Ludgate Circus

The Tate Britain has, as you probably know, a permanent ‘Walk Through British Art’ exhibition, which occupies a large number of rooms divided over periods, often by individual decade. The last time I visited I spent most of my time in the 1900-themed room.

What intrigued me most and caught my imagination was that these works were all done in an era when British imperial power was reaching its apex (all those pink countries on the map), and yet just a few years before the world would come to know devastation and change on an unprecedented scale: the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II and the advent of the atomic age, to name but a few significant events.

The artists knew nothing of what was to come.  The paintings and sculptures of those early years of the 1900’s largely exude an air of bright confidence and optimism.  The tender and powerful Ecstasy by Eric Gill, Furse’s Diana of the Uplands in silky white dress and flowered hat walking her dogs, the Mountains of Moab by John Singer Sargent casting a golden glow about the far reaches of empire.  Why, even Albert Rutherston’s Laundry Girls somehow maintain a ruddy-cheeked contentment as they go about their tedium (the models were actually vegetable sellers from a local market stall).

But it was a London painting that held my attention the longest.  Ludgate Circus by Jacques-Emile Blanche, painted circa 1910, to my mind perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the times.

Ludgate Circus: Entrance to the City (November, Midday), c. 1910, Jacques-Emile Blanche

See the lively city bathed in autumn sunshine.  The men in their top-hats and jackets, the women in bright flowing gowns.  See the few remaining horses and carriages jostling for space with bright red, new-fangled, motorised buses.  A steam-powered train – one of the enduring icons of British ingenuity and industry – crosses Ludgate Hill railway bridge (only in recent times demolished to make way for Thameslink).  And in the distance, presiding serenely over the hubbub of the streets, St. Paul’s, rising again from the billows of London’s smoke, already a phoenix-like emblem of the city’s resilience long before any Nazi bomb was to worry the heads of its proud congregants.

They never saw it coming.

That within 10 years 18 million people would die and 23 million would be wounded in the Great War; that a hopeful Roaring 20’s rebound would be immediately quashed by years of economic uncertainty and suffering, followed again by the most catastrophic warfare and genocide the world has ever seen, where an astounding 60 million people would die.  A young person stepping forward into adulthood on that sunny midday in November of 1910 could never have imagined that the greater part of their most vital, productive years would be given over to so much collective pain and destruction.  The bright amiability of Blanche’s painting seems hauntingly shallow and naive looking back with the hindsight of today.

Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t now on the cusp of the same kind of human tragedy, an era where everything changes comprehensively.  When we witness even the early manifestations of global climate change – the fires, the hurricanes, the droughts,  when we read of the mass extinction of mammal and plant species across the globe, when even the insect population – those creatures that account for two-thirds of all life on earth – now appears to have dropped unprecedentedly in the past 30 years; when we take all this into account can we disagree with those who say the earth is entering a new epoch in its history, the Anthropocene Epoch, whose hallmarks are largely determined not by geology or the elements but more directly by human behaviour?  A topic for another time, perhaps; but I am quite sure that the world my grand-children are being born into is already vastly different than the one I knew as a child.

Shall we touch on the Scriptures?  We probably should.  They contain much of the wisdom of human experience, for all the ages.

The people of Asia Minor, with Ephesus particularly in focus, were faced with a completely unexpected paradigm shift.  The Romans and the Greek-speaking populations had long ascribed spiritual power and well-being to a pantheon of (mostly) helpful gods and goddesses.  The Jews living among them held to the rituals of the Law of Moses and service to a single, Almighty God.  And there was plenty of folk religion too, people turning to all sorts of self-declared holy men and women, relying as they did on incantations and dark arts to tap the power of the unseen world.

And along comes a man named Paul, in Acts chapter 19, teaching that the Almighty God of the Jews has recently been revealed in human form by a common but extraordinary man named Jesus, and that this man – having been executed and rising again in glory – now reigns in unity with God, sharing greater authority than every other claimant to spiritual allegiance.  Not only that, but Paul puts good to his claims with a string of remarkable demonstrations of curative powers, exorcising evil spirits and healing the sick in the name of Jesus, and generally threatening the livelihoods of the local holy men and women, who were accustomed to charging good money for their efforts.

