Tuesday, 12 April 2011

There is always trouble at Passover

Palm Sunday presents a challenge to congregations wanting to do something different from the usual palm-waving activity. We have been asked by various folk if we have any alternate ideas as they felt the day had a “sameness” from year to year that was not always helpful.

As it happens, the gospel readings tend to support alternate ideas. The palm-waving that Christian churches everywhere seem to have adopted is not actually part of the story. Matthew’s gospel states that the palm branches were laid on the road. Mark’s “leafy branches” also were laid on the road. Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention palms or any branches at all. John’s gospel says that “they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him”. John does not elaborate what the crowd did with the palms.

Perhaps it is time that we paid attention to other aspects of the story. How many of us actually appreciate the historical and cultural elements behind this story? Do we see the tension as well as joy? Do we explore how the story might connect with what happens in our world today?

The following dramatic narrative combines a monologue from an eyewitness to Jesus’ triumphal entry with real items (in the form of radio news bulletins) from world news. We offer it as another way of understanding Palm Sunday.

I Hosanna!
It was a beautiful sound. I could hear the lighter voices of the children, rising over the top of the deeper, less melodious sounds of the adults. Hosanna to the Son of David, they chanted. A small verse, often overlooked; but a verse with immense power, as I think back. For me, it still evokes the excitement of the day, the mix of the sounds, the press of the crowd, the anticipation in the air.
It wasn’t the first sound that I remember from that day. Before that, Jehoshua was on a donkey – he had mounted it in the village of Bethphage, and he was riding it steadfastly towards the city. As he came in, through the gate in the wall, into the city, a great cheer went up from the people, before the chant of Hosanna filled the air. Now that they were inside the city, the feeling grew; the anticipation rose. Hosanna to the Son of David. Some of the people along the side of the road were joining in with them. Hosanna! Hosanna! It all pointed to a great celebration – that’s what we thought, at first.

Next to the Temple was the Antonia Fortress, the garrison where the Roman soldiers were based. As we got nearer, it was clear – there was a whole legion of soldiers, on alert, standing by, in case there was trouble. Not doing anything provocative; just standing there, waiting – as if they were expecting something to erupt.
There is always trouble at Passover, you see. Crowds of people. The press of worshippers, queueing to offer their sacrifices. The sales pitch of the money changers, wanting to make a good profit. The underground rebels, quietly mingling with the crowd, looking to stir up trouble. And the evening meal, when we remember how the Lord saved the people long ago. A story of liberation, told by a people still under the thumb. It is always a time of mixed emotions; of joyful celebration, but also of suppressed tension; a time of anxiously hoping that trouble doesn’t erupt.


Politicians and community representatives are meeting senior police officers to discuss increasing security in North Belfast following serious rioting in the area.
The police rejected criticism on Sunday that they were unprepared for the extent of the violence on Saturday, which erupted after the Scottish Cup Final. Fifteen people believed to be involved in the rioting have been identified by the police.
Twenty eight police officers and 10 civilians were injured after trouble erupted in five flashpoint areas.

Superintendent David Boltwood said his officers faced a very difficult situation. "We did have additional resources on duty in north Belfast last night but I think we need to get the whole thing in perspective," he said
"No matter how many police officers we had here last night it would have been very difficult to contain the large scale and widespread violence which our officers were confronted with."

Two police officers were seriously hurt, with one suffering a suspected fractured skull and another being treated for spinal injuries.
Up to 800 people were involved in the trouble, for which loyalists and republicans have blamed each other for starting.
(Sunday, 5 May, 2002, BBC News)

II The children
As the crowds came closer to the Temple, the children got louder, more excited; soon they would be right outside the holy place. At the same time, the soldiers stiffened, alert to the potential danger. As the procession reached the outer courtyards, the people sensed the excitement of the moment, and their song became bolder: Hosanna to the Son of David. Words of celebration from the Psalms. Hosanna! Hosanna!

But some of the more alert people in the crowd that was pressing forward, realized that they were being carefully monitored by the stoney-faced soldiers. Faces scrutinised, distinguishing features noted, building up a dossier of trouble-makers – just in case the soldiers needed to deal with them on another occasion.

Better not risk it, some of them thought. This far, is far enough. We’ve enjoyed the excitement; let’s just fade away, now. There is always the chance of trouble at Passover; so maybe we’d better leave it, before it goes too far.

So they stepped back, found excuses to leave, buried their faces in their cloaks, and disappeared into the background.

Not the children, though – they sang on, ever bolder, high-pitched voices rising, faces beaming. You know, I think that some of the adults pushed them forward, egged them on, put them at the front. Maybe they used them as a cover, as some kind of protection.

Those soldiers – they would never do anything to the children, would they? No, they would never arrest the children.


