Show Us the Way . . . Wondrous Love
In 1928 a young German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer traveled to Barcelona, Spain to serve as an intern at a church in that city. During Holy Week that year, his hosts invited him to attend a traditional corrida, a Spanish bullfight. Dietrich came away from that spectacle with impressions of biblical proportions, which he described in a letter to Sabine, his twin sister, back home: “I have never seen the swing from ‘Hosanna!’ to ‘Crucify!’ so graphically evoked as in the virtually insane way that the crowd goes berserk when the torreador, the bullfighter, makes an adroit turn. And then immediately when there’s a mishap in the bull’s favor the crowd again erupts in howling and whistling, but this time on the bull’s behalf.” They were cheering for the bull fighter one moment, the bull the next; whoever happened to be prevailing at the moment received the crowd’s fleeting favor.
We can easily imagine that before heading to the bullfight that day Bonhoeffer had been looking over the Holy Week’s readings from Mark’s gospel as an intern pastor, readings in which we are told of crowds that swing from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!” with whoever is prevailing the beneficiary of the crowd’s favor; whoever is debilitated; its ridicule and condemnation.
If we are honest—if we are honest—we can see ourselves fitting rather easily into that vacillating crowd, possessing within ourselves the capacity to wave a torch almost as easily as we might a palm branch; to cry for vengeance nearly as swiftly as we might call for mercy. To draw almost as great an energy from what we despise and who we ridicule as from what and who we love and cherish. If we’re honest, we know that we can be understanding one day and intolerant the next; supportive one instant, obstructive the next. “Hosanna!” “Crucify!”
Nothing human, Buechner once wrote, is not a broth of false and true; and that applies to each human heart as well as to the whole lot of us; our nations, our governments, even our churches and religious institutions.
No wonder the crowds shouted what they did that day as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt: Hosanna! That word translates from the Hebrew to mean, literally, Save . . . please! It is their desperate plea we can imagine, in an honest moment, for deliverance from . . . what? Roman occupiers, an oppressive religious establishment, maybe mostly from themselves. The palm branches they raised that day were not so much emblems of celebration as SOS signals. From the shore of the deserted island where by our conceit or deceit we have found ourselves unwittingly marooned, we see a ship in the distance, desperately tear off a leafy branch, raising it as high as we desperately can. “Save. Please. Here we are.”
Every year during Holy Week that ship comes into view. And with it the chance to lift a branch and ask for mercy, for grace, for a love greater than our own to deliver us, heal us, forgive us, abide in us always. Save. Please. That song, that shout, that prayer,Jesus hears their cry that day. And though he hears that other cry, too, the cry for the death penalty, the first cry, it seems, is the one he takes to heart, seeing right through their duplicity, our duplicity—right through their duplicity to their deepest need, our deepest need, for a Messiah, a Savior. By the end of it all, in a mystery beyond fathoming, a love beyond comprehending, a grace beyond believing—but not beyond trusting—Jesus will give his very life for the very life of the world.
Holy Week invites us, you and me, to do one thing, if we do nothing else—one thing: observe it. Observe the week in all the ways we will gather virtually and in person to do and in our own quiet times in solitude, observe the week. This afternoon; Wednesday for prayer; on Maundy Thursday; Good Friday. And we’ll gather on Easter on the roof, on the lawn, and online.
Observe the week as though it were that passing ship, close enough to swim out to and be yanked out of the water and aboard. And here is a frigate all its own: Open this book this week and observe what is here. Read Mark through. Or from Chapter 11 to the gospel’s end; or as Ronnie read today, Chapter 11 and Chapter 15. And as we read, perchance to risk finding ourselves in its pages; and then finding ourselves opening our hearts to the love we witness there. And then, finding ourselves, perhaps, responding to such a love in a sort of devotion and self-surrender we may not recognize, but sense to be deeply real and true and good.
What wondrous love is this . . .
I used to think that was a question. Did you think it was a question? What wondrous love is this, the hymn we often sing. An onlooker’s surprise, puzzlement, inquiry regarding this act of self-possessed self-giving we behold in Jesus. In other words, “How can this be?” “Who is this figure of such utter compassion?” What wondrous love is this?
I’ve since learned that the hymn is not asking a question, but making a statement, a declaration, a confession of quiet jubilation. The verse that begins with those beautiful words doesn’t end with a question mark in the hymn, but with an exclamation point. What wondrous love is this!
Maybe we could say that the journey of faith is a journey from a question, perhaps not to an answer, but to a discovery. “Can there really be such a love as that, such a love as this?” Over time, over years, over Holy Weeks, the story told becomes our story’s telling, and an assurance begins to grow in us that yes, there really can be such a love. There really is such a love. And I have come to know, we have come to know, and experience, and trust that love. From question to quiet, jubilation and assurance. What wondrous love is this!
Here’s a question: Where are you along that journey? Here’s an assurance: Somewhere along that journey, perhaps this Holy Week, perhaps even today, we are sure to encounter a truly wondrous love.