In essence, a new age had dawned, significant life change had arrived, and the people of Ephesus were faced with a decision about how to respond.

What did they do?  They reacted as humankind has always done: with a variety of approaches.  Some couldn’t even contemplate the new thing: they were happy enough to dis Paul and his nascent religion, boot him out of their sphere and get back to what they knew.  Others believed they might combine a new allegiance with the old: they tried to co-opt Paul’s teaching, picking and choosing the bits they liked (the parts they could make a living from) and grafting the new onto the old.  Still others saw the new thing as an existential threat; the best thing to do was to rip it out, root and all: let’s kill Paul and his followers and be done with it.

And finally, some accepted Paul’s message for what it was, a new way of understanding the movement of God, finding it to be Good News, and embracing the new paradigm of Christ.


“If we are truly made in the image of God then to have gained a greater understanding of the character and purposes of the divine means that we will have gained a greater understanding of ourselves.”


No matter what you believe is factual in this story, it does beg the question: What is our response when God unexpectedly breaks into our life in a new way?  What do we do when we are confronted with a message that might well threaten our long-held allegiances and ways of thinking but also holds out the promise of new vitality and purpose?

Nowhere do the scriptures indicate that when God finished the work of creating the earth, God was done with creation.  Time marches on, history changes things, God is never done with God’s work.

And if we are truly made in the image of God then to have gained a greater understanding of the character and purposes of the divine means that we will have gained a greater understanding of ourselves.

What will we do?  Cling to the old?  Or move with God and our fresh perspective into the new day, whatever that day may bring.

Advertisements

Despair on the Express Bus

Her body suddenly pushed up against me as she took her place in the empty seat and the gentle nudge made me open my eyes.

I’ve grown accustomed to spending some of my morning and afternoon commute, eyes closed, in prayerful thought about the people and tasks of the day ahead – or the day behind. The discipline inevitably breaks down on the homeward journey as I fall into a light sleep, enjoying fleeting and outrageously strange dreams, my ears still somehow attuned to the call of the approaching stops. The mornings, though, are different: alert from breakfast and a good night of sleep, I can focus.

Her partner, or friend, had taken the sideways seat ahead of us and, once settled, they continued their conversation. I closed my eyes again and leaned further into the window.

A heavy West London accent. Rough, crude, bad grammar and diction. Uneducated and poor, was my guess. But also sad and desperate. The timbre of her voice, the tremble of emotion, was impossible to ignore.

She reviewed an abusive and broken relationship, a needy child, an unfinished education and chronic unemployment. She was already deeply in debt. How was she going to make it to the end of September?

I thought of my own daughters, of a similar age. How would I feel if they were dealing with these pressures? How is it that I and my family have been so blessed?

“Maybe I can find something near Sophie’s school,” she continued, “drop her off before work; some place I can walk to from home.” A pause followed, as they both took in what she just said.

“Who am I kiddin’? Who’s going to hire me anyway?”

There was a long silence, the hum of the bus filling the void.

A tear crept to the edge of my eye, threatening to run down my cheek.

“Are you alright?” said a man’s voice, hesitating, timid. It was her friend.

I started, opening my eyes again, embarrassed that my emotion had caught me out.

But no. He was looking at her, concern flooding his face as she sat silently sobbing into her hands.

Trinity

Draw a circle on a piece of paper.  Go on, gentle reader, just indulge me for a minute or two. Any piece of paper will do, any poorly drawn circle.

This circle represents the unity of God.  As you learned in geometry class, even though there are only 360 degrees in a circle, there are an infinite number of points on it.

Now put three dots, three points, anywhere on your circle.

These are the points of reference that Christian theology refers to as “Trinity”. These points can be anywhere on the circle but if you draw a line between each point and the other two you will notice that, no matter where you positioned them to begin with, they are always in a triangular relationship with each other.

Alternatively, should you begin with three random dots on your paper, and the lines between them, you will also discover that this triangle, however you have draw it, will always be on the same circle; they will always share the same unity.

A triangle is the only multi-sided shape for which this is always true. It is easy to draw a four-sided shape whose points cannot be connected by a circle; you can also draw a five-sided shape for which this is not true; a six, a seven, and so on. But you can never draw a triangle whose points do not share a circle between them.

