of us who go into places of pain to serve others. Being blessed in this sense begins with those who are there, in the center of the pain. They are the signs of God, walking in the pitiful procession that leads to the cross. We, who the world considers more blessed than they, are in fact the spectators on the journey into Jerusalem. It is the poor, the homeless, the victims of rape and violence, the addicts, who walk in that procession. Jesus rides in on a donkey, not a Mercedes. Soon Jesus will walk back out, in even humbler fashion. And he will still be blessed.
We’ve each been blessed. We were blessed at our baptism, marked as Christ’s own. We may hope for blessings of peace and happiness, but they were not guaranteed in that blessing. We were dedicated to God’s service, like the vessels we will eat and drink from in a minute. We were given to be poured out, like the wheat and the wine. We were blessed. We are blessed.
Being blessed means walking with Jesus into the places he walked into. This week we will remember him in the temple, in the prison, and in the tomb. But remembering him in those places is not enough.
Today there are others who defy the Temple, the centers of religious power that turn toward serving themselves rather than God. We need to walk with them as they call us back to true worship and service.
There are people, faces of Christ, in prison and serving those in prison. We need to walk with them, and sit with them, in the black holes of despair and anger.
There are people on their way to death, victims of state violence and victims of private exploitation to the point of death. We need to walk with them, to protest their treatment, to lift the cross from their shoulders.
And there are people carrying less obvious, yet excruciating burdens, among us and within us. We need to walk with them too.
We need to do this because we have been blessed.
We need not fear this blessing. This blessing is good news. For God goes before us and with us, leading us into places we might rather avoid. God carries us into the darkest corners of the world, and the darkest corners of our hearts. But God goes with us, and gives us what we need to walk this road. We can even celebrate, as God carries us to joy and wonder beyond our wildest dreams. But we only get there by being blessed.
In the 8th century, Andrew of Crete wrote:
It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours. But we have clothed ourselves with Christ’s grace, with the whole Christ - “for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” - so let us spread ourselves like coats under his feet.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
* You can find out more about the Companions of Mary the Apostle (CMA) on their blog "Standing at the Empty Tomb."