Children as young as 12 are being seized from their homes in the middle of the night by Israeli security agents and police officers.

The youngsters are being taken into custody for interrogation on stone-throwing charges.

In recent months there have been many cases in which minors aged 12-15 from Silwan, in East Jerusalem, were arrested in the middle of the night, the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem says. "The minors were taken out of their beds and brought to the police station in the Russian Compound, in West Jerusalem. Some of them were brought handcuffed, and none of the parents were allowed to accompany them."

The series of arrests is related to ongoing friction between residents of Silwan and settlers in nearby Beit Yehonatan and security personnel guarding it. Palestinian children in the neighborhood are accused of throwing stones at building sites.

In his testimony to B'Tselem, Muhammad Dweik, 12, described his arrest in the middle of the night:

"Around 4:30 to 5:00 in the morning, I woke up from the sound of knocking at the door. Shabak agents asked my father for the ID card of Muhammad Dweik. My father told them that I don’t have an ID card. When I went over to them, I got the feeling they were surprised by how young I am, but they had an arrest warrant. My father asked them to let me stay at home and said he would bring me to the police station in the morning, but they refused. They tied my hands behind me and took me. The policemen put me into a Border Police jeep. A friend of mine was also inside it. A policeman who sat next to me kept kicking me in the leg all the way."

(EMHR Network, Friday 12 March, 2010)

III A prayer for freedom
There is always trouble at Passover. Crowds of people. Stories of liberation. It’s a time of mixed emotions; of joyful celebration, but also of suppressed tension. Jehoshua was walking a dangerous path; I suspect that he already knew it. The cry of Hosanna! which rang forth through the countryside signaled a desire for freedom, for liberation.

I have heard the stories about others, in the past, who tried to lead the people to rise up against the Romans: Simon, of Peraea, a slave of King Herod, who managed to burn down the royal palace at Jericho; he was captured by Gratus, the commander of the royal infantry, and had his head cut off in one fell swoop. Athronges, a mere shepherd, who joined with his brothers to slaughter many of the Roman soldiers in the town of Emmaus; he was arrested and “subdued”, so I am told.

And there was Judas, of Gamala, a village in Galilee; just a few years later, he almost succeeded in staging a successful uprising. I can imagine the reaction of the crowd: Hosanna! Joyful celebration – excited anticipation. But the uprising that Judas led was not successful; his troops spent years in raids in which they had sporadic victories, but then the movement dwindled away. The Romans always knew how to deal with these local uprisings.

So Jehoshua was walking a dangerous path; I suspect that some in the crowd already knew this. Perhaps the choice of psalm that they were singing was not at all accidental. Hosannah! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Words that every Jew knew well. Words from Psalm 118, a psalm that was sung every year at the feast of Tabernacles, as well as at the feast of Passover. At both these festivals, our people praise the Lord for setting us free from slavery in Egypt.
After we had been conquered by other nations, these festivals became times of prayer for freedom. Prayer that the Lord would act again in a mighty and spectacular way – that he would send plagues, pillars of fire and smoke, that he would again drive apart the sea, provide miraculous food in the desert, give us water from a rock – and set us free again.

As Jehoshua rode into the city that day, you could be sure that the fervent prayer of many was for freedom from the Roman empire, the occupying power. Freedom from crippling taxes and freedom from all kinds of oppression. That’s what the cry of Hosanna was really saying.

I think of my sister Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi every day. Her picture hangs on the wall of my office, reminding me that, thousands of miles away in Asia, a nation is oppressed. Every day I ask myself: have I done everything I can try to end the atrocities being committed in Burma? And I pray that world leaders will ask themselves the same question. For if they did, the answer would be "no", and perhaps their conscience will finally force them to act.

Humankind has the ability to live in freedom and in peace. We have seen that goodness has triumphed over evil; we have witnessed political transitions in South Africa, and elsewhere, evidencing that we live in a moral universe. Our world is sometimes lacking wise and good leadership or, as in the case of Burma, the leadership is forbidden to lead.

Aung San Suu Kyi has now been detained for more than 13 years. She recently passed her 5,000th day in detention. Every one of those days is a tragedy and a lost opportunity. The whole world, not just the people of Burma, suffers from this loss. We desperately need the kind of moral and principled leadership that Aung San Suu Kyi would provide. And when you add the more than 2,100 political prisoners who are also in Burma's jails, and the thousands more jailed in recent decades, the true scale of injustice, but also of lost potential, becomes heartbreakingly clear.