A “Trinity” of points always shares the same unity.

The scriptures tell us some things about each of the points of the Trinity, also in relation to the others. But they don’t tell us everything. God is an unbounded mystery. The locations where the divine is revealed are infinite. The words we use to describe these points are only as confined as our vocabulary, reflecting our era and culture, showing up the limits of our language and experience.

The Boundaries of Inclusion

Seventy-five million passengers pass through London Heathrow every year!  Seventy-five thousand workers find their employment there!  Oh the humanity!

On my very first day of airport chaplaincy, nearly 20 years ago at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, doing a placement as the student of a theological college, I was left alone to be the host of the Meditation Centre.  Not ten minutes after my supervisor left me, a man in long white flowing robes and an impressive turban came striding confidently into the prayer space.  He looked around, did not find what he was looking for, so came to the adjoining office where I was sitting and asked in broken English for a plastic cup.  We had one, he took it, returned to a corner of the room, peed into the cup, said an incantation of some sort in a language indecipherable to my ears, promptly drank his urine and brought the cup back to me with a polite ‘thank you’.  Then he swept out of the room with as much pomp as he had entered, leaving me dumfounded and bewildered.  And with a plastic cup in my hand which I did not wish to hold for very long!

Talk about ‘all sorts’.  (I’ve learned since coming to the UK that this ‘all sorts’ term can be a useful and polite English way of referring to people who we in the Americas would simply call ‘weirdos’…)

The European refugee crisis, Brexit border controls, President Trump forcing the conundrum of ‘Dreamers’ upon the US Congress: the incessant movement of peoples across the globe can be disorientating, threatening, and turn us into willing conservatives.  Not the big “C” Conservatives, as in Tories – although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – but no, little “c” conservatives, the kind who are averse to change, who would simply be much happier if things stayed the same for awhile.  Why can’t ‘these people’ stay in their own countries?

The record of history is against us.  Human migration has never stood still.  The span of our own lives is so short, our individual experience so limited, that we take no account of the long history of our own people and land.  The Normans, Saxons, Danes, Romans, Celts; peoples on the move, peoples whose DNA is now our own.

(St. Paul, being a theologian, blames God for the problem: “From one man God made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Acts 17.26)

But we never tire of trying do we?  To stem the flow?  Border controls, immigration policies, Mr. Trump’s fabled Wall (“The Best Wall e-ver. Really.  Such a Good Wall. China; Hadrian; Pink Floyd.  I’m telling you, nothing like it.  Such a Great Wall.”).  History won’t stop, people will always move, but still we try.

Who is allowed in, and who must be kept out?  This was a burning question for the nascent Church as well.  The natural inclination was to fall back on the existing social categories that segregated men and women, Jew and non-Jew, clean and unclean, slave and free, and so on.

However, Jesus had done a new thing.  He set a pattern during his ministry, and backed it up with his teaching, that the Church was to be a different kind of society, one where the boundaries of inclusion were always being pushed outward.

Think of it.  Jesus chose to sit down to dinner with prostitutes, corrupt government officials, ‘wine-bibbers’ and other assorted sinners.  The scandal!  He was vilified by the religious leaders of his day.  (I think it is Anne Lamott who said something to the effect of: ‘Jesus was always threatening people; threatening to include them!’)

Not long after Jesus died, his follower Peter – a good, observant Jew – suddenly realized (with a bit of nudging from above) that he had the liberty to enter the home of a Gentile and declare to a Roman soldier, one of the occupiers of his homeland, that the same spiritual blessings that Peter himself enjoyed where also available to this man.

And Paul!  Paul was initially an even greater zealot for religious purity who, after his transformation on the Damascus road, became the Church’s champion of inclusion.  Paul it was who told the non-Jewish men not to bother being circumcised; who appointed women to public ministry in the Church, who elevated slaves to equal standing before God, who consorted with foreigners of all ethnicities and languages. He died in Rome, a place he had hoped to use as his base for further spreading the Good News among the peoples of the Western Mediterranean.  In his combined cover letter and CV to the people he hoped would be his financial backers – what we call the Letter to the Romans – he makes an extraordinary statement showing how far he has come from his days of ritualistic purity: ‘I am convinced, and I say this as in the presence of Christ himself, that nothing is intrinsically unholy’  (Romans 14.14).

