Philippians 4:4-9; St. John 12:1-18
The Desert Father Saint Antony the Great once tested a group of monks by asking them, beginning with the youngest, the meaning of a certain passage of Scripture. In response to their answers, he said, “You have not understood it.” Finally, he asked Abba Joseph, who said, “I do not know.” Then Abba Antony said, “Indeed Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.’” As we celebrate our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we must all resist the temptation to think that we have figured out the meaning of this extraordinary day in the beginning of the week in which the God-Man will enter into the dark and disorienting despair of death and then rise gloriously in triumph. Before the Passion of the Lord, we must all say, “I do not know.”
We can certainly all understand the crowds on Palm Sunday welcoming their anticipated liberator from the oppressive rule of foreigners as they cheered, “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” Throughout His earthly ministry, the Savior faced and rejected the temptation to become an earthly ruler. But when, by the end of the week, it had become clear that He was not going to settle the score with the Romans, the crowds called so boisterously for His death that Pilate went along with their desires. Ironically, it was in the aftermath of the Lord’s raising of Lazarus from the dead after four days, by which He showed that He is “the resurrection and the life,” that the chief priests and Pharisees decided that they had to destroy Him. “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” they said to Pilate, for “We have no king but Caesar!”
Perhaps we can understand cynical religious leaders stopping at nothing to eliminate someone they perceived as a threat to their power, but it is more difficult to accept how the Savior’s own disciples betrayed, denied, and abandoned Him. As their rabbi and friend, He withheld nothing from them, explaining the parables and performing many miracles in their presence. He served them in humility, washing their feet and patiently teaching them by word and deed. But they too abandoned their Lord when they saw that, instead of conquering the Romans, He was apparently going to be destroyed by them.
Were Jesus Christ merely a religious teacher of good character, His death after being betrayed, denied, and abandoned by those closest to Him would be terribly tragic, but life is full of such tragedies. Since He is the Eternal Word of God Who spoke the universe into existence, however, His Passion is simply incomprehensible. The Lord Who said that His Name is “I AM” when He spoke to Moses through the burning bush “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant…He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:7-8) Who can claim to understand such mystery? The only begotten Son of the Father offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross, the Tree of Life, to disappear into the pit, the opaque abyss of death, as fully as any other human who has departed this life. His cry from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” shows that He experienced every dimension of human helplessness and horror. He felt as alienated and abandoned as any victim of torture and brutal execution, as anyone rejected and abandoned by those He loved most, as anyone struggling to breathe His last in the midst of unbearable physical and psychological pain.
Our Savior experienced all of that as the God-Man. In ways that we must not imagine that we can even begin to understand, the fully divine Son of God suffered, died, was buried, and descended into Hades, the shadowy place of the dead. He was able to do so because He is also fully human. At the same time, the experience of negation, weakness, despair, abandonment, and suffering is known, endured, and freely accepted by a Person of the Holy Trinity. Our Savior, the God-Man Jesus Christ, is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. He is the Lord Who reigns from the Cross. His death does not change the eternal nature of God, of course, but reveals that sacrificial love beyond all human understanding is characteristic of God. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The Son did not pay a ransom or debt to appease the Father’s anger or sense of justice, but freely offers up Himself to the Holy Trinity (including Himself) out of love for the salvation of the world. His sacrifice is not that of a mere human satisfying a religious or legal obligation, but of the God-Man who walks with us “through the valley of the shadow of death.” Because of His Cross, we trust He is with us when we cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Because His suffering love extends even into the darkest corners of our loss and despair, we may say with the Psalmist, “If I should descend into Hades, You would be there.” (Ps. 138:8)
Today we commemorate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of the Savior Who emptied Himself in sacrificial love for our salvation beyond all human understanding and definition. Even as we entrust ourselves to Him, we must have the humility to say “I do not know” in recognition that the deep mystery of His Passion is infinitely beyond our understanding. He does not conquer the corrupting power of sin and death with ideas, words, or brute force, but by selfless love that knows no bounds and extends even to those who betrayed, denied, abandoned, tortured, and crucified Him. And He does so as One Who is fully human and fully divine. He reveals Who God is, for He is God. The divine nature is completely beyond our comprehension, but the God-Man has graciously shared His life of infinite love with us. We know Him not by even the best words and ideas, but by opening the eyes of our souls to behold His glory, the glory of One Who died on the Cross because He loves us.
Holy Week is not a time for rational theological speculation and argument. It is, instead, a time for entering into the deep mystery of the love of our Lord, of the great “I AM” Who remains infinitely beyond our full comprehension. Today He rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey as the crowds welcome Him as a conquering hero. But they do not really know what they are doing or what kind of Savior He is. As we begin this Holy Week, let us have the humility to recognize that we are not that much different from them. We too are quick to reject or at least ignore Christ when His Cross does not serve our agendas. We too have our preconceived notions about what kind of Savior we want and how He should fit into our lives. We too cannot make sense of a Lord Whose Kingdom comes through what appears to be complete and shameful failure according to any conventional standard.
That is precisely why we need to stand and kneel in stunned silence this week as we follow the Lamb of God to His great Self-Offering for the salvation of the world. Let us resist the temptation to assume that we have His Passion all figured out. Instead, like Abba Joseph, we should say, “I do not know” before the deep mystery of our salvation. Let us lay aside our earthly cares this week, for as St. Paul wrote, “The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Father Philip, thank you so much for your words, for I have truly heard them within me, and your prayer to abandon our so-called knowledge of the reality of our Lord’s Sacrifice, so now : “we must stand and kneel in stunned silence this week as we follow the Lamb of God in His great Offering for the salvation of the world.” May it be so !
I appreciate your kindly taking the time to write and wish you a most blessed remainder of Holy Week and a glorious Pascha.
Asking for your prayers in Christ,