What a reversal! What a turn around in the course of events!
In so saying, I am not talking about the egg on the faces of political pollsters last fall, nor the fact that North Carolina won the national basketball championship this year after losing it last year on a last second shot. No, I am not interested this morning in the ups of downs of any politician, political party, or even sports team, nor any other similar worst to first or first to worst. The reversal I am talking about is the reversal of events that took place during the first Holy Week. For, during that week, events moved quickly from the wild enthusiastic cheering of the crowd that greeted Jesus exclaiming, “Blessed be the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” to the same crowd at the end of the week shouting with blood-curdling viciousness, “Crucify him!” What a reversal it is, indeed, that takes place as Jesus moves from being treated as a king to being crucified alongside common criminals.
I have often wondered what Jesus might have been thinking on that first Palm Sunday as he rode in triumph through the streets of Jerusalem. It was indeed a triumphal procession, and he played no small part in arranging it. This time he did not slip quietly into town for the Passover festival in order to avoid detection, as John tells us he had done twice before. This time he deliberately sought out a way to bring to everybody’s attention the prophet’s vision of a triumphal king entering into the Holy City and ushering in a new era. Jesus is the one who tells the disciples where to find the processional donkey. He is the one who puts the disciples up to staging the parade. Then, not only does he help arrange the procession in this way, when the crowd goes wild, he encourages the crowd’s enthusiasm. For example, when the Pharisees are embarrassed and worried about the wild cheering of the crowd, they ask Jesus to tell the crowd to put a lid on it. He tells them that can’t be done, for if his disciples were to be quiet, well, then the very stones would cry out. Not only will he not suppress the enthusiasm, he seems to see it as somehow necessary.
Yet, at one point early in his ministry, so John tells us, Jesus refused to trust himself to the opinions of others, because he knew what was in them. He knew what is in the human heart, and he knew that reversals in the human heart happen all the time. He knew that as far as the crowd is concerned, today’s hero is often tomorrow’s heel. Surely, that had not changed as he rode into town; surely he had not forgotten what people, and especially people in wild crowds, are like. Surely, the shouting had not gone to his head, causing him to forget what is in the human heart. No, as all the Gospel writers tell us, he had very consciously headed to Jerusalem in the first place not to be crowned as king, but to suffer and die, even to die ignominiously. He knew what was coming, even as he arranged the procession. He had told the disciples about it in no uncertain terms and for quite some time. After they had first recognized and confessed him as the Son of God, he sat them down and told them that he was to suffer and die. He also told them that if they wanted to be his disciples, well, they had better be prepared to take up their crosses, too. So, as he sat on that donkey, listening to the crowd cheer, he knew there was a reversal coming. And since he knew that, one indeed wonders what he must have been thinking as they cheered.
Perhaps he had a wry smile on his face that hid a certain cynicism about the lack of self-knowledge of the crowd. Perhaps he was genuinely pained at the complete failure of self-knowledge of the folks in the crowd. Perhaps he pitied their constant inconstancy and shallowness. Or, perhaps he was daydreaming about how it could be otherwise. Nikos Kanzantakis, in his great novel The Last Temptation of Christ, has it that the last great temptation of Christ was a dream he had wherein he had managed to suppress the wild urge, the fire in the bones, that made him preach the coming of the kingdom. It was a dream in which he just left the trail to Jerusalem and went off, had gotten married, set up a home, and lived a comfortable life, watching his children and his grandchildren grow, and wherein he died, not alone and in agony, but in comfort. Or, perhaps he simply gritted his teeth and saw this as a part that had to be played unto the grim end.
We, of course, do not and cannot know the particulars of his mind on that day. Any of those things are possible. But, I think what we can know is that whatever else was going through it, in its depths, his mind had not changed one whit from the time he consented to the mission that God the Father had given him up to now. I think we know that he was constant in his purpose from beginning to end, and that he always knew what had to be done to accomplish it, despite the temptations either to be cynical about the crowd, or to foolishly believe that the crowd could determine the policy of heaven, or despite the simple temptation to worry just about himself, the temptation “to tend his own garden,” as Voltaire was later to suggest as being what really made for human happiness.
What was it about his mind that had not changed? Not many years later, St. Paul told us exactly what it was and told us exactly what we have always known about Christ’s mind. Paul even recommended that same set of mind to us. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he said, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.”