The Church’s early debates come to a head in the Book of Acts, chapter 11, where we find both an account of Peter’s defence of his innovative inclusion of the Roman centurion, and a report of the first significant inroads of the Gospel among groups of non-Jews, in Antioch.  It is instructive to note (v.26) that it was at Antioch that this group of disciples were first called Christians.

“Christians”, followers of Christ; not “Jesus-ites” or the like.  This new group, this new society, are people who find their identity not bound to the work of God in a particular place and culture (Jesus himself said he was a prophet to the people of Israel), but rather their identity is anchored to the concept of ‘the Christ’, to the cosmic hope representing the incarnational interface between the divine and the human, wherever and whenever that takes place.  Jesus is no longer with us in body; God in Christ is.  You don’t have to live like a first century itinerant Jewish prophet to participate in the message he brought.

This can’t end well, can it?  This ever expanding umbrella?  These tent pegs that one by one are pulled out of the ground and banged in again a bit further out?  It’s getting a bit rough and breezy around the edges, don’t you think?

The scriptures of the New Testament themselves tell us of the early push-back, of the ones who feared the Church had gone too far, had opened its doors a bit too wide.

But if Jesus’ own allegories are of any use to us here, it actually does end well.  Let’s switch to the metaphor of the wedding feast: It doesn’t end how the invited guests were expecting it to, no; but a wedding feast of all the ‘worst’ people, collected from the highways and the byways, having a jolly good time bathing in the fountains of grace, well, that is a happy ending.

Part of the challenge of the so-called white man’s privilege, in so far as it exists in our parishes today, is that we have managed to construct a world were we no longer have to be uncomfortable if we don’t want to be.  We’re always in control of the situation and of the conversation. That’s not an option for people of colour; or for the poorly educated and underemployed; or for our LGBTQ members; or for people who have the wrong accent.  They can never truly relax among us, never truly feel at home, because at some point we well-educated, well-resourced, properly-connected straight folk who call all the shots and never spit on the pavement are eventually going to say or do something that makes it clear that, well, when it comes right down to it, you’re not really one of us.  We just tolerate you.  (When we feel like it.)

In the beginning God created Adam and Eve, right?  Well, yes, but no.  In the second of our Creation myths, the Genesis chapter 2 version, God first only created Adam.  There was a time when it was only Adam; no Eve.  And Adam without Eve is socially uncategorical: Adam is just human, nothing more; without another human with which to compare there is no duality, no gender, no race, no status.  There is just the human and the Creator. This is who we are, before any labels are applied to us, before any boundaries are erected.

Who is the uninvited guest for whom we must now find a chair at our table?  Does their category bother you?  Their social label?  Because, believe me gentle reader, their type doesn’t bother God any more or less than your type does!

It will likely never end, this holy discomfort, this Christian dis-ease, as over and over again we discover the wideness of God’s grace.  Thanks be to God!

 

For people of all faiths…and those of none.

Anyone who takes the time to survey the world of airport chaplaincy with anything more than a passing interest will soon discover that there are as many different varieties of chaplaincy as there are airports. Every airport has a unique set of characteristics: its physical location, size, the nature of local businesses, passenger & cargo ratios, management structure, national significance, and on and on. All of these factors play into the response formulated by local faith communities when meeting the need for a presence at the airport.

And of course, the most fundamental questions to be addressed are all about people. Who works at the airport? Who travels through it? What is the faith experience – if any – of these individuals? What kind of spiritual and emotional support might they value when they are at work or traveling? What can the chaplaincy bring that enhances the atmosphere for both passengers and personnel?

In a place like London Heathrow Airport, the response to these questions must surely include a Multi Faith dimension. Each and every chaplain and volunteer is there for the benefit of people of all faiths, and those of none. In an hour of need we cannot discriminate by creed or colour, or by any other category of humanity. Insofar as we are able, and the individual will allow, each chaplain will do their utmost to be of some meaningful assistance. It goes almost without saying that Heathrow, one of the world’s most prominent international airports, located within the boundaries of a hugely diverse and multi-cultural city, should rightly have a chaplaincy corps which reflects the broad strokes of that diversity.

