Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : – Roughly 20 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, St Paul recorded a hymn in common use by the church in Philippi in northern Greece. (Phil 2:6-11) Quite clearly he was so impressed by its highly developed Christology, its understanding of the two natures of Christ, that he wanted it recorded and passed on to posterity. This hymn or praise song speaks of the remarkable combination of divinity and humanity met in the one, unique person of Jesus, and it was this that stood out and made the Christian faith so distinctive for the faithful of Philippi and the rest of the Christian world of the time. We have to remember that for Greek gentiles, (pagans) there was no real problem with divinity, they had known myriads of pagan gods in their time. They were powerful and to be feared, they were unpredictable and frequently ill disposed to humanity. What was extraordinary and so compelling about Christ was that they believed they had met the one supreme God in human form in Jesus and that, contrary to all previous expectation, he did not behave as a god was expected to do. On the contrary, as God, Jesus, as they had heard, had deliberately and knowingly laid aside all power and divine capabilities to assume total solidarity with the meanest of human beings, even dying the most appalling of deaths for us and with us, thereby providing incontrovertible evidence of his true nature. In Greek, the word we have in the Jerusalem Bible as ‘cling’ to his equality with God is a very rare word, normally reserved for muggers, someone who would smash and grab, even kill to retain power. Clearly this humbling of the divine by the very one who had the power over his heavenly status made a stunning impact on the hearts and minds of Christians. In a world where most people had little control over changing their status, and the masses were at the beck and call of richer and more powerful patrons and the state, the notion that God might meet them on terms of such amazing equality and take them into God’s very life, could be a compelling and very attractive way of thinking and life changing.
Such ideas could be very empowering, despite the cost that preaching such a redeemer might impose. Second Isaiah, the Isaiah of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC (Isa 50:4-7) spoke in a series of magnificent ‘Servant Songs’, in a very powerful way, of the God-given message those compelled by their understanding had to impart to a nation they believed had radically strayed from the faith of Israel. Such was their conviction that God was with them that despite the threat of persecution and even death, they were certain that they were doing the right thing. We have to remember that when Isaiah wrote in the 6th century BC there was no understanding of immortal life with God. So the notion that one might literally throw away ones life in the service and salvation of others, as Isaiah counselled was madness. Isaiah then speaks to ideas of the divine-human relationship which are radical, new and demanding. God it appears can speak to his people and ask difficult and very sacrificial things of them; even to the surrender of their lives. It appears then that in these two cases our lectionary deliberately offers us the opportunity to explore the meaning of the relationship between humanity and divinity at its sharpest and most painful points. On the one hand, Isaiah would consider the possibility of being tortured for his commitment to God’s message, on the other we are invited through the message of Philippians to conjure the almost unthinkable – that God in Christ will set aside all that it means to be God – for us – and will share our human fate to the last terrible dregs of his and our humanity.
However, the Palm Procession Gospel (Mark 11:1-10) sets the scene for this self-oblation within a certain and sure structure. Mark wants us to see that the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and the subsequent events are not mere happenchance. The picture he paints of Jesus’ arrival suggests careful planning on Our Lord’s part with the arrangements made for the collection of the donkey, and the ‘code’ by which it is collected and recognition given by its owners. Then there is Mark’s description of the entry itself, with the donkey festooned with the cloaks of his followers whilst others strewed their cloaks on the ground and others placed greenery there to cover the roadway. In ancient times kings were thought too important, even sacred, to touch common ground, so that they had to be protected from it by coverings placed in between. It seems that Mark wanted his readers and hearers to be left in no doubt as to the identity of Jesus as he entered the Holy City for his passion. Moreover, this is affirmed by the greeting of the crowds who used the ancient Hallel Psalm 118 to greet the longed for Messiah. Mark’s Jesus is not naïve; he knew that during his passion he would be deserted by his closest followers and savagely turned on by the fickle crowds who had greeted him with such fervour. So Mark again, as with our previous writers will play with the ideas of divinity and humanity thrown up by this gospel passage. This is the time for all of us, you and I to do some work to get to grips with this extraordinary phenomenon that we call Christ, the God who became human for our salvation.