The universal demand for human freedom cannot be suppressed forever. This is a universal truth that Than Shwe, the dictator of Burma, has failed to understand. How frustrated must he be that no matter how long he keeps Aung San Suu Kyi in detention, no matter how many guns he buys, and no matter how many people he imprisons, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma will not submit. The demands for the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners of Burma grow louder and echo around the world, reaching even his new capital hidden in central Burma. Words, however, are not enough. Freedom is never given freely by those who have power; it has to be fought for. (Desmond Tutu, The Guardian, Thursday 30 July 2009)

IV Retribution in the holy war
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. When they sang this out loud, the crowd was really saying, "At long last, here comes the one who will lead us in rebellion against the Romans."

You see, we were looking for a Messiah under every rock and stone. At Passover time, we were especially excited. It was a festival of celebration; a time when we hope for God to bring freedom. So we are ready to follow a leader, we are ready for God's mighty act of salvation, here and now.

And this was to be the war – the holy war, fought in the cause of what is right and just. And those Romans were finally going to get what was coming to them. Just let them try to stand against God.

In 2003, just before the Iraq War, former President George W. Bush tried once more to get the support of France. His approach to French President Jacques Chirac was straightforward, drawing on thousands of years of history and on higher authority: “This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.” This, he added, was the “holy” war in the Middle East, predicted in the Bible, against Gog and Magog.
Gog and Magog are first mentioned in the Old Testament books of Genesis and Ezekiel, as nations to come out of the north to attack Israel. They make a return appearance in Revelation, Chapter 20, Verse 7-9, as the Devil’s commanders in the final battle of Good and Evil.
(Ali Yenidunya, on Enduring America blog)

V Call yourself a Messiah ?
We love our Psalms. All our favourite hymns, easy to sing, uplifting to the spirit; we are united as we sing. We Jews have so many factions; we love arguments and disagreements. But when it comes to singing the Psalms, we are as one. Many of these Psalms have become unifying symbols for us; symbols of our national pride; symbols of what we hope for as a people.

The Romans knew this – and they were jumpy. Things could have got very nasty. They knew there is always trouble at Passover. Jehoshua only had to say the word, and a bloodbath would have ensued. On that day, as he entered the Temple courtyard, he held in his hand the power of the mob, the power to unite a mixed crowd against a common enemy.

But just as it seemed that he would pull it off; they pounced on him. A few days later, in an unguarded moment, they seized him, chained him, and dragged him off into the praetorium, to stand before the despised governor, Pontius Pilatus. So now, those cheering, excited followers, were abandoned, bereft. Their leader was gone. Their hopes were dashed.

I am told that he was brought back out from the praetorium, in chains, to be sentenced to death. The crowd was against him, now. Maybe some of those who had cheered him on, a few days earlier, were joining in with the soldiers' mocking and jeering. It must have been a relief to the soldiers, to see this potential rabble-rouser and trouble-causer, now so humble and weak. At least they wouldn't have to spend the festival quelling a riot, putting down a rebellion.
They jeered and spat at him in derision.

“Call yourself a Messiah ? What use is a Messiah in chains ?
Call yourself a prophet ? Go on then, tell us who hit you.”
My, how the mighty have fallen.

At the start of the Obama presidency there was great optimism that he would help ensure that there was lasting peace in the Middle East. He demanded that Israel halt their constructions in settlements which meant that the USA would ensure that there would be peace in the region. But, both sides are not negiotiating. Peace will not come to the region in the foreseeble future.

It is understandable that people hunger desperately for change after the Bush years. It is understandable that they would seize on an attractively packaged figure who made a few progressive noises, carried a great deal of genuinely symbolic weight due to his race, and was more personable, cool and articulate than his predecessor.
But there is no hope to be found in the Obama Administration: no hope for genuine change, no hope for a clean break (or any kind of break) from the relentless and ruthless promotion of empire, oligarchy and militarism. By his own choices – his appointments, his policies, his court actions, his rhetoric – Barack Obama has demonstrated beyond all doubt his sincere and abiding commitment to "continuity" in the most pernicious and corrosive elements of America's lawless hyper-state. To place one's hope in such a figure is a crippling, disastrous folly.
(Chris Floyd, blog on Empire Burlesque)

VI Final reflections
How easily human hope is extinguished.
How easily adoration becomes hatred.
It might have been easier if he had gone down fighting,
if he'd argued in his defense, if he had pulled off some amazing escape,
if he had called down legions of angels to free him from his captors.

But who respects a man who marches submissively to his death, with no rousing deathbed speech, seemingly with no stomach for the fight?

Yet, we remember him; he has not faded into the mists of time.

We remember him, and we recall his determination, his passion, his zeal. We remember him because his cause is one which tugs at us,
which calls us to move out of our comfort, to walk along the pathway with him, to step out for the values and principles which we honour and respect.

And so, we have to join in the cry: Hosanna!
Indeed, if we do not cry out Hosanna!
would not the very stones themselves shout forth this word of praise?

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