Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem: Flowery Sunday

Philippians 4:4-9 / John 12:1-18

In place of palm or olive branches, the faithful of the Slavic world bear in their hands branches of the pussy willow to recall the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. Of course, we might easily expect that climate had a great deal to do with the development of this custom. Palms and olive trees are harder to come by in Kiev than they are in Rome or Constantinople. However, it seems that the pussy willow among the pre-Christian Slavs was a sign of life and energy, a ward against the evils of disease and storms, the promoter of health and well-being, and herald of the coming of spring against the long, hard difficulties of winter.

To signal the pussy willow, then, for this day that recalls not only Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but in doing so anticipates his painful and terrible death upon the Cross, reveals a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Lord's entry. We might be tempted to see this Sunday only in terms of the next. That is, while we ordinarily recall on Sunday Christ's resurrection from the dead and his ushering into the world of the new and eternal life of God himself, we might see this Sunday as just a way to get the story started. Today, we may think, we recall his entry, Thursday the Last Supper, Friday the Crucifixion, Saturday the quiet of the Tomb and the Harrowing of Hell, and Sunday his glorious Rising to eternal life. While joyous in its own right, Flowery Sunday seems to be the odd man out.

Yet, in the flowering branch of the pussy willow, we are reminded that Christ's power to bring to life, while definitively and in a radically new way made manifest on Easter, was nonetheless already present in his Incarnation. This is why our Gospel today recalls repeatedly the presence of Lazarus with Jesus in his final days. Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead, we are reminded, and again, Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. In fact, the evangelist tells us that Lazarus, who had been dead but was called to life from the tomb by the Lord Jesus, was as much of a draw to the light of faith as Christ himself: and they came not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead. So powerful was the witness of Lazarus that he, too, became to object of the murderous designs of the same people who meant to see Jesus put to death — But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death — and yet, in spite of this, or indeed perhaps because of it, Lazarus and his new life brought people to new life in Christ: Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus. Indeed, after the Resurrection, it would be the witnesses of Lazarus' rising to new life that would constitute some of the first to bear witness to the Lord Jesus: The people therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead, bare record.

We, too, might find our life something of a Flowery Sunday. We might be inclined to see both moments of rejoicing and moments of darkness, but nonetheless eclipsed by the glories of time past and the hope of the glories to come. We might, that is, see is as a mere preparation, an important time to be sure, but not the day we have been longing for.

This, however, would be a mistake. Looking to the flowering of the pussy willow, and to the witness of Lazarus, we are reminded that the life-giving power of the Good News of Jesus Christ is active here and now. Here and now, right in our own time, the world is being transformed, indeed conformed, in the life of every Christian called to new life in the Lord, to the glory that will one day be revealed in full. Yet, even if not now revealed, it is no less here, even as Lazarus was no less brought to new life in Christ, and others through him to the new life of faith, even though Christ had not yet ascended his Cross, descended into Hell, or risen from the Tomb. Today is a day of rejoicing, a day of the flowering of joy, on which we can look to those signs, already present among us, indeed already present in our own lives, that Jesus Christ is with us, that he has chosen to dine with us as he did long ago in Bethany, and that in his presence, and by the witness of those brought to life in him, we may truly rejoice in the Lord always.

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