Chaplains are not Lone Rangers, or shouldn’t be. They are not self-appointed and self-sponsored do-gooders, hobbyists and clerical aviation-geeks merely indulging a personal interest. No, they are properly vetted representatives of local faith communities or societies for non-religious world-views, giving hands and feet and heart to express the collective interest in promoting the common good. Chaplains are an extension of our broader society and thus a mirror of its diversity.

Does this mean we lose our distinctiveness or that we gloss over our differences? No, we cannot afford to be either naïve or sentimental; we embrace instead a more mature and measured dialogue than is, sadly, often witnessed between members of our faith groups in other forums. Whilst maintaining our own identity we must choose to focus on those things that unite us rather than those that divide us.

And there is plenty that unites us. All people, no matter their creed, know something about the importance of compassion and care in time of need. All major faiths and philosophies espouse doing good to one’s neighbour. And holy scriptures throughout history have drawn on the lessons of pilgrimage, of the importance of the journey, a theme that resonates deeply in the setting of an international airport.

Multi-faith airport chaplaincy is not about the promotion of religion; it is about the simple recognition that people everywhere take their faith with them when they travel or go to work. The chaplain is present as a resource to encourage them in finding value and meaning as they make their own life journey.

Jude

The year I spent in Texas was pretty much the worst year of my life.

Reed Junior High School had an Eighth Grade class of over 500 students – the school I moved away from had 20 – and I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of it, confused as well by a Texas culture that made no sense to me and upset that my parents would willfully uproot our family and bring us to this outlandish place.

We settled in Duncanville, a sprawling southern suburb of Dallas, in a rancher on Peach Street, part of a 1960s development with small but pleasant enough houses, rentals mostly.  The walk to school took about twenty minutes and brought me up to Vinyard Road at the edge of the neighbourhood – yes, Vinyard, not Vineyard – a street with a mystery to its name and characterized by larger lots and older, not always well-maintained, properties.

I don’t recall the first time I met Jude; it was his dogs who befriended me.

As I passed his run-down house early one September morning, the dogs, resting on the front porch, raised their old greying heads to eyeball me, then got their stiff legs under them enough to come padding slowly down the overgrown lawn, huffing and wagging their friendly greeting.  They were mongrels, of course, old and rotund, looking as if they might have some Lab and German Shepherd in their lineage.  They licked my hands, happily grunting and smiling, circling around until, as if by some secret signal or pre-determined agreement, in unison they abruptly ended the ceremony and headed back to the porch, throwing themselves down in their respective places and nodding off again, tired already from the social exertion.

Their names, as I learned later from Jude, were Obesitas and Katastrophe.

“Obi! Kati!” Jude would yell, himself barely visible in the darkened room behind the screen door, “Saviour Christ Almighty, git y’r asses back up here on the porch and leave that poor kid alone!”  Then the door would fly open and out he would come, maneuvering his wheelchair across the porch with remarkable speed and agility.

Jude’s legs were amputated above the knee.  He wore faded denim vests over white T-shirts, wire-rimmed glasses, and had long grey hair which he pulled back in a pony-tail. He was almost always surrounded by a sweet, grassy fragrance, something I only later in life came to recognize as weed.  It was impossible for me to tell his age, the wrinkles of his face being contradicted by his lean, strong arms.

It wasn’t long before the pattern of my homeward afternoon treks became punctuated with stops at Jude’s house, sitting on the top step of the porch with Obesitas and Katastrophe, Jude – having learned my preferences – fetching me a can of Mountain Dew from his fridge, pairing it with a packet of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as he educated me in all things Texas.  Many times, though, the house was quiet when I passed by, and occasionally there was a bright red pick-up truck parked out front.  From the front room came the deep, resonant voice of an unknown man in conversation with Jude.

The red pick-up was there again when, on a crisp February day, pulling the collar of my leather fleece jacket closer to my neck, I turned the corner and saw the flashing lights of paramedics parked outside Jude’s house.  I crossed the street to stand on the far side, not wanting to be in the way, not wanting to be too close to what was happening, appreciating that no-one else knew Jude was my friend.