Whatever the particulars of Jesus’ thinking on that day, we know that his mind was constant in this regard, as it always had been. It was set on the same thing that it had always been set on, namely, recovering and transforming human nature and reconciling us to God, making us God’s friends. It was also set on achieving that recovery in the one way he had always meant to achieve it. And what was that? That although he was Lord, the Word by which all things were created, the one in whom all things would find their end, that he wasn’t going to force anybody. He wasn’t going to try to impress anybody who wanted an impressive display. He could have. But although he was God, he chose not to exploit that. In order to save us and transform us and the way we live, he chose to stand beside us, just as we are, in order to show us the way to go. And when we couldn’t stand for ourselves, he was going to stand in our place, too,
That is key to understanding his mind. That was his mind. He was not looking to lord his status over others. As one ancient church father, Theodoret, expressed it, “... having equality with God, he thought this no great thing, as is the way of those who have received some honor beyond their merits, but, hiding his merit, he elected the utmost humility.” His mind was, as it always was, to give himself up to God’s own will that he might save a humanity that forever seemed to need saving, as it set itself in opposition to the will of God.
The rest of us, on the other hand, do not have this constancy. That’s our problem. Oh, we are not all bad by any means. Few are ever constant in even that. We dream of great things. We try. We fall in love; we care for what is beautiful. Sometimes we are generous and sometimes we are even obedient. But we are also not constant. We get frightened and run away. We get angry and think justice is about our wounded vanity. We lose heart, and we think we can see short cuts that will not require as much of us as the straight and narrow way. We are also willing to believe in glittering substitutes that are, in the end, substitutes, which is to say, idols. We get taken in by what the crowd thinks, and, in order to keep it cheering for us, we change our purpose if it pleases the crowd. As a consequence, we have always swung wildly from great aspirations to meanness and to pathetic self-hatred, from wanting independence to wanting to be taken care of, from dreams of heaven to fields of blood. No, our minds are not constant.
His was. His mind was to save us, and he never thought to do anything else. His way of saving us was also constant, for he willed to do it by humility, and not by the exaltation of his glory or power. If it was appropriate that the crowd cheered for him, still that cheering didn’t change him. For our part, though, once we taste power and glory we think that is what really belongs to us, and belongs to us by right. Then, for those who think they have the ability to chase it, chase it they do. For those who don’t, well, they cheer for the team and hope the team’s mojo will wear off on us. We don’t know how else we will be lifted. We don’t know how to turn it around and cannot really conceive of what turning it around might even mean, for that matter. But he did know what it means, and he was bent on turning it around even as he watched the changing expressions of the crowd. They had changed before. They would change again. He wasn’t taken in; he knew they would change again. They always do. Our leaders always do, in order to stay at the head of the parade and to keep it going. He knew he couldn’t if he was going to save us.
In that constancy of mind, in that constant humility of mind that was the wish to obey God and save us, Jesus reversed the values of power and glory and the value of humility. Humility became the greatest virtue and power the thing of which one needs to be most suspicious. In that, Jesus effected the greatest reversal of all; a reversal that would never itself be reversed. Because of his constant humility and willingness to suffer, sorrow would now be reversed into joy. Because of this mind that was in Christ Jesus, those who had sown in tears would reap in joy. For, as a result of his emptying of himself, Paul continues, “Therefore God has highly exalted him, and has given him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
One final thing. All that he was was meant for us, and by that I also mean that it was meant that we would be like that, too. He humbled himself so that we might learn the life giving value of humility. This is why Paul, just before he says, “Have therefore this mind...,” says, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” The great hymn to how Christ emptied himself is simply the reason we should look to the interests of others, not our own. But it is also more than just the reason. In telling us to have this mind, Paul is also telling us that it is possible for us to learn constancy. Christ was constant for us so that we might have this mind ourselves. That is what it means to be brought back and transformed. That is a great reversal.
But there is one final reversal. It is the great reversal that comes at the end of this week. Things may have gone from the glory of the parade to the humbling of the cross. That is a big reversal, and it is key to reversing our inconstancy. But, for the one who is willing to embrace the humility of the cross, it also means finding true glory, the glory of the Resurrection.
Because of his constancy of mind, this constant humility of mind which sought not its own glory, in the end the great reversals of this week were themselves reversed. As we go through this week, seeking the reversal of all that undoes the greatest hopes of the human heart, above all things therefore heed Paul’s exhortation, and “Have therefore this mind, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”