There was a dark sedan there too, and another pick-up parked alongside, a white one with a canopy and meshed wire doors at the back.  Through the lattice, watching me in sad silence, I saw the long faces of Obi and Kati.  The whole scene was eerily quiet: four vehicles cluttered at the edge of the lawn, one with flashing white lights, and not a living soul to be seen, except the two dogs, heads bowed in dreadful, knowing expectation as they took it all in.

Presently the front door creaked open and a paramedic emerged pulling a stretcher, helped by a colleague on the other end, and carrying what must have been Jude’s remains, covered by a light blanket.  They expertly loaded the gurney into the ambulance, slammed the doors shut and drove away silently, the flashing lights switching off half-way down the block.

Another man emerged, this one wearing a tan khaki shirt and dark jacket with a City of Duncanville badge embroidered on the front.  Just as silently, he got in the white pick-up and drove away in the opposite direction.  I watched until he reached the intersection and the dogs disappeared from sight.

I wasn’t sure what to do now.  I wanted to go home, felt I should, but at the same time knew that doing so would somehow be a betrayal of the budding friendship I had with Jude.

Before long the two remaining men made their way outside, the older one pausing to lock the door behind them before they stood together for a moment taking their leave, the younger man in dress clothes finally initiating a handshake, then marching to the dark sedan and speeding off.  What remained was the shiny red pick-up truck and an older man.  He looked as big and strong as a bear.

He saw me across the street and stopped, considering.  Then, his mind made up, he came to me, exuding an air of authority that made it impossible for me to move.

“Hi, son,” he said, “you’re the young man who’s been stopping in to see Jude, am I right?”  Yes, it was that deep voice I had heard before, coming from Jude’s front room.

He knew he was right, but I confirmed it anyway: “Yessir,” I replied, adding eagerly, “I didn’t mean to pry, I just…wondered what was happening.”

“Rex,” he said, extending a baseball mitt sized hand.  I shook it, feeling even smaller than my 13 years, and told him my name.

“Well, son, it’s a sorry business, but I suspect you’ve figured it out by now.  Comes a day when we all have to meet our maker.  Did you know Jude well?”

“He was nice,” I said, not knowing how to answer. “The nicest person in the neighbourhood, if you ask me.”

Rex looked down at me; I could see he was deliberating about what should come next.

“That’s good of you to say,” he said, lowering his voice.  “I thought so too, though I reckon there are mighty few folk around here who would agree with you.”

“How do you mean?” I countered.  I couldn’t imagine anyone having anything bad to say about Jude and his two friendly dogs.

“Son, why don’t you hop in my truck for a bit, get out of the cold, and I’ll tell you all about our man Jude; probably best if you know the rest of the story.”

Jude, it seems, had in his early years been a particularly successful Dallas businessman.  He had it all, as they say – a high-powered job, a glamorous wife, a mansion of a house and a fleet of fast cars.  Then his wife became ill with a mysterious ailment, the doctors were at a loss, and ultimately she was left paralyzed below the waist.  She became depressed and weary of life, losing her sparkling personality and gaining much weight.  Jude couldn’t handle it; he despised who she had become.  He divorced her, the settlement making provision for her to be cared for in a home.

“And about six months later Jude and I met for the first time,” said Rex.  “Not really ideal circumstances, you could say.  You see, son, I’m the former Fire Chief of this city – retired now – and one day a call came in for a Corvette that had crashed and flipped out on Highway 67, threatening to burst into flames.  It was Jude.  Drunk and going way too fast.  Both his legs were caught when the engine block got pushed back into the footwell and in the end there was just no saving them.  Double amputation, the very next day.”

Obesitas and Katastrophe.  I kept my thoughts to myself.

“Anyway,” Rex sighed, “I fell into visiting Jude in the hospital, kind of felt sorry for him in spite of his shortcomings, and the visits never stopped. Well, until now, I guess.”  He went silent, staring out the windshield.

“What about the dogs?” I whispered, more to myself than to him.

Rex stirred.  “They’ll be put down,” he said, as gently as he could.  “Hell, they were in the pound waiting to be put down when Jude rescued them in the first place.  He loved them back to life and happiness, gave ’em a few extra years they couldn’t rightly expect to have, but there ain’t nobody gonna want two old hounds like that, ‘specially with such odd-ball names.  There comes a time when a stream has run its course, when the story comes to its proper end.  But I’m pretty sure, now everything is said and done, they will all finally rest in peace.”

 

Lampoon

There was another procession into Jerusalem that Spring, one that escaped the pen, but certainly not the notice, of the Gospel writers and their early readers.

As the city geared up for the festival season, its population swelling five-fold until every spare room, every nook and cranny, was filled with valuable rent-paying, weary and contented pilgrims, there was at least one person arriving among the throng who didn’t have to worry his head about where he would be laying it that evening: Pontius Pilate.

Pilate, half-way through what ultimately would be his ten-year term as Prefect, brutal enforcer of imperial Roman power, ‘our man in Judaea’ for Tiberius Caesar, had come to Jerusalem as well.  But this was no pleasure trip.  His task was as simple to describe as it was oh-so-difficult to achieve: to keep a lid on the always unpredictable public, the teeming city, as it turned its attention and desire to the apex of Jewish identity: the Passover, that centuries old celebration and remembrance of the first time the people of Israel had wrested their freedom from a brutal dictator.  Political opportunists, seizing the moment to awaken the longing for national self-determination, had made the most of the festival before, turning an already agitated crowd into a rebellious mob which Rome, in its turn, had parried more than once with overwhelming force and much bloodshed.

And so, Pilate, in the days before Passover, knowing his own head was on the block if things got out of hand, left his comfortable estate on the coast in Caesarea, and accompanied by as much of the Roman garrison as he could safely take with him, marched his way to Jerusalem, probably muttering to himself all along the way about what a massive bother this was, and praying earnestly to his gods that he might handle effectively whatever came his way.

Borg and Crossan, in their book “The Last Week”, describe for us Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem: “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city.  A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.  The swirling of dust.  The eyes of silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”*

Don’t think for a minute that Jesus didn’t know what he was doing when, a short time later, he entered Jerusalem from the other side, from the East and the rising sun, mounted not on a war horse equal to Pilate’s impressive steed, but on the back of a humble donkey, the people’s faithful companion in their toil of agrarian survival.

This was planned.  It was thought through.  And it was a lampoon of the empty claims of authority by the world’s leading power.

Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the World, God from God, Divine, God Incarnate, Liberator and Redeemer.”  Whose titles were these?  Any first-century Roman knew.  (And it wasn’t the person you, poor mis-informed Christian, call to mind.)  The rightful owner of these titles in the Roman world was Caesar.  Tiberius’ predecessor Augustus (“the illustrious one”) had first claimed these accolades for himself, and his successors were only too happy to appropriate them.  The crowd had only to take a silver denarius out of their purses and look at it: glinting in the spring sunshine was Caesar’s bust with the words “Son of God” stamped alongside.

Jesus’ thoughtful and provocative protest made mockery of such overwrought bombast, such presumptive arrogance.  And before the week was out Rome, Pilate, would crush him for it, returning like for like with his own lampoon of Jewish aspirations for justice: “King of the Jews” was scribbled over Jesus’ violently broken body.  See what comes to those who challenge us?

On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the power of an alternative narrative.  We celebrate the audacity of humility and self sacrifice, of giving oneself up for a vision of humanity that raises the meaning of our existence above the crass machinations of ‘might makes right’ or he-who-has-the-most-marbles-wins.  Life, as it was intended at our creation and lived to its fullest, is one guided and marked by love of God and neighbour, one identified by our American friends in a rare flash of eloquence as being in society “under God, with liberty and justice for all”.

Rome, whether in history, in the scriptures, or in our hearts, stands for the antithesis to the way of God.  It is the pretender to the throne, the claimant to the authority in our lives that rightly belongs to God alone.  We would do well, like Jesus, to call it out, to mock the spurious claims, to turn from the false god and follow instead the pattern of the one who ‘humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name’ (Philippians 2.8,9).

 

 

* The Last Week; What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem; Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006.